Last summer, my extended family got away for a week to our favorite beach just below Beaufort, South Carolina. We rested, played games, and ate shrimp boil poured out over newspaper. We also squabbled over too many people in the kitchen at once, as folks do when they have to temporarily share a beach house with multiple family units. It was a grand time. One evening, we experienced one of the strongest beach thunderstorms of my memory. I sat with my tween daughter, trying to convince her we wouldn’t in fact be struck by lightning, and hoping she’d rally enough to keep playing Mexican Train with the rest of us.
Sometimes I get into real tug-of-war battles with her anxiety and this time was no exception. My rational tension tries to pull her into better coping; her acute awareness pulls right back. Mid-sentence about the low probability of being struck by lightning, she stopped me. “Mom, you don’t know for sure that we won’t be. Why are you telling me that we definitely won’t get hurt when you can’t promise that?” She was right. I was trying to reduce her fear by promising predictability that I had no power to produce. The only way to win her in that moment was to acknowledge the possibility, tenderly witness and ask about the specifics that she was afraid of, and ask her what she’d like to do in the meantime to comfort herself as she waited for the storm to pass. I needed to normalize, move toward her alarm system, and then show her that she still had some choice.
With smart, astute, or sensitive kids, it does not work to shepherd their fear with pressure to regulate or promises that it will be ok. The very thing that creates the fear in the first place–in them, but really also in us–is the gap between what we identify as danger or exposure and the inability to ensure safety and peace. Risk is what brings tension, and some of us are great at noticing risk.
Maybe noticing it has kept us prepared or made us feel wise. Living braced for the worst promises to steel us against the unexpected, against what could hurt. In A Praying Life, Paul Miller writes “anxiety wants to be God, but lacks God’s wisdom, power or knowledge. A godlike stance without godlike character and ability is pure tension. Because anxiety is self on its own, it tries to get control.” We feel confused by the suffering around us. It seems like lack of protection, so we question whether any protection is really there.
This is how anxiety works and grows; it pounces upon things that we cannot prove. It stares at potential outcomes that we’re not going to be able to totally predict and control. It leaves us unwilling to live without a guarantee. But if we’re going to live meaningfully at all, the only way forward is to place one foot on ground in front of us, the best way we know how in that moment. Frederick Buechner tells us, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” The tension of slowly stringing together a life of beauty in a place where terrible things happen, a place that our bodies know isn’t actually home, is really hard to bear. Much mercy is needed.
What could make us willing to keep going without guarantee? The presence of a perfect parent who tenderly witnesses, acknowledges our groans, has patience, and reminds us of the limited choices we do have? Choosing to trust Him, to ask for our daily bread, to stop fighting our inability to predict and live a day at a time? There is good ground still out there in front of us, as well as thunderstorms. There will be trouble and shelter, loneliness and community, ache and manna. We can live inside the security of his wing, as we navigate the very real insecurity in front of us. There will always be enough of our Father’s presence for the next patch of ground.
Meredith joined The Barnabas Center staff in January 2009, upon completing her Masters in Counseling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and her Bachelors in Religion and Psychology from Furman University. She counsels, leads women’s groups and teaches a seminar called “Hope in the Darkness” for those walking with individuals suffering from depression or bipolar disorder.
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