DON'T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF

JANUARY 4, 1998
R.M. FEWKES


"Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?...Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well....And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to your life....Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day." (Matt. 6 Selected Verses 25 to 34)

Dr. Richard Carlson is a stress consultant, author and lecturer in private practice. His most recent book, DON'T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF...AND IT'S ALL SMALL STUFF, has been on the top ten best-sellers list for the past several months. The subtitle of the book is SIMPLE WAYS TO KEEP THE LITTLE THINGS FROM TAKING OVER YOUR LIFE. It has exactly 100 chapters, no one of which is more than two or three pages in length. Each chapter is a self-contained lesson that can easily be put into practice in one's daily life. Many of his prescriptions seem all too simple, but he is obviously appealing to some deep felt needs for guidance in how to make the best out of what life throws our way. To give you a flavor of what his book is all about listen to some of the chapter headings:

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff...Make Peace with Imperfection...Learn to Live in the Present Moment...Ask Yourself the Question, "Will This Matter a Year from Now?"...Surrender to the Fact that Life Isn't Fair...Repeat to Yourself, "Life Isn't an Emergency"...Spend a Moment Every Day Thinking of Someone to Thank...Set Aside Quiet Time, Every Day...Seek First to Understand...Practice Random Acts of Kindness...Choose Being Kind over Being Right...Argue for Your Limitations, and They're Yours...Just for Fun, Agree with Criticism Directed Toward You (Then Watch It Go Away)...Search for the Grain of Truth in Other Opinions...See the Glass as Already Broken (and Everything Else Too)...Be Grateful when You're Feeling Good and Graceful when You're Feeling Bad...Turn Your Melodrama into a Mellow-Drama...Do One Thing At A Time...Think of What You Have Instead of What You Want...Be Happy Where You Are...Make Service an Integral Part of Your Life...Think of Your Problems as Potential Teachers...Get Comfortable Not Knowing...Cut Yourself Some Slack...Stop Blaming Others...Remember, One Hundred Years from Now, All New People...Give Up on the Idea that "More Is Better"...Keep Asking Yourself, "What's Really Important?"...Look for the Extraordinary in the Ordinary...Live This Day as if It Were Your Last. It Might Be!

As you can see he is telling you stuff you already know, but he puts it altogether under one cover and challenges you to live it. The closest we can find in the Biblical tradition to this kind of practical down-to-earth advice would be some of the supposedly sage counsel in the BOOK OF PROVERBS--"From the fruit of his words a man is satisfied with good, and the work of a man's hand comes back to him. The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice....He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city." (PR.12:14-15,16:32). A

And then we have Jesus' little homily about coping with anxiety from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus' advice was short and to the point, don't give in to it, worry and anxiety never has and never will add one day to a person's life span, if anything they subtract from it and spoil the good days we do have. Jesus tells his listeners that God knows we all have needs for food and clothing and material goods, these are basic to our physical existence, but we should remember that life is more than just the fulfillment of our physical wants and needs. Life has an underlying spiritual meaning and purpose which Jesus calls the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. If we put first things first then the other things will come in due stead. He concludes his little homily by telling us not to be anxious about tomorrow, but to focus our time and energies on the day's own troubles and challenges, which is one of the principles of the A.A. philosophy, to live one day at a time, to not freak ourselves out with worry about what may or may not come to pass tomorrow or next week or next year. The only thing we can do anything about is the day's own trouble, and that is enough. Let tomorrow be anxious for itself.

There is more to Jesus' little homily on coping with anxiety than meets the eye. When he talks about the Kingdom of God and his righteousness he is by implication talking about a realm of right relationships and a social fabric that is held together by the interweaving of love and justice in both the domestic, political, and economic spheres of life. That is what "thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven" means, or it means nothing at all. When human beings put the building of that kind of society first, in their personal lives, and in their public lives, then indeed "all these things shall be yours as well."

In reflecting on Jesus' teaching one of the Biblical commentators notes that "when business thinks of profits first and people second, depressions (or the fear of them) plague us. When it thinks of people first and the intent of God second, pride betrays us. Economics rests back on conscience, not conscience on economics." If Jesus' words about not being anxious about food and clothing are divorced from his teaching about seeking first God's realm of righteousness and peace on earth then they can appear to be shallow and self-centered in their lack of concern for those who are poor and needy. After all what can Jesus' words to not be anxious for the morrow mean to a person who is out of work, ineligible for welfare, and whose children are hungry? Obviously, not very much.

I am reminded of the late Abraham Maslow's psychology of being in which he elaborated upon what he called a "hierarchy of needs" in every human being. The first level of needs are physical and material needs. Once they are satisfied, and we know where our next meal is coming from, then we discover that the satiation of those physical and material needs are not enough to give life meaning and purpose. At some point we are driven to ask with songstress Peggy Lee, "Is This All There Is?" We discover that we need love and beauty, meaning and purpose in our lives, needs that have moral, ethical and spiritual components to them. In fact we find that the real meaning of life is to be found in the fulfillment of these higher spiritual needs. But we would never discover that we had these higher spiritual needs if we are consumed by anxiety and worry over the necessities of food and clothing and shelter. Unfortunately, some people never get out from under these basic anxieties even when they are millionaires and have an excess of material goods.

Take comic writer and film maker Woody Allen, for example. He writes in his book WITHOUT FEATHERS, "I am plagued by doubts. What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists. In that case I definitely overpaid for my carpet. If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank." Ah, and what would happen if we won the lottery tomorrow and made a large deposit of a million dollars or more at the Citizen's Bank or the Rockland Trust Company. Would we feel secure and content then, or would this be the beginning of new worries and anxieties? If you won a million dollars, or say ten million in the Publisher's Clearing House Sweepstakes, what would you do with it? What would come first, what would be central for you in the stewardship and distribution of such a largess? Think about it. Wouldn't most of us put our personal and family needs for material security above everything else? That would follow the direction of Maslow's hierarchy of needs would it not? But would we give high priority or consideration for the meeting of spiritual and ethical needs, not only for ourselves, but for the larger society and world of which we are a part? That would be the true test of our human spiritual worth.

I must admit that I was impressed by the dramatic and daring act of generosity put forth by billionaire Ted Turner with his proposed contribution of one billion dollars to the United Nations. He may end up single handedly paying an equivalent amount in back dues owed by the United States to the U.N. Turner threw down the gauntlet of charitable giving and philanthropy to his fellow billionaires and asked them to do something equally daring. Come on, Bill Gates, what are you going to do to match Ted's brash act of giving? Of course, Ted Turner is not giving it all at once, but over a period of ten years, only the income from an invested amount. He will still own the principal at the end of that decade of giving. So the financial risk of such a gift is quite minimal for good old Ted. He will still have plenty of other billions to live on in the interim.

Most of us will not have to worry about how to distribute such large sources of income. However, the challenge to make of ourselves and our lives a model of love and compassion, of meaning and purpose, of generosity and outreach, is still there for all of us to meet. We will never be able to entirely eliminate worry and anxiety from our lives, because as Paul Tillich once taught in his marvelous study on THE COURAGE TO BE, anxiety is an existential fact of human life. There is the anxiety of fate and death which comes with being mortal and finite. There is the anxiety of guilt and condemnation which comes with the inability of human beings to live up to the best that conscience demands. We all need the forgiveness, support and encouragement of others to carry on. And then there is the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness which comes when we realize that no amount of material security and success can satisfy the spiritual hunger in our lives. The courage to be is the courage to accept these existential anxieties as part and parcel of human life and to not be consumed by them.

That in a nutshell is Paul Tillich's and Abraham Maslow's version of Jesus' teaching on how to cope with anxiety. Or as Richard Carlson put it in the title of his best-selling book, DON'T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF.

I would like to conclude this service by sharing with you a final reading from Carlson's little book. May this be an inducement to you to live your life more fully and to face the new year with courage, confidence and compassion.

"Be Happy Where You Are"

Sadly, many of us continually postpone our happiness--indefinitely. It's not that we consciously set out to do so, but that we keep convincing ourselves, "Someday I'll be happy." We tell ourselves we'll be happy when our bills are paid, when we get out of school, get our first job, a promotion. We convince ourselves that life will be better after we get married, have a baby, then another. Then we are frustrated that the kids aren't old enough--we'll be more content when they are. After that, we're frustrated that we have teenagers to deal with. We will certainly be happy when they are out of that stage. We tell ourselves that our life will be complete when our spouse gets his or her act together, when we get a nicer car, are able to go on a nice vacation, when we retire. And on and on and on! Meanwhile, life keeps moving forward. The truth is, there's no better time to be happy than right now. If not now, when? Your life will always be filled with challenges. It's best to admit this too yourself and decide to be happy anyway. One of my favorite quotes comes from Alfred D"Souza. He said, "For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin--real life. But there was always some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life." This perspective has helped me to see that there is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.

(Richard Carlson, DON'T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF, pp. 169-170)