2. A Fearful and Anxious Mother
Soon after the breakers of my fear swelled, crested, and shattered my inner world the summer before last, I discovered that I had been tensing at every accident and illness that happened in our vicinity.
In the stillness that followed, I looked back and could see that some of those waves began churning years ago, when I learned I was going to be a mother.
I read the clickbait articles and advice columns that seemed to accost me at every turn, wading into what would become a neck-deep flood of options. Whole volumes about diet, development, educational tracks, safety risks, and parent-child relationships opened before me, but precious little of this research arose out of fearless interest. Instead, warnings and anecdotes collected in my mind. Over time they accumulated into a powder keg of anxiety, too heavy and too volatile to carry for long.
“Watch for fevers.” I did. “Don’t ever ignore this symptom.” Dutifully, I filed it away. “Children with this characteristic/tendency/habit are at 78% greater risk for this disorder/disease/chronic condition/mental illness. The severity of the outcome can be helped with early intervention.” I snapped to attention — or would have, if I had not already been so rigidly alert.
Over time, the information that claimed to help me live a fuller life bound my hands and lacerated my peace instead.
I had developed a hawk-eye vision for warning signs of trouble but missed — ah, so many other things. Unburdened laughter with my children. True rest. The freedom to joyfully say yes in a hundred moments because I was preoccupied by a “What if…?”
I was unable to enter into the very trust I wanted my daughters to have in God.
Mutiny Against Fear
The early days of my recovery were spent picking through mental shrapnel.
My sharpest fears, I found, stemmed from elemental questions about God — issues I knew, but which I’d never examined in this area of my life.
How much of a hand does He have in suffering? Can He only make the best of the havoc wreaked by evil and the fall of man? Are both of us simply waiting for the next harrow to fall in my life? On the other hand, if He afflicts the children of men, does He do so willingly? Will He ever hurt me and call it good?
And as I picked my way through the rubble, one great, gnarled root of this anxiety came to light:
I was afraid that some great crisis would happen, and that I would “know” — cerebrally, theoretically — that God is good, but no longer be able to see Him under the burden of some unbearable grief or pain.
The irrationality of those fears is clearer now, in the light of a better day. I had seen Him bring redemption into the Sheols of my past. But somehow, like a lost child with no memory, my imagination had fallen into the habit of trying to gird itself for all kinds of trauma ahead of time.
What tragedies were lurking in the shadows? Could I live with myself if something devastating happened because of my action or inaction?
And through the sweat-soaked wrestling in the dark, a simple answer came.
The wild card is always God. I may run the whole length of my imagination looking for potential horrors. I can anticipate the “what if’s” of a given situation a thousand times over. But if any of them come to pass, they will not take place inside that airless arena in my mind.
My Father will be present. And though He is wild, He is unfailingly good. “The Spirit of God will not let [the ghastliness of the trial] be the last word.”
There are curious and astounding reports abroad in this world, friends, from “everyday” saints far wiser and braver than I, telling us that His goodness can be seen and recognized as goodness in the very midst of situations we would strongly be tempted to call insurmountable. They come from the trenches of terminal cancer, the atrocities of war, life with an incurable syndrome, the loss of a child.
Like a torch in the darkness they affirm that He does not change like shifting shadows, and neither does His compassion towards us, or His intention to make us whole. In our darkest hours He will often act and move us — indeed, increase in us — in ways we could not have predicted from our limited vantage points.
Shall I then continue to live out my fears in advance, O my soul?
Yes, valleys are sure to come, for out of a strength, wisdom, and faithfulness beyond my understanding, He gives both the hard and the easy to the ones He loves (Heb. 12:7-13). But the Word of God also shows us that our pain matters to Him more than we dare imagine. Whatever depths lie ahead, I know I shall not be forgotten. The King of the ages goes with me, and no power can wrest my life from His hand.
Building a Railway for Goodness and Truth
Still, because my mind has spent years running express trains of thought between despair and anxiety, it isn’t skilled at keeping these truths in the foreground of my vision.
One very great — and indispensable — help to me in building a better track has been the practice of paying attention to beauty.
To the stories that bring unlooked-for tears.
The songs we play again and again because they strike a match of hope in our starless depths.
The thin places that sing of glories “further up and further in.”
The marvelous sights given this day — to this very life, and none other.
The beauty of our Father, Friend, and King is in all these, like reflections of blue sky gleaming in a street full of rain puddles, reminding me that His goodness to us is larger and longer-lived than the fallout of our most hideous fears.
Our hope is secured forever by Christ. From Him, the final note of our rescue rings out into the minutes and hours of our lives, resonating from pit bottoms and cliff faces like a great chorus sustained by a cloud of witnesses. Build your house upon His goodness, they cheer; run the race with all your strength bent upon it; spend your life on the surety of it. When we listen, both the beauty around us and those witnesses testify over and over again in the court of our doubts: Yes, His goodness will hold.
“Perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4:18). This old, beloved verse looks different to me in the light of these past two years. An overthrow has begun. In order to move through life without being maimed by fear, I must walk in the presence of His love, actively making it the primary truth before my eyes. If I want to take the word of my God seriously, I cannot repeatedly surrender its place to the grim statistics of modern life, or the opinions of cynics parroted by the voices in my head.
I have to let the visible demonstrations and manifestations of His faithfulness in my daily life sink down deep… and this requires practice, intentionality, and time.
Nourse, Elizabeth. La mère. 1888, oil on canvas, Cincinnati Art Museum.
Continued in Part 4: The Daily Help of Simple Wonders
Photo: Zieger, Philipp. Beauty. 2013. Flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND-2.0, 7 Feb. 2018.