During my early high school years, President Nixon resigned, and Vice-President Gerald Ford took his place. This was the first time an unelected vice-president assumed the presidency. It was a sad moment for our nation after enduring the Watergate scandal — the lies, cover-ups, and corruption within the White House. Being new to politics and naive, I did not know that US political history had many incidents of corruption and illegal activities, although none had led to the resignation of a President. As bad as the Watergate scandal was in the 1970s, politics has sunk to new lows in more recent history.
The first time I voted in a Presidential election was in 1976. Gerald Ford sought to extend his presidency while a populous Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter, offered a fresh face. The nation elected Carter, an untested southern Baptist who worked to restore trust in the White House. While he did not suffer any scandals during his presidency, Carter was viewed as a weak leader and was routed after four years in office by the conservative California Governor Ronald Reagan.
Both Jimmy and his wife, Rosalynn, returned to their home in Plains (Georgia) and walked away from politics. They led quiet lives of community service and did not cash in on their political fame. Jimmy is now under hospice care and Rosalynn, age 95, has dementia. In 1977, during an early interview as First Lady, she outlined her goals which focused on mental health. She advocated that every person should receive mental health care and not be stigmatized by the disease. She served as honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health. She was the second First Lady to testify before a Senate Committee where she advocated for government assistance to the mentally ill. It was a fitting tribute to her mental health work when she publicly announced her own mental health issue, something that the media praised.
Mental health is a disease with a long history, as long as human history. Yet, until recently, mental health was considered taboo, something to hide and discuss privately. During my formative years, to seek mental health treatment was considered a lifelong stigma that permanently labeled a person as unfit. Speaking to a psychologist or medical doctor about one’s mental health was often done at great personal risk. Jokes were made about sending people to mental institutions if they appeared odd, confused, or depressed. For the First lady to advocate for better mental health treatment and increased public tolerance was an act of courage, along with her own mental health admission.
Anxiety is uneasiness or nervousness usually connected with an impending or anticipated threat, or doubts about the ability to cope. Medically, it can produce physical tension, sweating, an increased pulse rate, and shortness of breath. We have all experienced anxiety as it is part of inbred human nature derived from living in a world surrounded by potential harm. It is normal to feel anxious. I had nervous anxiety before major competitive runs, especially marathons, because I knew that I would be pushing my body to its limits. I felt the same anxiety prior to taking exams, even if I was well prepared. During the pandemic, I was anxious when in public places and rushed to distance myself from others, even after being vaccinated. This is a normal and helpful feeling. Anxiety is a warning, an internal alert system that prepares a person for the coming physical and/or mental trial.
In some cases, anxiety can be debilitating and produce symptoms that are counterproductive. In these cases, seeking professional help is warranted as there are effective treatments available. Being aware of anxiety is a positive trait and all should support those who seek information or treatment.
Anxiety is on the rise, especially in younger people, as evidenced by higher education statistics on mental health. There seems to be a trend to avoid anxiety instead of developing skills to cope and manage it. Increasingly, youth and young adults are not driving cars, leaving home, getting married, or having children due to the anxiety of risk taking rather than embracing these risks as life affirming. Having children does have its share of risks, as most parents will attest. However, for me, the joy of raising a child far outweighed the anxiety.
Life is a balancing act between overcoming anxious fears and accepting risky challenges. I don’t climb rocks to overcome my fear of heights. Instead, I rode Ferris wheels and took elevators with glass doors. I take deep, calming breaths before an interview or a large group presentation. I plan my exam or writing preparations by allocating enough time to complete the work well ahead of the deadline. My anxiety does not go away, but these actions lower my anxiety enough to keep it from becoming a negative barrier. As anxious as I felt before a marathon, the joy of finishing strong far exceeded the risks.
Scripture discusses anxiety in both Testaments. Moses in Exodus 3 and 4 reveals his anxiety about confronting Pharaoh and the Israelites. The prophet Jeremiah, starting in 11:18, had his anxious moments and complained to God. Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane was anxious about his upcoming suffering and death: “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” (Matthew 26:38) Anxiety is a part of life and when managed, it can lead to both self-actualization and community service. It is a normal healthy emotion. If it becomes unmanageable, seek help. Moderate anxiety is part of an abundant life.