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The other day, when a friend of mine said “It seems like everyone feels a spreading sense of dread lately,” I knew what she meant.
Worry, nervousness, fear and anticipating the worst seem to afflict more and more people lately.
Somehow the world just seems a lot less stable than before, doesn’t it? Wars and the rumors of wars continue. Nuclear weapons proliferate, with some actually threatening to use them. Racial and religious hatred grows. Mass shootings, terrorist attacks and random threats keep us unsure and fearful about the future. Mounting natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and fires don’t seem so natural anymore, or so rare. People even doubt the permanence of our underlying social structure, cringing at the prospects of an imminent future and wondering if civilization itself could collapse under the weight of its own dreadful failings.
So if you wake up with a feeling of impending doom, you’re not alone.
Psychiatrists call this spreading sense of dread “generalized anxiety disorder,” defining it as a litany of symptoms like hopelessness, constant anxiousness, or sudden, intense fear and sadness about life in general. If allowed to continue, generalized anxiety disorders can cause panic attacks, fear-based apprehension and even ongoing depression.
But even if you don’t have an anxiety disorder, you may suffer from intermittent dread. The dictionary defines dread as “a steadily-escalating sense of foreboding.” Dread, basically, is the warning signal our body and mind produces when we fear the immediate or the long-term future, but have nothing specific enough to flee from or fight.
Have you experienced some of those symptoms? Do you sometimes feel a sense of free-floating anxiety, or have constant, low-level subconscious dread? Do you worry excessively about the future? You might be too busy or unaware to recognize those feelings, but many people have them, so you may want to search your soul to see if they’re playing any role in your psychological landscape.
If you do have feelings of fear, dread or anxiety, the Baha’i teachings have a prescription for relief, exemplified in this story Abdu’l-Baha told in Haifa, Palestine during World War I. After the visit of some frightened Palestinians who asked Abdu’l-Baha for his advice, he said:
These people who called on us today were in a state of fright. They are expecting daily the bombardment of Haifa by the foreign warships. As soon as they see a little moving speck in the horizon of the sea, they look through their glasses, anxiously scanning to see whether these are the expected cruisers. Their hearts are in a state of anxiety. They are terror-stricken. They have no peace of mind. This is one of the signs of absence of faith. It is stated in the Qur’an: “They imagine every cry raised is an enemy unto them.” For example, when a thief enters a house, the least noise causes his flight. He trembles and quakes.
But the hearts of the people of faith are assured. If they are surrounded by a thousand enemies they stand firm on their ground. The greatest divine bounty is a confident heart. When the heart is confident, all the trials of the world will be as child’s play. Should they throw him into prison, should they cast him into a black well, should they heap upon him all manner of afflictions, still his heart is content, peaceful and assured. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 5, p. 241.
“The greatest divine bounty,” Abdu’l-Baha said, “is a confident heart.” So how do we develop confident hearts?
Abdu’l-Baha seems to suggest, in this passage, that a confident heart has three main attributes: assurance, courage and faith.
All of those qualities have one thing in common—they face the future with an attitude of welcoming, optimistic hope rather than dread.
The Baha’i teachings offer that hope to humanity.
In this series of essays, we’ll examine the foreboding, pessimism and dread so many people experience, and see if we can find, amidst the wisdom and insight the Baha’i teachings offer, the spiritual antidote for those feelings of hopelessness and impending doom.