Anxiety & The Problem of Many-ness

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. –Deuteronomy 6:4-9

My wife and I bought our first home from an older Jewish woman who had lived there most of her life. When we moved in, my wife’s father, who is also Jewish, pointed out a tiny scroll affixed to the threshold of the front door. It was a mezuzah, a traditional scroll containing the words, “Here O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” It had been placed there in obedience to this passage in Deuteronomy: “write [these words] on the doorposts of your house.” 

Deuteronomy 6:4-5 is known as “the Shema,” which means “to hear.” It is a verse and a prayer Jewish people have recited for thousands of years. The second part of the verse is a bit more familiar to Christians, because Jesus famously repeats it in the Gospels: “You shall love…” But today I want to focus on the significance of the first line: “The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” 

Why would the people of God be called to remember these words every morning and evening, to teach them to their children, to talk about them throughout the day, to write them on their doorposts? I think I’m beginning to see, in part. 

Every morning, you awake to a multitude. 

You never just have one thing to do. Never even one genre of things to do. You have to take care of your body, maintain your physical space, tend to any number of personal relationships and responsibilities, buy and sell, and do your job. To add to that, each of these responsibilities is multi-dimensional. Each requires a multitude of diverse and perpetual tasks. 

Almost nothing in life is one

This feels especially true in the modern world with all its complexity, but in the ancient world it was no different. For instance, farming is never just one thing. There are hundreds of various tasks that have to be completed to enjoy one fruitful harvest. But the typical farmer cannot focus only on farming. His children (or possibly his aging parents) need to be fed and clothed and protected and cared for. And that’s when everyone’s doing well. Oftentimes, it’s more complicated. Someone is sick or injured or misbehaving. Maybe two people aren’t getting along. So he’s dealing with that too. But that’s not all. The physical house itself needs to be maintained. His neighbors also need help. And what about winter? Or a drought, or a war, or a plague?

The point is: life is never one. Life is many. Which means, no matter what day of the week or what time of year, just waking up is a potentially overwhelming experience. The human soul, whether ancient or modern, can only take so much “many-ness.”

Yet in response to this many-ness, the people of God are given a promise and a prayer: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

What does it mean?

It is a reminder that the one-ness we long for is real. That, while there is no escaping the many-ness of life, the Lord our God is a kind of sun, whose gravitational force pulls the disparate spheres of our personal solar systems into orbit, giving order and purpose and meaning and beauty to things which otherwise would just be…many. 

The pangs of anxiety that most of us experience on a somewhat regular basis are not just unfortunate symptoms in need of medication. Our bodies are speaking to us–instructing us–about realities which we might not otherwise perceive, except through the language of pain. The pain speaks to us about the unsustainability of many-ness without one-ness. It reminds us that our souls long for a center, a “one” to tame the many, some kind of composer who can take the discordant notes of our everyday lives and turn them into a symphony. After all, that’s what we were made for. “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” That’s why we’re always reaching for “ones” from the pile of the many. Maybe this or that–just the right amount of romance or job security or internet attention–will be “the one.” But it won’t. It can’t. The Lord our God, the Lord is one. There is no other match for the many.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus restates this same idea, but even more beautifully:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on…But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. — Matthew 6:25,33

What can be done with the many-ness of life? Seek first the One, and listen closely–“Hear, O Israel”–as the Lord patiently composes the many sordid notes of your life into a song.

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