“What am I afraid of?”
I have been thinking about this question for awhile and must admit that for a very long time whenever I started to write something I froze. (I started writing this in August 2021.) Like many, I had been experiencing panic attacks/spells of anxiety with variable frequency. Sometimes the trigger is obvious and I know exactly why I am feeling the chest tightness, the racing heartbeat, and what seems to my mind’s eye a vast and impenetrable wall of blinding dread. But sometimes it seizes me unexpectedly and leaves me gripping the kitchen countertop, staring at the water streaming down from the faucet and wondering why I cannot move, cannot breathe, cannot finish washing the stupid dishes that pile ever higher in a stack of Sisyphean futility.
Some days it feels silly, like today as I am writing this in idyllic weather, the breeze gentle and the hysterics of my children charming or at least only mildly annoying. I feel well rested, I am not in distress, and so I think I am happy… or at least I tell myself that is what this feeling is.
And then there are days like today when I think about bad things. I have only recently begun my forties and every now and then I pause to wonder how many similarly aged men have watched another human being die unexpectedly. Then I wonder how many have ever feared for their own life, because it took me a while to realize that watching someone else die and fearing for your own life are two different things. Then I wonder how many have lived through multiple episodes of wondering if they would die today, or tomorrow, or next Tuesday, or in a month even if they weren’t sick or injured. Yet.
When I first wrote these words, the ones you are reading now, I stopped writing because the familiar tightness and panic began to rise in my chest. Now I am writing two years later, picking up this post again and, though the attacks have subsided, the memory lingers.
One of my favorite shows is Firefly, an eccentric and poignant space opera. The humor is goofy and often unpredictable, though one character, River, is that way because she was experimented on. Her brother, a physician, notes the area of her that has been tampered with:
They stripped her amygdala…You know how you get… scared… or worried or nervous, but you don’t want to be scared… or worried or nervous, so you push it to the back of your mind. You try not to think about it. Your amygdala is what lets you do that. It’s like… a filter in your brain that keeps your feelings in check. She feels everything. She can’t not.
That is how it felt for a long time, as if there was no filter to the reception of emotion. I spent decades of my life working through the discipline of being compassionate, of learning to suffer with another person, and it seemed as if in doing so I had opened up the floodgates damming (damning?) a pain and terror so pervasive and penetrating that it has inevitably now become intrusive.
And so I became afraid.
Ed Welch has defined trauma as “death coming near”: not just the possibility of bodily harm, but the entanglement of evil that it seethes with. Our modern vocabulary seems so flimsy these days in its glib and often mocking overuse of those words – evil, ded, 💀- that we are numb and cynical to it… until the moments of dread, of existential unspeakable numbness we struggle to name.
Yea, even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…
I do not understand this verse or this psalm at all. I have heard it as cliche and as desperate comfort, but never as the triumph and confidence it purports and that I want so badly. Who walks through the shadow of all the terror of this world and does not fear? Part of me struggles to believe this because I am afraid that the moment I do, something more horrific than I have yet been able to imagine will enter my life and test me. But really, what I struggle to believe are not so much the power of evil as the verses that follow:
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
In therapy what I have found is my struggle is not with the existence of evil but in believing the existence of a God who is more powerful than evil yet allows its devastation while bringing protection and comfort in its midst. I cannot understand the proximity of it all, that all these things can walk within the shadows of each other.
Over the past year I have been very slowly working through Tish Harrison Warren’s book Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep. It is a beautiful and ordinary book whose prose is sometimes so piercingly prescient that I have to pause and dwell on its meaning even while I am driving, eating, lying in bed, breathing. It centers around an old Anglican prayer and yet was published in 2020, and in my work that constantly careens between the terror of death and the staidness of chronic debility, reading it has felt like slowly unwrapping the gift of perspective.
Human bodies are glorious. The fact that our joints stay (for the most part) well-oiled and our lungs keep breathing decade after decade—for some of us, way past warranty—is a wonder, a commonplace miracle. The human body is more spectacular and intricate than anything else in the world. But we almost never notice it. We take it for granted until it doesn’t work. Only then do we glimpse the kind of abundant mercy found on an ordinary week with a functioning body. Many of us—not all—have known moments when our bodies worked just as they should. We’ve tasted the ocean on our lips, known the rapture of a perfectly ripe peach, felt the happy soreness of summiting a mountain. Sickness, both slight and serious, is a diminishment of the glory for which we were made. The lush flavor of life replaced by the stale fluorescence of a hospital room or the dimness of a bleary day in bed. So when we pray that God would tend the sick, we are praying that God will bring his tenderness, and even abundance, into this specific kind of human diminishment. But when we pray for the sick we also remember the glory for which we are made. We recall that our health is a gift. It cannot be earned. It will not be constant. Any wellness we have will eventually give way. But we receive our bodies, day by day, with gratitude. In them we taste the fall, that things are broken and not yet made new. The reaper pulls us over for a warning. But our bodies will be made eternal. They will rise from the dust in fleshy solidity, their glory permanently undiminished. So we also taste the promise of heaven in the goodness of our bodies. In this meantime, our flesh and blood is suspended between our defeat and our rescue, between fall and resurrection. We glimpse it all in our very cells. And in this tension and suspense, we learn to groan to God in our fragility, to lift trembling hands to God when we have no words, to meet God in our sinuses and skin. We learn to pray to the God who tends us.
On the precipice of a New Year, there are plenty of things to fear. I would be lying to say I am without anxiety in thinking of the next 365 or even 30 days. But I am slowly learning that, despite what it is I feel – the quickening of pulse and breathing and tension – that the objective reality, whether perceptible or not, is that I am tended to and that I am loved.