Saturday, April 06, 2013

The War on Worry

I’ve always been something of a worrier. When I was young, the fact that I worried a lot but didn’t talk about it led to all sorts of stress-related problems. By the time I was thirteen, I had developed a duodenal ulcer, which meant that I had to begin to learn, slowly, how to manage my worries and stress levels in ways that were much healthier than simply “stuffing” them.

32 years later, I still have a tendency (which I’ve learned to guard against and work through) to be a “stuffer.” And I married a “stuffer,” something we quickly learned we had in common that has caused us to work hard at learning to communicate our feelings with one another in wise (but hopefully honest) ways. When we had our daughter, now over a decade ago, it quickly became clear that she had inherited all our worrying tendencies ~ times a bunch. From the time she was very small, our daughter has been something of a chronic worrier, which in recent years has moved into more serious issues with anxiety (coupled with some other issues) which we have been prayerfully trying to help her through.

What’s been interesting for us, however, is that our daughter didn’t inherit our introverted, stuffer natures. She is an extrovert and what we kindly term an “erupter.” When she has worries, everybody knows about them because she talks about them – a lot. Repeatedly. And because she is a highly bright, gifted person with an amazing imagination, and struggles with obsessive tendencies too, she can come up with a lot of scenarios that borrow trouble.

What this has meant, among other things, is a lot of teaching in our household about not worrying. We dwell in the land of Matthew 6. We meditate a lot – individually, together – on Jesus saying that we shouldn’t be anxious. We’ve talked about why he says that, because Jesus’ commands (though they may sometimes feel impossible to us when we face them in our graced fallenness) are never burdensome. He doesn’t make up things for us to obey like a gym teacher gleefully placing obstacles in our path to see if we’re tough enough to take it. When he tells us to do something (or not to do something) we can trust that he does so for our ultimate good, because he knows that if we were to engage habitually in the practice it would not be good for our souls, our minds, our spirits, our bodies – our whole self. Because he loves us wholly.

Consider the lilies of the field...
 We’ve not only talked about this teaching a lot, we’ve tried hard to live it – D and I especially as we try to model not being anxious it for the sweet girl. We have prayed so much about her deepening anxiety struggles (which seem to be intensifying as puberty nears) and we will continue to.

The Lord, in his graciousness, has had us needing to model freedom from anxiety in the midst of years that, on a natural level, would seem to cause nothing but anxiety. We continue to do arts ministry in a small, industrial town. We continue to work part-time and self-employed projects, partly by choice (to free us up to do the work we’re called to do as homeschoolers and missioners/ministers) and partly because those are the doors God has opened. We continue to run a shortfall almost every month in the income we need, and we continue to rely on regular and occasional gifts from people who love us and want to support our lives and ministry here. We continue to pay down a lot of debt from years of underemployment and unemployment when we went through a real hard time and weren’t able to find enough work at all (and as we were discerning our long term call here). We continue to find more things we can give up, more things we can do without, more ways we can live deeper and lean harder on God. We continue to understand manna in ways that I would never have guessed we could when God first assured me, back in 1997, that he could indeed set a table in the wilderness.

Living this way sometimes feels adventurous and freeing and bold, especially when we are learning to give more out of our little, and sometimes overwhelming and downright scary (it depends on which day you catch me) but one thing I’ve had to realize over and over is that I cannot stay in a place of chronic worry. One, because I’ve imbibed my own teaching to my daughter over the years – every time I preach to her heart, I preach to my own, and you can’t live for years in the land of Matthew 6 and not reach a place where you realize deep, deep down that Jesus MEANT what he said about not worrying, that it’s not good for you, that it shows a lack of trust, that it’s disobedient and not how you want to live. Two, because I can’t live in a place of chronic worry when I am trying to model for my anxiety struggling child how to be free.

Okay, yes, true confession, there are days when I am feeling worried on the inside and I pretend on the outside that I’m not. But I have ceased to feel like a hypocrite when I do that. I have begun to realize it’s the kind of holy pretending or play-acting that C.S. Lewis talks about, when he says that sometimes when we are feeling not at all kind, the best thing we can do is act kind, even when we truly don’t feel it, because the more we PRACTICE it, the more we will discover we are becoming what we’re pretending to be. Jack says it better than that, of course, but that’s the gist of it. So sometimes I take a deep breath and act like I’m not worried for the sake of keeping peace, for the sake of not shaking up my daughter, for the sheer sake of obedience. Yes, Abba, I will take you at your word that I am not supposed to worry, that you’ve got this provision thing covered, that even if we don’t have what I think we really need, we will have enough and you will see us through and we will discover a way forward.

Then there are days, however, when I realize that I am moving into a whole new place, by God’s grace, where I am really not worrying – even over things I used to worry about. I had a little exchange with my daughter just today that sort of woke me up to that in a wonderful way. We’ve had a long, struggling week, one of those weeks where the income losses we’ve suffered (in two job areas/projects) in the past couple of years have really made themselves known (primarily because this is a time of year when we have some extra bills, but we also used to get paid from a work project around this time to help us through, and that work isn’t there this year). We’ve had overdue bills and have been eking out incredibly low-budget meals while hanging on and waiting for the next bit of manna. Some of that arrived yesterday in an unexpected fashion, in a way that totally blessed us and will really help us through the next week.

I was feeling grateful for that this afternoon when the sweet girl suddenly said something to me which I didn’t catch. It may have been that I was lost in thought, it may also have been (quite probably) that I didn’t hear her because I have a lot of fluid in my right ear right now. I have a chronic, recurring problem with that ear, which in past years, I would have dealt with by now. Dealing with it is not cheap. This year I can’t, because I no longer have health insurance and I can’t afford an insurance-less visit to a doctor or chiropractor (a cheaper, possible alternative, I hope) to try to take care of it right now. I am trusting that in time, the Lord will provide a way to allow me to move forward and do something about it, but we’ve got several “back-burner” issues like this right now, including D’s real need for new glasses, and we can only prioritize one thing at a time. In the meantime I’ve accepted that for now, I just need to deal with some discomfort and hearing issues.

But I know the family must get tired of hearing me say “huh?” or “what?” or “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that,” and I probably said something like that to the sweet girl today. She suddenly got a very worried look on her face. “I wish you could something to help your ear get better, Mom,” she said soberly. “It worries me that your ear is like that. You need insurance. It worries me that you don’t have it.”

In the past, I must confess, this has been one of the biggest worries in my own inner shelf full of worries. I’m in my mid-forties. I try to take good care of myself, given our circumstances. But I know that things happen. I know people get ill. I know that one serious illness without insurance could wipe out all our years of careful trying to climb out of the hole and then some. I know we’ve got nothing in reserve if I get sick. I suspect some people sometimes think I am being willfully reckless or martyr-like not to carry insurance (not realizing that it’s simply impossible for us right now…we tried hard to keep up premiums on the cheapest policy we could find, and we simply couldn’t...not without deciding not to eat, and that wasn’t an option)! This has been one of the biggest trust issues of my life. I try not to talk about it. The sweet girl probably wouldn’t even know that I didn’t have insurance except that, well, we’re a three person family and she’s a bright ten year old and I had to come up with a straight answer when she kept asking me why I wasn’t going to the doctor for anything anymore.

So I completely floored my self today when I responded, almost without thinking, to her concern. “That’s sweet,” I told her, “and I appreciate your concern. I’d like to be able to take care of my ear too. And I hope I can get insurance again soon. But you know what? I’m not worried about it.”

Seriously, I said those words. And I realized, a few seconds after they slipped out of my mouth, that on some level I actually meant them. I wasn’t just saying it to say it, or to make her feel better. It wasn’t entirely holy pretending. It was for real. This doesn’t mean I won’t have an anxiety attack in the middle of the night some night again, or that I won’t worry again tomorrow, but it means – praise God! – I am growing. I am learning. I am leaning. I am understanding the strength and comfort of the Holy Spirit in new and deeper ways. I am starting to seriously take some ground in the war on worry.

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