In a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?, Benoit Denizet-Lewis, assistant professor at Emerson College, shared a startling statistic: “Anxiety is the most common mental-health disorder in the United States, affecting nearly one-third of both adolescents and adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.” According to Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, although kids of all economic backgrounds experience anxiety, privileged youth are some of the most stressed out kids in this country. The biggest single stressor is that they “never get to the point where they can say, ‘I’ve done enough, and now I can stop.'"Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that whereas teenagers used to blame their demanding parents for their anxious lives, now many kids have simply internalized this anxiety. They are their own taskmasters.
Anxiety is the product of a way of life that has convinced us that we aren’t “enough” and that if we want to be enough and be acceptable we need to be continually adding to our resume. Needless to say, this way of life is set up so that we never get to “enough”. There is always more to be done and accomplished. As one task is accomplished, we already begin to experience anxiety about the next thing we need to do.
What is the answer? Small adjustments won’t do. We need to leave the anxiety producing world behind and enter a whole new world. What is this new world? Jesus called it the kingdom of God. Jesus knows that anxiety is what comes when we don’t realize that our lives are governed by the generosity of God. So one day Jesus said to a group of people, “Don’t be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear (Mt. 6:25).” Or about how many AP courses you are taking. Or about how many awards you have won. Or about how many extracurricular activities you can put on your college application. Why don’t we need to worry this stuff? Because Jesus knows something the world doesn’t know. He knows that our lives are not actually governed by the gods of the rat race, but by a God whose generosity is boundless. He knows that if God feeds birds and sustain lilies, God surely has the capacity to provide what we most need. He knows that we each matter a great deal to God just as we are. God doesn’t love us more because of what we have accomplished. God just loves us because that is the way God is. Jesus’ words invite kids and adults to leave behind a world governed by a relentless task master and enter a world governed by a God who delights in us just as we are.
Words like these from Jesus can cast out the demons of anxiety that adolescents have internalized. There are also many other words that can exorcise these demons: Paul tells the Philippians: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil 4:6).” The Psalmist prays “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want (Ps. 23:1).” Jesus, Paul and the psalmist know how to leave the kingdom of anxiety: transfer your allegiance to God.
So the next time you are talking with a teenager who is stressed out, try something new. Don’t waste your time trying to convince them that they don’t really need to take another AP class, or get involved in another extra-curricular activity, or win another award. Why not offer them a word that just might help them discover a whole new world? Why not offer them a word that just might help them imagine that they can live their lives in a new world governed by a loving God rather than a relentless task master. You never know: they just might discover that they like living in that world.