Are you anxious?
With an unprecedented worldwide pandemic forcing entire societies indoors and underground, how could you not be?
In these days, if you’re feeling stressed and uncertain, that’s only to be expected.
But too much anxiety (even if it’s completely reasonable) can ruin your life.
So if you are suffering from excessive anxiety, how do you get your life back?
There are perhaps as any methods as there are sufferers, but let me suggest one powerful method that has helped me:
Work on a Great Project.
In the 600s BC, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon pounced on the tiny Middle Eastern nation of Judah, and swallowed it (almost) whole.
Generations later, the new king sent a Judean exile descendant named Nehemiah back to Judah to be the new governor and rebuild the place.
Nehemiah found Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, in pieces. The walls had been destroyed and foreigners had moved in to squat on the land.
So Nehemiah decided to rebuild the city walls. But his enemies gathered to ridicule, threaten, and attack him and his workers.
They thought that threatening Nehemiah’s life and harassing his workers would make him stop.
But they underestimated Nehemiah.
In spite of the ridicule, sabotage, and violence, Nehemiah and his team rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem in a mind-blowing 52 days. (To give you an idea of how incredible this is, it took the Ottoman empire four years to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem in the 16th century)
How did he keep building even in the face of powerful enemies and massive obstacles…even in the face of death?
Living with Anxiety
Sometimes, living with anxiety is like trying to build a wall while looking out for deadly enemies who may attack at any moment.
Anxiety is always lurking in the background, ready to rip you apart if you aren’t careful.
It makes living day-to-day seemingly impossible. Sometimes the difficulty level is so high that we just want to die. Or crawl into bed and ignore everyone and everything.
But there’s another way.
The way Nehemiah took:
When Nehemiah was building the wall, his enemies sent him a message:
“Come, let us meet together…It is reported…that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt [against the king]”
In other words: “We are spreading these lies about you, you better come down here and defend yourself or else!”
This was a serious charge.
If true, Nehemiah could be killed for rebellion.
But if Nehemiah agreed to “meet together” with his enemies, they could kill him much easier on the ground and the work on the wall would stop.
Did Nehemiah take the bait?
Instead, he said, and I quote:
“I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?…Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.”
That last line always makes me smile. You are making it up out of your head!
And that is what the Anxiety Monster does in our heads: It makes stuff up.
So how do we deal with it?
Talking back to it often gives it more power. Going down to fight it gives it the opportunity to hurt us even more.
Instead, we should do as Nehemiah did, and shift our focus from the Monster’s threats to our Great Project.
What is Your Great Project?
The times when my own anxiety is least potent is when I am involved in a Great Project.
For example, when I am writing articles, poetry, songs, stories. When I am reading and studying to prepare for my writing. When I am practicing music to hone my communicative skills.
When I am doing something important and meaningful, the Anxiety Monster’s voice is dialed down — WAY down. But when I am not working, its voice is much louder, much more demanding, and I often feel as if I have no choice but to succumb.
Other people have found this to be the case as well.
A psychiatrist named Dr. Ian Osborne told the story of one young man who suffered from OCD (a horrific anxiety disorder marked by obsessive thoughts that drive unreasonable actions against a sufferer’s will).
This young man found that a great way to silence the dictator in his mind was to do chores for others.
When the young man didn’t feel good, he would ask his family and neighbors if there was anything he could do for them:
Chop wood, paint, clean, rake the lawn, anything.
He developed a reputation for being the most helpful person in the community, and few knew that the real motivation behind his helpfulness was actually his illness.
For this young man, doing hard physical work in the form of community service was his Great Project. For me, intellectual/communication type work does the trick.
But what is your Great Project?
What Makes a Project a Great Project?
Not every kind of busy work is the same thing as a Great Project.
Rather, there are two keys to a Great Project:
1. Your Great Project uses your intrinsic gifts and abilities
What are your specific gifts and interests?
Personally, I love the written word. I love playing with ideas and translating them into different forms of communication, primarily stories, songs, and articles.
Other people, however, adore math. Or carpentry. Or ball sports, watercolor painting, cooking, you name it.
So when you need to figure out what your Great Project is, look at what you are naturally drawn to, what you are good at, what you love deeply and (probably) inexplicably.
Then combine that with this second point:
2. Your Great Project can help someone besides you
You may love watching TV, but holing yourself up in a room binge-watching movie marathons is not going to help you get your life back.
Because the second key to a Great Project is that it contributes to the well-being of someone other than yourself.
When Nehemiah was building the wall, he wasn’t just thinking of himself.
Those walls were necessary for the safety of his fellow Israelites. They needed protection from wild animals and murderous neighbors. Nehemiah’s work was very important, not just for himself, but for everyone else.
It is this factor that made Nehemiah’s wall-building a GREAT project, not just “a project.”
When I write my articles, I usually think about a hypothetical someone-out-there, someone who thinks like me, who is suffering the same thing as me, but who may be a few steps behind.
I write for that person.
I write to let that person know that whatever (s)he is going through, (s)he is not alone, and here are some thoughts and perspectives that have helped me and will hopefully help him/her.
Dr. Osborn’s example of the young man is also a great illustration of this.
If the young man simply liked physical activity, he could’ve gone to the gym. He could have raked his own leaves and painted his own house. But he didn’t. He did those things for others.
Somehow, adding the dimension of “helping others” increases the Anxiety-Monster-Killing-Power of your Great Project by 1000%.
Many people who have suffered from various awful things have used this thought to encourage themselves, even in the midst of the worst darkness:
This thought is the seed that leads to encouraging memoirs, inspiring nonprofits, and all kinds of other transformational Great Projects that change the world for good.
So for those of us who suffer from anxiety or any other life-sucking struggle, why not let your struggle become the fuel for some powerful Good that will last beyond you?
“I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down”
Here’s one more thought that may help — your time is limited.
Nehemiah & Co. didn’t dawdle and pick daisies while they were building their wall.
Because every day they delayed was another day that their enemies could a) kill them off, b) spread lies further, c) twist the king’s arm and make him stop the work.
They could not risk that.
The walls had to be finished, ASAP, or they might be left unfinished forever. So they worked as fast as they could, low manpower and dangerous enemies notwithstanding.
You also don’t have a lot of time.
If the average lifespan is 80 years, That’s only 29,200 days.
And if you are reading this, you have already used up several thousand of those days. (Not to mention that you are not necessarily guaranteed all 80 years. No one’s future is certain)
So whatever Great Project you’ve got in you — you’ve only got so much time to get it out.
Next time your Anxiety comes knocking, tell it what Nehemiah told Sanballat et al:
“Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?”
You don’t have time for anxiety nonsense.
The world — or someone out there in the world — NEEDS your Great Project. Don’t let them down!
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask For Help
There will always be up days and down days.
There are days when even the thought of writing does not inspire me to fight back against the Anxiety Monster.
Likewise, I’m sure Nehemiah and the other builders felt discouraged at times.
So I would be remiss if I did not mention the last thing Nehemiah said after this episode with Sanballat et al:
They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.” But I prayed, “Now strengthen my hands.”
Now strengthen my hands.
No enemy can make us stop working on our Great Project. They can only make it so difficult that we want to stop.
They’re really good at that, too.
Anyone who has suffered from an anxiety disorder knows this all too well. The stupidest little thing can set us off, and the harder we try to stop it, the worse it gets. The despair is overwhelming.
Yet when that happens, the key is not to give up, but to pray, “Lord, strengthen my hands: You are the one who gave me the ability and idea to do this Great Project, you help me finish it!”
Your Great Project is Your Wall Against Anxiety
Here’s the interesting thing:
Working on the wall gave Nehemiah the courage and motivation to stand up to Sanballat and his other enemies. And once the wall was complete, the wall itself became Nehemiah’s protection against those same enemies.
You may find, as you work on your Great Project, that the project itself becomes your protection against your Anxiety Monster, in more ways than one.
- Working on it will keep you too busy to care about whatever slander the Monster is spouting at you
- Finishing it will increase your self-efficacy and inspire others, and
- Their response may provide further motivation — for you to move on to your next Great Project and continue to beat back the Monster.
For example: Every once in a while, someone will email me or leave a comment saying that a particular article or something I created helped them just in time.
Those aren’t just nice words to hear, they are like another brick in the wall against my Anxiety Monster.
Building walls requires everyone pitching in, working hard.
We’ve all got our own section of Wall to work on. And you will find, over time, that your piece of the wall combines with other people’s pieces, to form an even bigger Wall that has the ability to protect everyone.
In other words, your Great Project may overlap with someone else’s Great Project, and the encouragement and support you offer each other can create a synergistic effect, locking out all of your monsters at the same time.
So get to work on your Great Project.
Ignore the Anxiety Monster, and look for ways to join forces with other builders, to stick a brick in someone else’s wall wherever you can.
If you agree to never give up on your Great Project, and I agree to never give up on mine, we can overcome the Monster together.
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