|At the gate, waiting for our plane to board|
When 2014 was new, my parents told Amore and me that they wanted to take each of their daughters on a special trip. Terza’s family had chosen Walt Disney World, since Rocky and the Thunder Twins were just old enough to appreciate it, so we needed to consider where we’d like to go.
Amore was excited, but then I suspect he secretly keeps a packed carry-on and passport in the back of his office closet “just in case.” (You can take the boy out of the mission field, but you can’t take the mission field out of the boy.) I, on the other hand, was mostly panicked. Those who have followed my travel attempts since 2010 can understand why, in my rheumatologist’s words, I might “seem to have a little travel-related post-traumatic stress going on here.”
But this was important to the three other people involved, which made it important to me, and my rational self knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Amore immediately started researching the most exotic, rugged wilderness locations in North America. After burying my head in the sand a while, I asked a well-traveled friend for suggestions we could all 4 enjoy. Based on an extended family vacation of her own, she recommended an Alaskan cruise. With a balcony room, beautiful scenery would be accessible from our own cabin for anyone who needed to stay and rest, but the wide range of excursion options would accommodate more active inclinations too.
We booked passage for the May 2015, made airline reservations, renewed passports, and began thinking through what we had and what we lacked for the trip. My doctors all approved, but as the journey approached and tasks began to be checked off our list, my anxiety only increased. When unforeseen circumstances postponed our journey until September, the delay only worsened the worry cycle.
Three times in 2 months we planned to visit Amore’s family a couple of hundred miles away; my health or pain level postponed the visit twice, and the third time he went without me. How would I manage a couple of thousand miles away, and outside the lower 48 states, no less? Yet I was ashamed and lonely in my anxiety, chastising myself for ingratitude.
In addition, several ongoing situations left me worried about being out of touch with the home front for 2 weeks. Besides that, we’d never left the Ebony Dog or Wits’ End for that long; the last time we were away from home for 15 days was for a mission trip to Southeast Asia in 2000, before those trials had arisen, when all we had was a 1 bedroom apartment of borrowed furniture, and my dog Steinway was already in the care of my parents, in preparation for our imminent overseas move. At that time I was running 4 to 6 miles a day and only had one chronic illness, which we knew how to manage and did not pose a difficulty with travel.
The final months before the cruise included emergencies in every single area of concern, and some I hadn’t thought to worry about. None of them caused lasting or life-changing harm, but they only fueled my fears. My good ankle swelled up without any inciting trauma, resulting in the same diagnosis the other ankle has had for 3 years. Both my sisters and a brother-in-law moved and changed jobs. My mother and I both suffered painful falls. A nephew had a swimming accident that was 20 underwater seconds away from tragedy. (He’s fine, and it was astonishingly, graciously minor in hindsight, after the initial, fraught 48 hours.) Even though being home didn’t prevent any of them, it felt more right to be with hurting family members in person and by phone, to take Ebony to the vet myself for his first-ever back problem and work out the needed behavior modifications, and to be able to check the back garden morning and evening after the watering timer broke and turned the lawn into a swamp. I feared being out of touch for 2 weeks and returning to find those I love had been suffering without me even knowing how to pray. Sometimes a vivid imagination can be a blessing, but where worry is concerned, it’s definitely a liability.
This is not a how-to-beat-anxiety post, in the event you’re still reading and hadn’t figured that out yet. If anything, it’s a how-I-was-anxious-and-the-Lord-rescued-me-in-spite-of-myself post. God-sized challenges, some much bigger than a cruise, have not stopped since our return, and I need to remember how He got me through this one as a means of grace to (please, Lord) get from fear to faith sooner next time.
- Recollect. The Lord graciously used a sermon clip to remind me of Lloyd-Jones's words on the merits of talking to oneself, and I realized they exactly described what I’d been doing: listening to myself instead of talking to myself. As I began reminding myself of the Scriptures I knew and the Bible stories of impossible victories in times past, the words, “Courage, dear heart!” bubbled up again and again in my soul. My concordance didn’t reveal anywhere in the Bible for that precise phrase, so I asked Google, which pointed me to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. (Lewis. Of course it would be Lewis.) My body and hands were too full of duties to read it all in search of that one phrase, so I listened as I worked, and in listening discovered the passage and the treasure in that phrase.
- Recognize and repent. One lesson the Lord has been teaching me in the last few years is that an immediate impulse to fear in response to an actual threat may be a biological process I can’t control and an emotion I cannot extinguish, but what I do from there is my choice and responsibility.
If I take the fear and threat straight to God and lay hold of His grace to exercise the will His Spirit rules to fill my mind with truth that will eventually replace the fear with peace, all is well. If, however, I take the fear to my imagination, if I coddle and indulge it so that it spirals into catastrophizing, I sin. If I allow the fear, especially fear of a threat which only yet exists in my imagination, to persuade me not to obey God’s will, I sin. If I let fear restrain me from loving my neighbor, I sin.
Once the Lord illumined the fact that I was sinning in my indulgence of an anxiety that could only bring selfishness and retreat from God’s path, I saw how ugly it was and turned from the fear to the Lord. Or perhaps I should say “began turning,” for it was at least a daily need to turn my heart toward Him and away from fear’s bullying taunts.
- Remember. Remembrance is one gracious means of abiding in an attitude of repentance and faith. The Scriptures both model this and provide content for remembrance. Starting there primed the pump for my personal remembrance of the “memorial stones” God has raised in my life, and there have been plenty of God-sized challenges in which He has shown Himself strong on my behalf. To help with this I ordered a pendant from Etsy with the simple words, “Courage, dear heart.” The weight of it on my chest reminded me of God’s invitation to trust Him.
- Request. I admitted my powerlessness and anxiety and asked for help, from God first and from a few trusted friends second. “Show up and show off, Lord. I can’t do this unless you do.”
- Respond with resolve. Taking a deep breath and stepping forward into the actions God had assigned to me, saturating every step with prayer, helped prepare the way for whatever “adventure Aslan would send” and also helped calm my anxiety. Planning was able to mitigate some of my concerns and make arrangements in advance for my known medical problems in case my joints behaved badly or medications had to be replaced onboard ship despite every safeguard.
Every time fear reared its ugly head, God’s grace enabled me toward fresh resolve to trust Him and open my hands to His will. If that meant this voyage would be more painful than pleasant, repentance and remembrance enabled me to pray, “Thy will be done,” and to recognize that His presence would drive out fear in the deep waters, fiery trials, and dark valleys, just as much as in clear skies and blue waters. Unbelief is worse than pain, if He is with me in the pain.
- Rallying cry. Finally, over and over again, when fear threatened or my body wasn’t up to the day’s demands, I placed my hand on my chest or took the pendant in my fingers and whispered, “Courage, dear heart. Courage.” (Actually, this has outlasted the cruise.) And to the Lord, “Show up and show off, Lord. Your will be done.”
There’s my Ebenezer, Crumbles, my "Thus far the Lord has helped me." If you who are reading this feel anxious today, I pray God meets you through these words, if only to let you know that you aren’t alone in your fear and that He is big enough for your need.
May He give you grace and strength to recollect the need of talking to yourself, repent of giving fear its head, remember His ways and works, request help in prayer, respond with resolve and obedient trust, and rally your soul with the cry, "Courage, dear heart!"
In the next several posts, I look forward to sharing with you what God did on this journey last September and what I would have missed if He had not pulled me out of the paralysis of anxiety into obedience, whatever the outcome.