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"The Anxiety of St. Joseph" by James Tissot
States of Exception

Niebuhrian Insights on Human Nature and Anxiety for A Time of Crisis

…seeing these responses through a Niebuhrian lens challenges me to acknowledge these actions for what they are—reactions to anxiety—and to confront what it is that I am actually afraid of and trying to avoid—facing the fragility of life and love.

Writing during a different sort of crisis—with the threat of World War II on the horizon—Reinhold Niebuhr’s insights about human nature and anxiety are fitting for our current situation. 

Niebuhr writes in The Nature and Destiny of Man: “Anxiety is the inevitable concomitant of the paradox of freedom and finiteness in which man is involved” (182). The coronavirus pandemic confronts us with our freedom and finitude, likely exacerbating our anxieties.  The COVID-19 pandemic confronts us with our freedom and finitude, likely exacerbating our existential anxieties. This view is important as it brings theological insights into discussions about anxiety, but it is also limited as it does not explain all anxiety and it ignores the complexity of mental health issues causing severe anxiety.

Niebuhr asserts the following about human nature:

The Christian view of man [sic]…relates three aspects of human existence to each other: (1) It emphasizes the height of self-transcendence in man’s spiritual stature in its doctrine of ‘image of God.’ (2) It insists on man’s weakness, dependence, and finiteness…without, however, regarding this finiteness as, of itself, a source of evil in man… (3) It affirms that the evil in man is a consequence of his inevitable though not necessary unwillingness to acknowledge his dependence, to accept his finiteness and to admit his insecurity…

The Nature and Destiny of Man, p. 150

Humanity has a special potential for self-transcendence, the ability to reflect on ourselves and to imagine endless possibilities. But, we are also limited. Our freedom is what allows us to be aware of our finitude, and this awareness ought to move us to turn to and depend on God.  This existence, however, is paradoxical and precarious. Niebuhr offers this imagery of human nature: “It is the condition of the sailor, climbing the mast (to use a simile), with the ‘abyss’ of the waves beneath him and the ‘crow’s nest’ above him” (185).  Being caught between these poles creates anxiety. 

Anxiety produces both negative and positive effects. Niebuhr writes, “Anxiety, as a permanent concomitant of freedom, is thus both the source of creativity and a temptation to sin” (185). This is because endless possibility can both inspire and overwhelm. Realizing our small and fleeting place in the large universe can frighten us. This has heightened during the coronavirus pandemic, which confronts us with our mortality while also calling for courage and ingenuity. Because of our potential for self-transcendence, anxiety fuels creativity when we are opened to the seemingly unbounded potential of human imagination and ability. This drives us to make meaning and to strive for more. 

This is manifested as the creativity that will get us through this crisis. The bravery of health professionals who put their lives at risk for the greater good, the commitment of grocery store workers and restaurant workers who keep our food supply running, the innovation of scientists developing vaccines, and the flexible and inventive thinking of all of us finding new ways to teach, learn, parent, connect, support, pray, and love in isolation. 

For Niebuhr, however, despite our efforts we may remain anxious because we never know when we have done enough. Niebuhr warns that fear of our finitude tends to foil our attempts at creativity. But, I think Niebuhr underappreciates the extent to which acknowledging our finitude brings out qualities that are beautiful and fundamentally human. For, it is knowing our limits and admitting our shortcomings that drives preparedness and attention to details. Importantly, appreciating our temporality can lead us to recognize grace in the mundane.  

This occurs whenever people find the energy to pay attention to the minutiae that is required to get things done and to keep things going. It is politicians and hospital leaders coming up with preparedness plans, and local businesses coordinating the deliveries of food, books, and supplies.  It is my neighbor organizing a spreadsheet for a scavenger hunt where the neighborhood children find four-leaf clovers in windows around town. It is patiently attending to the almost-constant demands of children. It is conscientiously grading papers. It is valuing relationships over professional accolades and economic productivity. It is settling in to the boredom and repetition of isolation.       

But, anxiety has a dark side when it leads us to deny our nature and sin. Niebuhr cautions, “When anxiety has conceived it brings forth both pride and sensuality” (186). Niebuhr’s thought is helpful in so far as it offers ways to theologically reflect on anxiety, but I am not sure sin is the most helpful category. While his view prompts important questions and might explain some common responses to anxiety, it does not sufficiently address all reactions to anxiety, specifically anxiety related to mental health issues. Mental health issues are not sins and it would be a mistake to employ Niebuhr’s analysis in that way.

Niebuhr contends that a flawed response to anxiety is to ignore our finitude and to focus only on our freedoms. This is the sin of pride, the primary sin, and it manifests as the prides of power, knowledge, morality, and spirituality. In order to cope with our lack of control and self-doubt, we turn to “self-mastery” and the “will-to-power,” fabricating illusions about our self-importance and overemphasizing the worth of money or dominance (188, 191). “Intellectual pride” leads people to declare half-truths as absolutes and to remain close-minded rather than to admit the boundaries and bias of personal knowledge (194). Instead of turning to God as the source and measure of morals, we turn to ourselves and act “self-righteous” in the pride of morality (199).  Or, we use religion to serve ourselves and to control others in the pride of spirituality. To some, these may seem like uncanny descriptions of certain politicians’ initial reactions to the coronavirus.

The alternative incorrect response to anxiety is to cut ourselves off from our freedoms and to wallow in our finitude. These are sins of sensuality. Sensuality is a form of “self-love” wherein one makes idols out of oneself and objects out of one’s desires (228). Niebuhr says they are “drunkenness, gluttony, sexual license, love of luxury, or any inordinate devotion to a mutable good” (239-240). But, I think these issues are often far more complex than being understood “sins of sensuality.” Niebuhr’s more useful insight is to call attention to actions that offer “escape from the confusion which sin has created into some form of subconscious existence” (240).

 In many ways, these behaviors are whatever we willfully use as destructive distractions. As such, I think they can take additional forms that Niebuhr does not focus on. But, ‘sin’ may seem like a harsh characterization given that some level of escapism can be helpful, or even necessary, when coping with a crisis. Niebuhr, however, is not talking about healthy diversions, rather he is calling attention to how anxiety may cause us to retreat from ourselves in problematic ways. And, as already stated, this differs greatly from mental health issues.

Burrowing in banal tasks accurately describes my own response to anxiety amplified by the coronavirus. This happens the moment I sit on the floor to play with my children. My mind is immediately inundated with a to-do list: change a diaper, comb my older daughter’s hair, cut my younger daughter’s nails, reorganize the bookshelf, put dinner in the crockpot, vacuum, etc. As a result, I am often preoccupied as I play with my daughters and am unable to be truly present to them. Or, I avoid them and rush off to busy myself with tasks that I typically do not like, such as cleaning. Another mental to-do list and set of chores materializes when I have time that could be used to talk to my husband or to FaceTime my parents.  

But, seeing these responses through a Niebuhrian lens challenges me to acknowledge these actions for what they are—reactions to anxiety—and to confront what it is that I am actually afraid of and trying to avoid—facing the fragility of life and love.

Niebuhr teaches that the way to assuage anxiety is to place one’s insecurities in God, acknowledging that it is God to whom we are beholden. Given his view of human nature, anxiety, and reliance on God it is fitting that he authored the well-known “Serenity Prayer,” whose second part seems especially applicable now (See this Fred Shapiro article for a discussion of debates surrounding Niebuhr’s authorship of the prayer):

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. Living one day at time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that You will make all things right, if I surrender to Your will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen

Reinhold Niebuhr, The Serenity Prayer (original version)

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