If you are fearful and anxious, you may be able to mask it very well for years, as I did. In fact, you may mask it so well that you don’t even recognize it as being a problem, but it will eventually catch up with you and affect your emotional, spiritual and physical well being.
Once I recognized my own anxiety, I began to see it everywhere, in everyone. Interestingly, it has been easiest to see in the children I am around. As we mature, most of us learn to tamp down our anxiety so it’s invisible to the world—and often to ourselves—but children have not yet learned that skill.
When I pointed out some poison ivy to a young boy, he was suddenly uncontrollably itchy all over, even though we were nowhere near it, and he hadn’t touched it. I thought this was ridiculous until I began thinking about how I often do the same thing. For example, when a friend of mine found out she had cancer, I began experiencing some of the symptoms she had, causing me all sorts of unnecessary fear. As Michel de Montaigne, an influential writer of the French Resistance, said, “He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears.”
When a 3-year-old wouldn’t go into my basement because there might be lions down there, I laughed at the ridiculousness of her irrational fear. But then I began thinking about all the times I’d imagined someone lurking in a dark alley waiting to spring at me. In a sense, our fears are not different at all.
Fear and worry are nothing new, but today our knowledge of all the bad that is happening in the world multiplies our anxiety exponentially. We have informational access to all the disasters of the world but are limited by time and space to do anything about them. We are bombarded daily with needs we can’t meet and evil we can’t comprehend.
All these fears run amok when we start a family and become responsible for other tiny humans who seem so vulnerable and easily wounded. As parents, we can become frightened beyond all reason as we try to protect these fragile creatures given to our care. We fear our children will come to physical or emotional harm.
We fear we will ultimately not be good parents and will fail them. We fear they will wander from the faith or choose a lifestyle far from the one we want them to live. We fear the world they will inherit and the trials they will have to face. We fear they will make bad choices, choose the wrong friends, become bad people, marry the wrong person, pick the wrong job . . . in other words, we are afraid they will make many of the same mistakes we’ve made.
But in spite of all the valid reasons to worry, it’s a problem when we take on those anxieties as our own and carry their weight. As Steve Maraboli says in Life, the Truth, and Being Free, “Your fear is 100% dependent on you for its survival.”
And are we ever good at keeping it alive!
We may have valid fears, such as how we’ll be able to pay our bills or how to keep our children from running into traffic. But even those fears can get away from us. Fear in general, both rational and irrational, tends to gain a life of its own and run at full speed, dragging us along with it. When it has us in its grip, it makes us feel out of control, as if we are hanging on to a runaway horse. We clutch it with all our might and hope and pray we won’t fall off.
Yes, there are things that rightfully cause anxiety in this life, but often those things get blown out of proportion if we camp on them. We take something that is a valid worry and blow it up to huge proportions. Then we build our home on it, making it the foundation of our waking and sleeping hours. Nothing we do is outside of that worry and it dominates our thoughts, even when we are carrying out our everyday duties.
We tend to not only grab onto fear but feed it, as if it’s a hungry tiger that can never be satiated. In the idle places of our minds, we let it take hold and slowly take over more and more of our inner thoughts.
I love the humor with which Jodi Picoult approaches anxiety in her book Sing You Home: “Anxiety’s like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you very far.”
And yet, we rock like mad.
So What’s the Answer?
The first step is to recognize our fears and anxieties. Only when we see them for what they are can we begin to put them in their proper place. Yann Martel wrote a book called Life of Pi, which is a fictional tale about a man stuck in a small boat with a tiger. The main character of this tale says:
“I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always . . . so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”
So, the first step is to recognize the fears that have become so wrapped around our personalities that we don’t even acknowledge them anymore. Unless we face them squarely, we punch vaguely at the air, trying to fight what we sense is there—but since we have no idea what they are, we’re just wasting energy.
But how do we do that? How do we pull up the roots of fear that have so firmly embedded themselves in our hearts and minds that we can’t even imagine existing without them?
They have become so central to our daily existence that the mere thought of ridding ourselves of them causes us to fret. As a result, our lives become consumed with anxiety. It is the master, and we are the helpless servants.
We must pull up those roots. For many of us, they are so deep that we have no idea how to begin untangling them from our daily thoughts. That was the case in my life. I needed to set aside 40 days to concentrate on and untangle those roots.
If you are like me and suffer from fear and anxiety, you have probably read a lot about it. You recognize the truth of what various writers say, and yet you struggle with how to implement their wisdom. If that is the case, taking 40 days to uproot this muddle is reasonable. After all, it’s taken a lifetime to grow your anxiety, so it makes sense that it will take a concerted effort over time to untangle the mess you’ve made.
So, you need to pull up roots, but you also need to become intimately aware of who God is and what he wants to do in your life. Only as you turn over your fears to a God who loves you and cares for you will you have freedom from the anxieties that plague you.
Over 40 days, you can take a closer look at the misconceptions you’ve had about God and face the fact that you’ve been trying to take his job, living under the illusion that you can actually master your fears and worries on your own. You can do this without my book No More Fear to keep you focused and on track, but it may be helpful.
Corrie ten Boom, a woman whose writings have had a profound effect on my life, said, “Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength—carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” She was able to say this in spite of being interned in the Nazi concentration camp where her sister died.
As you embark on this journey of overcoming your fear and anxiety, embrace the dichotomy of Frederick Buechner’s wisdom in his book Beyond Words: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
Excerpted from No More Fear: 40 days to overcome worry.
So much truth here about how anxiety feels to those of us who have it, who live with it. Thanks for the advice and encouragement to take time to untangle our roots.
Thanks for this wise article, JoHannah.
This is such a powerful post, JoHannah and so deeply true for so many people. thanks.