COVID-19 has been a mixed experience for those of us with social anxiety. In mid March when all of the schools and churches closed, my daughter said that it was a sociophobe’s dream come true: state-mandated social isolation. It was pretty easy to retreat into the walls of our own home, and to focus on family and hobbies. As strange as it seems, the pandemic didn’t really push me outside of my comfort zone; it confined me within it. But I had to admit as the weeks dragged on that I was losing ground in my battle with social anxiety. It was subtle at first, but slowly over time I found it harder to make phone calls and start up conversations. My daughter said the same thing, that her anxiety was getting the better of her.
In the last couple of weeks we have been emerging more from our homes, going to restaurants and stores. We will soon be back in church meetings again. As we emerge from our Fortresses of Solitude and blink in the sunlight, I thought it would be useful to revisit the topic of social anxiety from a scriptural perspective, mostly because I needed a little refresher and a pep talk. Hopefully you will also find it useful. In my previous post on this topic I speculated that Moroni, the last prophet who wrote in the Book of Mormon, suffered from social anxiety. There are a few other personalities in the scriptures who exhibit similar signs, and I think we can learn some things by studying them.
The Pearl of Great Price greatly expands our understanding of the Old Testament prophet Enoch. His ministry was among the most impactful, and his prophecies were among the most important of any prophet. Interestingly for the present discussion, it appears that he felt some anxiety when the Lord called him to the ministry:
“And when Enoch had heard these words, he bowed himself to the earth, before the Lord, and spake before the Lord, saying: Why is it that I have found favor in thy sight, and am but a lad, and all the people hate me; for I am slow of speech; wherefore am I thy servant?” (Moses 6:31)
Enoch thought he was too young, too unpopular, and insufficiently articulate to be an effective minister. Sociophobes worry to an excessive degree about all of the ways in which they could be scrutinized by those they interact with. Notice that the Lord doesn’t seem to worry about any of these things:
“And the Lord said unto Enoch: Go forth and do as I have commanded thee, and no man shall pierce thee. Open thy mouth, and it shall be filled, and I will give thee utterance, for all flesh is in my hands, and I will do as seemeth me good. […] Behold my Spirit is upon you, wherefore all thy words will I justify” (Moses 6:32,34).
When we are faithfully on the Lord’s errand he will help us in the same way. He will give us words to say and will confirm our testimonies with his own witness. He will protect our hearts from the piercing criticisms of others. We don’t need to be afraid of what others say, or do, or think; we just need to open our mouths and speak the words of the Lord.
The dialog at the burning bush between Moses and the Lord is very similar to the one we have just considered. Moses spits out virtually the same list of reasons why he is not qualified to lead the people of Israel out of bondage.
“And Moses said unto God, Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11)
“And Moses answered and said, But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice: for they will say, The Lord hath not appeared unto thee” (Exodus 4:1)
“And Moses said unto the Lord, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue” (Exodus 4:10)
Personal inadequacies … fear of rejection … concerns about communication skills — this is classic sociophobe thinking. Moses sounds a lot like my internal critic voice in these verses. “They will be annoyed that I called. It will be a bad time for them to talk. They might be offended by something I say. No one wants to talk with me anyway. I won’t be able to answer all of their questions. Can’t I just do this tomorrow, or next week? Oh, why do I even try?”
The Lord addresses each concern that Moses brings, giving him signs to prove that the Lord really had sent him. “Certainly I will be with thee,” the Lord assured (Exodus 3:12). He even promised to help Moses with his speech difficulties:
“And the Lord said unto him, Who hath made man’s mouth? or who maketh the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? have not I the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt say” (Exodus 4:11-12)
This apparently wasn’t enough to calm Moses’ anxiety about his lack of eloquence, so the Lord appointed him a spokesman, his brother Aaron. With Aaron at his side Moses had the confidence to go before the people of Israel, and before Pharaoh.
What would it be like to have a spokesperson? Would that actually help my social anxiety?
Marisa acts as my spokesperson in a way, although she doesn’t do all of my talking for me. She is very outgoing, and seems to have no fear of social things. Sometimes I get embarrassed when she talks to complete strangers at the grocery store, and she still laughs at me sometimes when I struggle to make a phone call. But we actually make a good Yin-Yang pair. With her at my side I have had the confidence to apply to medical school, endure a decade of grueling medical education, and then leave my mentors to take a better career opportunity elsewhere. I don’t know how much of this I could have done without Marisa, but it was surely easier with her help.
Early Church Missionaries
In 1831 a group of missionaries left New York to preach the Restoration of the Gospel in the western frontier of the United States. The Prophet Joseph Smith traveled with them, and during the trip he recorded a revelation from the Lord commending them for their labors, but with this rebuke:
“But with some I am not well pleased, for they will not open their mouths, but they hide the talent which I have given unto them, because of the fear of man. Wo unto such, for mine anger is kindled against them” (Doctrine and Covenants 60:2)
This verse pierced my heart like a red hot poker when I was a missionary. I was struggling to do the Lord’s work despite my handicap, which I didn’t even understand clearly at the time, and this verse seemed to suggest that the Lord was angry with me for my weakness. Was that really true?
The key to understanding this verse is found a few verses later:
“Behold, they have been sent to preach my gospel among the congregations of the wicked; wherefore, I give unto them a commandment, thus: Thou shalt not idle away thy time, neither shalt thou bury thy talent that it may not be known” (Doctrine and Covenants 60:13).
From this verse it appears that what is offensive to the Lord is not the fact that we have weaknesses, but that we shirk in our duties because of them. I did not shirk in my duties as a missionary; I kept trudging forward like a man with his feet caught in molasses, but I kept working, kept trying, kept praying, and never gave up.
I am confident that the Lord was pleased with my service as a missionary and accepted my consecrated effort, even though I was not always effective in the work. Like Enoch, I was willing. Like Moses, I accepted help and moved forward. Like Moroni, God’s grace made me better and stronger.
Go Forth Again
As I flew back home across the Atlantic Ocean at the end of my mission, I felt some nervousness about this life transition. I wondered what my life would be like back in the United States, and what things lay in my future. The thought of leaving behind the life of full time missionary service gave me mixed emotions. On the one hand I knew that I would miss a lot of people and things in England, but honestly I felt a lot of relief that I would no longer have to do street contacting or door-to-door contacting.
As anxiety and ambivalence filled my mind and heart, I turned to an old friend for comfort: my pocket hymn book. I found a little gem called “Before Thee, Lord, I Bow My Head.” This is a hymn meant to be sung at the close of an inspiring worship service. It is a prayer of gratitude for the experience and a supplication that the spirit will linger on with us as we go home from church. In the 3rd verse of the song I found the hope and comfort I was looking for on that plane flight:
“Look up, my soul; be not cast down.
Keep not thine eyes upon the ground.
Break off the shackles of the earth.
Receive, my soul, the spirit’s birth.
And now as I go forth again
To mingle with my fellowmen,
Stay thou nearby, my steps to guide,
That I may in thy love abide.”
(text and music by Joseph H. Dean, 1855-1947)
“Yes,” I thought, “Stay nearby, Lord. Don’t leave me. I have leaned on your help for the last two years, and I need you now more than ever.” And he did stay with me, as I have attested many times on these pages before.
The words of this hymn apply equally well to us today as we emerge from our homes and “go forth again to mingle with [our] fellowmen.” Sociophobes are doing this with mixed emotions, and some of our anxiety has very little to do with a virus. But we ask the Lord to stay nearby, guide us in the right way, and give us his perfect love to cast out our fears.