I don’t know about you, but just writing the word “anxiety” makes me anxious. It’s sort of like a virus. You see someone sneezing, try to escape the droplets spraying out, but still get the darn cold no matter what you do. I suspect fear and anxiety are somewhat the same: We catch them from others and we grow them inside ourselves as well.
My older brother has a dear stepdaughter attending Brandeis, and she was in lockdown for an entire day (as was all of Boston) during the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers. It was scary and anxious, and my usual ways of dealing with this fear didn’t seem to be working so well. I spent time on the phone with my brother and wife — texted a few million times — and watched the news obsessively to find out the last scrap of information in this white-knuckle search.
I thought about my vet friend who has seen four active tours of duty, was injured by an RPG, and is disabled with a mostly titanium leg. He knows all about anxiety — about jacking up your alertness to deal with danger and people who are intent on doing harm. The Boston bombings were very difficult for him, as for many vets, and the bloody images on TV brought up very bad memories.
So what does this have to do with welcoming anxiety? Am I insane? When frightened and in trembling bunny mode, one thing really works for me — besides making food for my honeys, drinking good wine, calling people on the phone, praying, going to church, and doing frantic laps on my Rosary — I do some Contemplative Prayer to calm my heart. Thomas Keating wrote,
If we are on the journey, we are in the kingdom. It is in bearing our weakness with compassion, patience, and without expecting all our ills to go away that we function best in a kingdom where the insignificant, the outcasts, and everyday life are the basic coordinates. The kingdom is in our midst.
Somehow, if I open my arms to anxiety and just let it in — like a jittery cat looking for a patch of sun to lie in — something happens. Something that is suspiciously like transformation. My nerves don’t hum quite so much. I feel more as if I can soldier on instead of running downstairs to find the Valerian bottle and chucking a couple into my mouth. If we accept our suffering and don’t try to push it away, that very act changes the way we respond.
Caryll Houselander, a British mystic, Catholic and writer who died in 1954, wrote about how she endured the air raids while living through World War II:
I was simply terrified, and it was my lot to be in every one that happened in London. I tried to build up my courage by reason and prayer … then one day I realized quite suddenly: As long as I try to not be afraid I shall be worse, and I shall show it one day and break…
She concludes that God is asking that she offer this suffering up to Him.
I agree that trying not to be afraid, trying not to be anxious, seems to make things worse. Once I unclench my jaw and let the anxiety and fear in, they somehow lose their claws. I hand over my anxiety to God and say, “You cope with this — you know what to do far more than I do.”
This may not work for you, but it does for me. And though whatever healing there will be after the terrible tragedy in Boston will take time and effort, there is a sense of relief for me in accepting what has happened. Now, I am going to go down and bake chocolate chip cookies, because baking sweet things always seems to help when my nerves are thrumming. I suspect that Caryll did not know that large hunks of butter mixed with chocolate chunks and sugar can calm the most anxious heart.