I almost called this post “The Cage of Anxiety,” but that seemed a little hokey. Still—playing off Auden’s poem is as good a place as any to start a discussion on anxiety, which was what Nitsuh Abebe does in the recent First Words essay for the New York Times Magazine:

In 1947, W.H. Auden published a very long poem that, despite winning a Pulitzer Prize, is now remembered less for its contents than for its title: “The Age of Anxiety.” Something about the idea that an age can be anxious must resonate deep in America’s cultural bones, because the phrase has been used to describe countless moments since, from the vogue for tranquilizers like Miltown and Valium in the ’50s and ’60s to the coronation of today’s young adults as, in The New York Post’s recent estimation, “The Anxious Generation.” At this point, it’s difficult to imagine a slice of time whose resident humans would not agree with the notion that their lives were more hectically modern — more anxiety-inducing, more in need of the occasional benzo — than any before…

For the past decade or so, Amercan anxiety was usually described as either a mental-health issue or a generational style. Psychologically, we were steadily becoming more apprehensive than ever, with — according to the National Institute of Mental Health — 18 percent of people experiencing actual anxiety disorders in any given year. Generationally, the whole social attitude of younger adults changed: If some in the ’90s cultivated an air of depressive slouching, their modern counterparts developed an ethos of relentless worry and agitation…

[Anxiety] is not a coherent fear of a particular thing, and it tends not to focus on the problems you already have. (A poor person’s immediate challenge isn’t “monetary anxiety”; it’s poverty.) Anxiety is the ambient apprehension that terrible things might happen and the physical response — tension, alarm, fight-or-flight vigor, snapping awake at 2 a.m. to check the president’s Twitter feed — that accompanies this feeling. As a way of describing the political behavior of millions, anxiety is irresistibly broad: All it really says it that people are expressing profound unease, even if they have incoherent or contradictory senses of why, or what it is they fear, or what should be done about it. It describes an emotion, not an analysis.

A mainstay of 20th-century age-of-anxiety complaints was that our world was becoming too complex for anyone to keep track of or feel like a relevant participant in, full of strange and byzantine distances between individuals and the grand global forces affecting us. This feels as obviously true today as it might have to a midcentury reader of Kafka. You can argue with a store owner; you can’t argue with the call-center representative of the company contracted to maintain the point-of-sale machine owned by the other company contracted by the multinational conglomerate that owns the store. Freud connected psychological anxiety with birth and infancy, when human beings experience wrenching change they’re completely unequipped to make sense of. According to Michel Dugas, a psychologist at the University of Quebec, feelings of anxiety are closely connected to an inability to handle uncertainty. What might make human beings less anxious, it seems, is having a firmer sense of what in the world is happening and what’s likely to happen next. We seem temporarily short on both.

Abebe analyzes mankind’s inability to deal with uncertainty through a political lens: in the era of Donald Trump, who’s to say whether or not terrible things will happen? I get that. But I’m suspicious that blaming Donald Trump for everything, including my mental illness, is kind of like scapegoating, because the real cause for my anxiety is, likely, me.

A thought experiment: I am anxious, in part, because I generally handle uncertainty well — I have faith in it. I’m comfortable with it: with the idea that humans are fallible, that our perception is flawed, that open-for-interpretation TV finales are the best. I revere uncertainty almost religiously — “everything is gray, guys” — even questioning the things I do know. How, then, could I not ask the big anxiety-inducing questions: Is there is a better job for meDid I marry the wrong person? Maybe there’s something better I could be doing with my time. And maybe God, like everything else, is more of a question than an answer.

Taking a few steps back, I think a little self-doubt is okay sometimes. For example: A few years ago, an acquaintance from church took to the stage and gave a beautiful well-prepared speech about all the ways God had worked through him, all the ways God had fulfilled his promises to him. I remember being impressed by the way that his story’s loose ends came together; and I was, at the same time, suspicious throughout the entire presentation. He betrayed not a trace of self-doubt, which, it seemed to me, was the ultimate sign of delusion. Especially considering most of us in the pews thought he was a tool. Sure, we figured, God was working through him but not in the ways he a-s-s-umed.

Likely, the same goes for me.

Around that time, I latched onto the phrase ‘the opposite of faith is certainty,’ which is often true: faith is so easily envisioned as ‘conviction’ or ‘boldness’ in the face of a militaristic world dead-set on making atheists of us all, but this stubbornness tends to turn a blind eye to our own shortcomings, those things that Jesus was desperate to bring attention to in John 9. So, yeah, a little self-doubt, then. Of which God is not afraid. And a humble Christian will accept what Paul says in 1 Corinthians, that now we see as if through a mirror darkly. As my grandfather would say, we won’t have the full picture until ‘we’re sitting at his feet in heaven, and all the mysteries are revealed to us.’

But for this experiment, I am thinking less of those people willing to stand on stage and unveil to the masses the mysteries of God and more about those of us for whom the certainty of uncertainty leaves us sweating at 2am. I’m thinking of the Hufflepuffs — those of us who are middle-of-the-road on everything, who say “I don’t know” after every postulation: “I just feel like maybe GOT is a little, maybe, kind of overrated. I don’t know.”

It’s likely our fear of being wrong, then, that runs us in circles. Better to be uncertain, and awash with doubt, than to actually lay claim to a truth and be wrong. Memoirist Mary Karr says as much in her book The Art of Memoir. She first admits that uncertainty is inevitable when recalling memories — “even the best minds warp and blur what they see” — but, also, sometimes, we duck away from the truth, even when it presents itself to us:

However often the airwaves wind up clotted with false memories and misidentified criminal culprits and folks dithering about what they recall, I still think a screw has come loose in our culture around notions of truth, a word you almost can’t set down without quotes around it anymore. Sometimes it strikes me that even when we know something’s true, it’s almost rude to say so, as if claiming a truth at all—what? threatens someone else’s experience?

Most of all, no one wants to sound like some self-satisfied proselytizer everybody can pounce on and debunk.

The American religion—so far as there is one anymore—seems to be doubt. Whoever believes the least wins, because he’ll never be found wrong.

For many of us, being likable is paramount. We want to be found standing on the right side of the aisle, or at least somewhere in Switzerland—neutral, agreeable—no toe-stepping here! As Abebe says, anxiety may be linked to uncertainty, but uncertainty is definitely linked to our fear of being wrong.

Luckily, God doesn’t wait for us to get decisive. Rather, the Bible shows, he cuts through our confusion and meets us even (and especially) when we are confused. Consider the Transfiguration, Matthew 17:

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

God doesn’t even allow Peter to finish. While he was still speaking, God shouts at him. He intervenes. He does—do I dare?—take the wheel. He interrupts our daily lives with the blessed assurances of his love, through Jesus. True enough: “We see now as through a glass darkly.” But when you know, you know.