Sometimes I feel as though fear and worry have entered my head like a pair of spiders and spun a web of anxiety that catches hold of my other emotions––my hopes and dreams as well––keeping them all stuck until they’re sucked lifeless. Fear is not always the primary emotion. Quite often it is mixed with other hues and colors––the grayed blue of sadness or a fiery shade of anger.
My fear is inversely proportional to my faith. If I believed more (in God, others, myself) I’m sure I’d worry less. Too often I am so focused on some frightful, imagined future, that I am blind to the benefits and blessings of the present. I worry about today’s decisions because I am trying to protect myself (or someone else) from some future consequence that isn’t guaranteed to occur. I’ve replaced the imaginary friends of my youth with many imaginary outcomes (and they’re almost always ominous).
I let fear and worry get in my way a lot. They hold me back from making decisions and changes or taking risks. What I fear is often hypothetical (and unlikely), but even knowing that, I still see it as an obstacle. And if I don’t overcome it, trepidation keeps me immobilized when I need to start making progress.
What do I fear? I fear loosing more of my loved ones. I’m afraid that I’m too insecure and too over-confident. I fear that my right leg will always be smaller than my left. I fear that I will fail in achieving my dreams—and that my failure will not be the result of rejection or a lack of ability, but of defeating myself with weapons of self destruction—that I’ll talk myself out of trying. I fear that I don’t know the way. And while I suspect God is calling me to focus on and follow the sound of his voice, I fear I’m not really listening. I’m afraid that I’m afraid of too many things, and that my fears get in the way of my living.
Sometimes I’m afraid of failure; sometimes I’m afraid of success. I’m as fearful of being utterly miserable as I am of being blissfully content. When things are going well for me, I worry that the good will end abruptly or that it will elicit jealousy from others. When things are bleak, frustrating, or disappointing, I fear that it will always be like this.
I’m afraid of the dark—the type of dark that’s so complete is leaves no room for shadows. I’m afraid that I, myself, am the biggest obstacle standing in my way. I’m afraid that I don’t really know what I want—or that what I want is bad or wrong for me. I fear that fear will rob me of my other feelings.
I’m afraid of rats, roaches, skydiving, being in a serious car accident, going to outer space, submerging in a submarine, putting my head in an MRI machine, and loosing my car keys. (I don’t have a spare set.) I’m also afraid of being robbed, witnessing a shooting, and being convicted of a crime I didn’t commit. I used to be afraid of falling into a pit of quicksand, but I’ve come to realize the unlikelihood of that.
My two cats (Carrie and Mr. Big) have taught me a few things about fear and overcoming it. When I first brought them home, I had to mediate a peaceful encounter between them and Joey, my sister’s dog. My initial instinct was to hold the kittens and let Joey approach them. I tried with Mr. Big first.
My method failed, and I soon figured out why. I knew the kittens would be safe in my arms and that Joey wasn’t a threat to them, but they didn’t. I then realized it made more sense to hold Joey back because he already knew and trusted me. So for attempt number two, I wrapped my arms around Joey to keep him stationary, and let the kittens comes as close as they dared to. Within minutes, Carrie and Joey were fast friends. Mr. Big, somewhat scarred (emotionally) from my failed experiment, eventually came around as well.
This is what I learned from that: Always give the more fearful thing the freedom of flight. When introducing two non-equals (e.g., a dog and a kitten), hold the “beast” back. Sometimes I wonder if God does this for us. I suspect that when we find ourselves up against a brutish reality and we feel vulnerable and exposed—as though God’s hands aren’t under or around us, it is because He is holding back our enemy and giving us the freedom to move. We can flee, we see that God has bound our adversary, or we can approach and realize the monster we once feared is benign or just a big, friendly puppy.
I have to regularly remind myself that God is much bigger than any of my fears or other mental demons. Nothing is beyond His reach or His power. The worst I can imagine isn’t more than God can handle—and it’s also very unlikely to happen.
I don’t want to live in fear. On the surface it looks like I’m being practical, but sometimes “being practical” is just a shiny façade covering over fear and dulled faith. I don’t want to remain boxed in by the weakness of my belief or shackled by my limited view of what’s possible. I don’t want fear to be the part of my imagination that I have the easiest time believing or that gets the most use.
I don’t know what is out there behind each of my fears and worries or beyond the limits of what I can see and dream, but I have a feeling that only by leaping will I acquire the faith the leap.
While watching The Monuments Men the other day I entered a morbid stream of thought. Matt Damon’s character accidentally stepped onto a land mine. His comrades then tried to rig a system that would (hopefully) let him step off of it without causing an explosion. But just in case they were all about to be blown to smithereens, he wanted to make sure he told them what an honor it had been serving alongside them. And that got me thinking on a slightly off-topic tangent: What compels us to give the imminently dying (new) information? What about atheists? Do they think there’s anything a person facing death needs to know?
How is mortality viewed through the lens of atheism? (And not being one myself, I claim no authority of knowledge on the subject.) What do atheists think about when they think about the aftermath of death? If you believe nothing (literally) follows life, does it matter to you how you die? Does it matter if someone passes away alone or surrounded by loved ones? Does it matter if it’s painless or if it hurts? Is it important for dying people to know that they’re loved, that you’re sorry, or that “it” wasn’t their fault? And if yes, why so?
If you completely cease to be (think, feel, sense, remember) with your dying breath and final heartbeat, why should it matter if your last living moments are harrowing or pleasant? You can’t take it with you—not the sight of your loved ones gathered by your bed, not their professions of love, not your physical anguish, not even the fact that you’re still mad at whomever. If atheists believe death leads to absolutely nothing, does that differently color their view of living and dying? Is it hard to place value on something that will one day completely cease to be—even if that something is a human being?
Even as a Christian I sometimes wonder why I exist. I’m not sure I’d see my value as an atheist. Where would I find the meaning—the imperative—of life? I can think of only two main options. I could choose to live for myself and seek out all the world’s pleasures, but the minute I died it would all cease to be relevant. If I instead chose the altruistic route, I’d being doing good for people who were all going to die and become nothings too.
I’m not saying God and Heaven must be real because I find the alternative too bleak. (Although, if I do turn out to be wrong, I don’t see how it hurts me.) I simply believe. Sometimes I know God is real without being certain. Occasionally He feels like an imaginary friend that a bunch of us have in common. But even when I doubt, I find myself asking Him to help me believe. Even if my faith is sometimes shaky, its roots run deep.
Being a Christian doesn’t mean I’m completely calm about the hereafter. Sometimes the idea of eternity is enough to give me a panic attack—both the idea of an eternity of nothing and one spent in Heaven. If I sit with the idea of forever for too long, the air’s texture starts to change and I begin to wish I could momentarily turn my brain off.
Eternity is simply too big for me to comprehend—whether thinking about time going forwards or backwards. Sometimes when I’m half awake in the middle of the night the idea of forever fills my whole being with dread. I can only imagine what’s milling about in an atheist’s head—if I’m expecting an eternity in paradise and the idea of forever is still sometimes frightening to me.
My fears and doubts also make me wonder if atheists hope they’re wrong or want to be right. Because if all existence ends in a void—if death is to life what a black hole is to light, knowing that ahead of time doesn’t earn anyone a prize.
I can’t prove that God is real. I admit I even have my doubts. But I also can’t erase my belief—even if my faith is flawed. Sometimes I find myself hoping in more than believing in God. But my uncertainty doesn’t deplete my faith; it makes me pray for more.
There have been times in my life when a major decision has roiled before me like a whirlpool. I’ve stood on the shores of choice paralyzed, unable to proceed for fear that I’d drown. There are times when I have put too much stock and weight into a decision—dressed it up to look more important than it really is. I’ve made hill decisions into mountains—enlarged a drop-sized choice until it looked like an ocean.
Some decisions are mammoth and (hopefully) long lasting: Should I marry this man? Will I have children? What do I believe in? Others are simply daunting: What do I want to be now that I’ve grown up? Should I pursue my passion as my profession, or make it a hobby? Will my dreams enter my reality? Or is it time to wake up?
Sometimes I’ve found the choice I have to make overwhelming. Instead of viewing decisions as steps along my life’s journey, I’ve feared them—made them out to be cages that would imprison me for eternity. Seeing a choice as a cage can be counterproductive. It creates the illusion that more than what really exists is as stake. Few decisions can’t be changed or unmade.
After a recent conversation, I’ve been reflecting on decisions—namely, how I’ve made them. As I look back on some of the larger decisions I’ve made over the course of my life, I notice three main paths to personal resolution: I’ve told a lie that sounded good, so I made it the truth. Like Gideon, I’ve laid my woolen fleece on the ground and waited for the dew. And sometimes (I wish more often) I’ve just known in my gut what I needed to do.
A Lie I Made Come True: I was twenty-one and living in Massachusetts when my mother died. A few days after the funeral, I left my grieving family in New York, and tried to resume my life in Boston. Then someone asked me if I planned to move back to Brooklyn. Until she posed the question, I hadn’t given moving back the slightest thought. But I felt guilty saying that, so I lied. I told her that I was going to finish the school year (I was a teacher then), take stock of how my family was doing, and then make my decision.
When I said it, my reply was a lie. I had no intention of moving back to New York (though I wondered how much longer I could manage driving from Boston to Brooklyn and back every weekend). After I said it, however, my lie started to make sense, and so that’s exactly what I did. And somewhere between September and May, I made the decision to move back into the house I grew up in to be physically and emotionally present for my family indefinitely.
My Wool Fleece: I found the college application process utterly overwhelming. Every aspect of it was daunting. I had no idea where I wanted to go. (I just knew that I needed to go far enough away to feel as though I’d left home.) I’d never been judged by strangers in such an intimate way—strangers peering into so many facets of my life—judging my transcript, judging my essays, judging me and everything I’d done up to that point. Failure to impress never seemed so possible.
During one of my interviews, I was asked to open a window. I was already feeling inadequate because I couldn’t remember Walt Whitman. My interviewer had previously referenced “barbaric yawp,” and asked who coined the phrase. Having read Leaves of Grass not more than a semester or two ago, I could completely recreate in my mind the look and feel of my well-worn copy—the black and white cover photograph, the pale yellow border, his bearded face, my copious notes written in the margins with my then favorite pen (a blue, fine tip, Pilot better ball point stick). I could remember everything about Walt Whitman except for the one thing the interviewer asked me—his name.
And so there I was, feeling defeated, answering subsequent questions with one part of my brain while the other part ran through the catalog of authors we’d read at the same time: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and…and…AND? And then I found myself trying to open a particularly (dare I say defiantly) uncooperative window, and failing.
So while part of my brain was still trying to mine Whitman’s name from the caverns of my memory, the other part was worrying that this window opening request was really a test to see if I understood the basic leverage principles of physics, or had the observational skills to notice that the window was in fact locked (or painted shut) and so couldn’t be opened, or some cruel psychological experiment to study my response to the stress of perceived failure. In the end, I got the window open (with the interviewer’s help), I remembered Whitman’s name (after what felt like an eternity), and I wasn’t at all surprised when the college sent me a rejection letter.
All that to say, I felt overwhelmed by the college application process—every nook and cranny of it was a colossal chore. When I received four acceptance letters, I was almost disappointed. A part of me yearned for the simplicity of having only one option. Not knowing which way to go, I decided to lay my fleece before God. I knew that any private college’s tuition would be beyond my family’s means, so I made my fleece about money. I asked God to choose my college for me. How would I recognize His choice? It would be the school that gave me the most generous financial aid package. One college offered me next to nothing, two offered standard scholarships, but the fourth blew the other three out of the water and into orbit. My choice was simple at that point.
A Gut Feeling: When you know, you know. Sometimes my gut feeling is one of comfort, confidence, and peace. Sometimes it’s the absence of angst—or simply not feeling as though I’m fighting against the current. Where is the evidence? Where is the data? There is none. There’s just this feeling—this knowledge whose source is vague and intangible.
I used to be afraid of getting proposed to before I was ready with my answer. But by the time my husband proposed, I knew he would get a yes—make that a YES! If I had to say why, I could come up with lists. I could say that being around him (keeping in mind I’m an introvert) is as easy as being with myself. I could list all his finer points, our common interests, his sense of humor, and how fully he accepts every part of me (even the illogical, OCD, nerdy, awkward bits). I could tell you that he complements me by being strong in areas where I’m weak, and that he isn’t intimidated by my strengths. I could give you many quantitative reasons, but that would be like confusing the symptoms for the disease. My head didn’t choose him, a deeper part of me did. The decision to marry my husband started as a small seed of comfort and peace. And by the time he got down on one knee, it was a deeply rooted tree of knowledge, assurance, and certainty.
You are a luminous being. The stars seem dim in your light. There is infinite depth to your character. You love like the sun shines.
You are an expansive bridge—a span of great distance and height. You connect me to myself. You carry me across every divide.
You are an inextinguishable fire. Your love is the spark, the fuel, and the fan that feeds the blaze. You consume me with love. You burn like no other flame.
You speak to me without making a sound. Your softest whisper reverberates like a shout. There is power in every word that leaves your tongue. You connect with parts of me so deep, I’m barely aware of them.
You defend me against enemies—even those that can’t be seen. You protect, reinforce, and uphold me. When I am at my weakest, I best see how strong you are. When I collapse under life’s pressures, you carry me on.
I cannot see or touch your face. But I feel your presence in every place. I cannot prove (and sometimes doubt) that you are there. But this world is too grand an entity to have been created by no one and nothing—just spontaneously generated out of less than thin air.
I see your design in a sunrise, a mountain, or a leaf. I am in awe of the ocean. I marvel at a flower’s intricacy.
You are the epitome of love.
You are the meaning of life.
You are the answer to “the big question.”
You are the reason why.
Growing up without much money, I’ve had many opportunities to witness how much God gives. Even though my father was still in law school at the time, my parents were able to buy the home I grew up in without … Continue reading
When we were children they told us to dream big and chase the impossible. Then we reached a certain age, and they made us put our dreams and toys away and asked us to be practical. When we were young, we thought the grown-ups were the free ones—they didn’t have to take naps or do homework, they were free to stay out and up past our bedtime, free to make their own decisions, and able to have donuts for breakfast. We had no idea that with age comes new impositions, rules, and limits. Some are for our own well-being, but others (a nefarious brood) cloak themselves in practicality (like wolves in sheep’s wool), slowly wrench our dreams from us, and then devour them.
When we were kids, everyone encouraged and nourished our dreams. They bought us stethoscopes and fire trucks. We were taken to piano lessons and ballet classes. We were allowed to paint with our hands and have imaginary friends. We were free to be ridiculous, to have tea parties with stuffed animals, intentionally stomp in rain puddles, be afraid of the dark, and believe in things no one else could see (like the monsters lurking in the land beneath our bed).
Now, most of us color inside the lines of our life, if we’re even allowing ourselves to live with color—as so many of us are committed to seeing everything in black and white. We keep what we believe private, only sharing it with those we trust most. We treat our faith like an imaginary friend, something we were expected to outgrow, but didn’t. We’re afraid to tell certain people we believe in God—fearing they’ll think less of us, think us to be unintelligent or gullible (like a teenager who still believes in Santa Claus).
When did we stop dreaming with childlike abandon? Perhaps when we started paying rent, we let responsibility and practicality move in and choke our dreams to death. Or maybe we pruned our dreams down until they were small enough to sit inconspicuously on a shelf. We let them grow only this tall and this big, restricting them like bonsai trees. And what a shame that is. Dreams, like trees, aren’t meant to exist in miniature, they’re supposed to grow big—big enough to be a shelter, big enough to yield fruit, big enough to climb, big enough to live in.
And when did faith become immature—an intellectual liability relegated to the naive and uneducated? Haven’t enough intelligent minds professed their belief in God for the “cool kids” sitting at the atheists’ table to stop snickering and passing notes of judgment? If we can let children believe in the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, can’t we also accept that some adults believe that everything we know as this world did not arise accidentally from the galactic equivalent of a messy sneeze?
I want to be an adult who isn’t ashamed of my faith in God, who doesn’t treat Him like Santa Claus, Aladdin’s genie, or an imaginary friend. I want to be an adult who dreams like a child, and then has the inner freedom and power to back those dreams up. I don’t want to have dreams that I’ve crammed into flowerpots like bonsai trees; I want a fully functioning, fully-grown (and yet still growing) dream forest. I want to be the grown-up that tells kids not just to dream big, but to never give up dreaming. And while I won’t have donuts for breakfast, it’s only because I prefer bagels.
When I was a child, I couldn’t wait until my legs were long enough to touch the floor when I was sitting on the subway. And I wanted to be tall enough to hold on to the subway bar when … Continue reading