I used to think that the best way to handle stress was to ‘manage’ it well. What can I do to avoid stressful situations, relationships, or circumstances? How can I create a stress-free life? I mean, they do talk about that in some advertisements!
I tried all sorts of management strategies. I told myself it’s a calendar issue; I am doing too much; I am hanging out with the wrong people. I could manage my way out of this, so I read books about time management and goal setting. I read books about relationships, about conflict, about building safe relationships. I was going to manage my way out of stress. “I can control this,” I told myself, “I can fix it.”
Forty years later, I have concluded that my attempts to find a way to manage my life so that stress is largely eliminated has failed. FAILED! One wonders why I believed for as long as I did that such an approach was possible. But they do define insanity as doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result. Yet I did different things—lots of different things—and expected a different result. I bought new devices, got new apps, and consulted with experts. I tried so hard that my trying to create a less stressful life became stressful in and of itself.
So what do I do at this age and stage?
Well, I’ve shifted my thinking. I have concluded that stress is inevitable. I have also concluded that at some level it is unavoidable. Yes, I can do less, expect less, meditate more, pray more, address difficult people and demanding situations; but stress is coming one way or another.
But the hope now is not that I will control it, but that I allow it to take me somewhere. My natural inclination is to resist it, but I am slowly learning to let it take me to my limit of vulnerability, a place with I learn that I am ultimately not in control. I can do things to help, but often not enough to eliminate the causes, which often take me to questions inside my own soul.
Relationally, why am I so stressed out when people are disappointed in me? I mean, I feel shame, wonder if I’m a bad person, and question how I make decisions.
Task-wise, why do I get so stressed when I take on too much? I can beat myself up for the smallest failures to come through. And often, I am the only one who knew that I had intended to deliver at a certain time.
Yes, I am a people-pleaser. I find too much of my sense of self-worth in people liking me. But will I let that take me to Jesus? When I do, I find something strange. First, He often reminds me that wanting to love people is one of my greatest strengths, one of the places I take Him most seriously. Then He often confronts my idolatry – usually very gently. Once again, I feel this compulsive need for people to validate me, when He already has. Once again, I seek “life” in the creation rather than in the Creator (Romans 1:25). I don’t want to, but I keep going back to that empty cistern (Jeremiah 2:13).
Yes, I overcommit. I find too much of my value in accomplishing things, particularly in ways that please others. I remember hearing in college that if you want something done, find someone who is too busy and ask them. I remember deciding to become one of those people. Sadly, I succeeded. Yet God has used that driven-ness, but it has also damaged those whom I most love. By finding life in the creation, validation comes not from Jesus, but from checking things off my list. And it hurts others, it hurts me, and it hurts God. And that brings me back to my own sense of dependence on Him and His mercy.
Lent begins today. It is a season of preparation for the Greatest Week of our lives – Holy Week. This season I am reminded of how God knew my failures and my gross proclivity to make life work apart from Him, and yet He loved me (and you) enough to make a way home. His death for me and His life now in me make my own limitations and vulnerabilities more okay. In fact, those areas of stress prepare me for the gratitude I feel on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
So maybe my stress isn’t so bad for me after all! ☺
Palmer Trice is an ordained Presbyterian minister. He is married to Lynne, has three children and has been in Charlotte since 1979. In his spare time, Palmer enjoys golf, tennis, walking and reading.
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