Let me start by telling you, right from the get-go, that anxiety is my biggest mental health problem right now. I can offer excuses, and I do know why my fears and anxieties have increased and changed over the last few years, but in the end, I am writing to you not as a professional, not as a person who has overcome her mental and behavioral health issues, but as an experienced hiker climbing the same mountain you are. Experienced hikers climb each mountain more than once, and while every trek up and down is a little different, they know the twists and turns a little better each time.
And, as an extra reassurance that I do not have it all together, I am comparing myself to an experienced hiker only a couple of weeks after I sprained my ankle walking down a plain old sidewalk. We are all simply trekking through our lives, gathering what wisdom we can as needed.
In my previous post on Control I talked about the significance and freedom that comes from recognizing what is out of our control and willingly accepting our powerlessness over it. In situations that we’re powerless over we have no choice but to admit our powerlessness, pray that God will guide those with power to right actions and decisions, and take the next right actions ourselves in response to changes.
But it’s a lot easier to write than it is to practice, and it’s even harder to accept a situation that we have no control over, but that nevertheless affects us quite often or quite intimately.
In all of us there is a God-given desire for true peace. In the Gospels the Holy Spirit is portrayed as a dove of peace at the time of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus is beginning his earthly ministry, and so we are reminded that peace is the ultimate realization of God’s will for us. Yet Christ’s persecution, scourging, and crucifixion are as far from love and peace as the east is from the west, and Christ himself tells us that he didn’t come to bring peace on earth, but a sword (Matt. 10:34).
“For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” (Matt. 10: 35-36).
With the knowledge that Christ would later be beaten and crucified for the sins that everyone committed but him, we can see what Jesus was communicating here – it is not the right time for peace on earth, because he came to save us from our sins first. And just as the people who hailed Jesus as the Christ during his time on earth believed that he was there to restore power to the Hebrew people or perhaps to create a utopia on earth, we too long for peace on earth, and for Christ’s return.
But peace on earth isn’t a purely Christian dream. Believers and non-believers alike having a yearning for peace in their souls, and for many, that insatiable desire for an impossible serenity drives their ambitions, their emotions, and yes, their political opinions.
At the peak of the COVID crisis I spoke to a lot of people who were very, very afraid for the future, and you probably did too. What caught my attention was that so many of them, while they quarantined at home, watched news broadcasts almost non-stop, and many of those people also told me they were scared. Even the news reported that many people were scared about the future, which I suspect only multiplied fear upon fear for those perpetually glued to their screens. And many many people did have good reason to be scared. And it’s ok to be scared. COVID was a legitimate, long-term threat to everyone’s way of life.
I was scared too, but I wasn’t scared of COVID. I had few at-risk loved ones, and anyone I did know to be at risk was following the proper protocol. I have several chronic health conditions myself, and the anxiety I felt about the world in general during the midst of the crisis was extremely high, but my immune system is in good shape. My concerns were related to the impact such a pandemic would have on the everyday things of life. Would my children ever be able to attend school with others five days a week again? Would the specialized instruction my daughter received at her high school become a thing of the past, and if it did, would she ever graduate? Would the Navy deploy my husband, an active-duty nurse, to another place in the world to aid others in COVID prevention and care?
One of my favorite television series was Lost. I didn’t have access to television at the time the show aired originally, but during one of the last few seasons a friend told me about it, and it sounded like something I’d like, so I found a streaming service that provided it. (And yes, you’re right, the series’ ending was unsatisfying.)
In the years since then, as my anxious thoughts and obsessions ebbed and flowed with time, I have consistently been reminded of one scene in the first episode. Only moments, or maybe hours, after the plane crash Kate and Jack stumble upon each other in the jungle. They are strangers, each of them just another person who shared their infamously tragic plane flight. Jack, who we later learn is a surgeon, has discovered a large open wound on his back, and while certainly he has the expertise to fix it himself, he is unable to reach it. When Kate happens by Jack stops her and asks her to sew stitches into his back to close the wound, but without medical training, Kate is too scared to do it. Jack insists, however, and teaches her his own way of overcoming sudden, terrible fear.
His method, he tells her, is to let the fear in completely, to allow himself to be completely and utterly terrified. For 5 seconds.
And when his 5 seconds is up, he does what he needs to do to fix the situation.
As I felt the worry and anxiety about the future accumulating during the pandemic, and as I listened to others whose fear had taken them much further into the terrible dark without ever leaving the couch, I thought of Jack and Kate after the plane crash.
My emotions aren’t as practical and compact as Jack’s were, though, so I made the “five seconds” that Jack allotted for fear into a variable. My tactic became to recognize when I am fearful, identify as specifically as possible what it is that I’m afraid of, and based on the intensity of the fear and the potential threat I felt from it, I gave myself a specific period of time to feel afraid. Sometimes the limit I set was 30 minutes, and at other times it was a full week. During the time that I let the fear in I was gentle with myself, refusing to engage in the mental chatter that tells me that my fear is silly or that I should actually be even more afraid. I gave myself grace, permission to feel exactly what I felt without judgment. And then, when my time was up, I got busy with other things, avoided the news reports and conversations about COVID (which wasn’t easy), and did the things I needed and wanted to do.
Much like the “just do the thing” mantra that I wrote about before, Jack’s 5-second fear rule helps me because it is non-judgmental. Rather than trying to convince myself that I should or shouldn’t be afraid, I let my emotions exist without concern that they are right or wrong, founded or unfounded. Feelings aren’t facts, but they’re also not entirely controllable. So, just as I can’t decide to be left-handed when I’m right-handed, I can’t make a feeling go away because I tell it to or by reasoning with it. But what I can control about my feelings is my reactions to them, both outward reactions – the words I say and the things I do – and inwardly, how long and, to some degree, how much I allow them to control me. And with some intentional action I can turn their volume down, or even hit the mute button.
When bad things happen, there are two things that hold me back: the bad thing itself, and my reaction to it. In situations like the COVID pandemic, I had zero control over what happened and was happening, but I could choose to allow my thoughts to dwell on things that were in my control, and on the knowledge that God is still in control. If I rear-end someone while driving in stop-and-go traffic one day, I am legally at fault, but that doesn’t mean that reminding myself of that over and over, or apologizing a million times to the other driver, or getting angry, will make it any better. It happened, and the more quickly I can accept that, do what needs to be done in the moment, and then provide myself with a limited time to feel my emotions and let them take over for a bit, the sooner I can get to the end goal: acceptance.
Acceptance is peace. It is the full acknowledgement of information or of a situation, good or bad, that affects you physically or emotionally, and is unchangeable and irreversible. When I have run out of “right things” that need to be done in a difficult situation, and the frustration and fear is still present, all that is left for me to do is accept the situation – my emotions about it, the thoughts and opinions and actions of others involved, and the actions that must be taken in response to it – just as it is, without judging it as good or bad. It simply is. And when I can carefully train my mind to see it that way too, I am free from the emotional prison I once built for myself. There is no peace greater than peace within the soul.