joeSince I’m a parent of two small children, I watch a lot of crap TV. (This is, to be clear, different from the crap TV I used to watch of my own volition. See left.) And by “watch,” I mean, “check my phone/read while the kids watch.” But recently a plot point of an episode of Octonauts caught my attention. Please stay with me–I promise at least the potential of relatability.

The animal adventurers (I guess there’s a submarine? And they’re in some version of the Navy? Or something?) stumbled upon their twice-per-episode sea creature, and this particular example was a fish remarkable for getting trapped in tight spots when scared. As my head jerked up and my eyes glued to the screen, I thought, “I know that fish. I am that fish.”

Unbeknownst to my forest-for-the-trees mind until recently, I’ve suffered from an inarticulated anxiety all my life. I knew I was “Type A” and “high-strung” and “super-driven” and all the other names we lovingly give traits that carry a possibility of pathology, but it wasn’t until, as a new mom, I heard a podcast featuring another new mom discuss all her fears and insecurities and label them as a condition called anxiety that I realized I might need to call Houston. You know–’cause we had a problem and all.

9124987695_5976840488_c_0I might be forgiven for not jumping to label my foremost personality trait, given that from a young age I’d heard it preached, forebodingly, that worry is a sin. Delivered as simple instruction without the heft (and hope) of theological truth behind it–namely, that Jesus, in his perfect fulfillment of the Law, frees us to not sin while removing our blinders so that we see we always will–my reaction was (and this’ll tell you a lot about younger me) one of relief: if it’s a sin, I can choose not to do it! In other words, my debilitating inclination toward tension and fear and guilt could be broken by my own will! THE GOSPEL IS GOOD NEWS! (This wouldn’t be the first time I’d find comfort in my own willpower, or in the church’s–uncoincidentally made of humans–simplistic propensity to neatly distribute entire categories of behavior into controllable vices.)

Pause for a two-decade period leading to the actual Gospel. During these years, I constructed list upon list of rules–little-l laws–to keep that would perfect my holiness. Justify myself. Affirm my okay-ness. Some of them were tweaks of the big-L laws (covers, if you will) and some were originals, but all can be found on my Greatest Hits album, Earning My Salvation. There was “Thirty-Minute Daily Quiet Time,” “Yearly Mission Trip,” “Teacher’s Pet,” “Honor Roll,” and “No Sex Before Marriage.” Fast forward a few years and you have “Weekly Date Night,” “One Meal for the Family/No Substitutions for Toddlers,” and “No Kids in Our Bed, Ever.” No matter my growing understanding of grace–and its concomitant weakening of the power of my own performance–I found comfort in the rules I set and the security I subconsciously believed they provided.

rulesAt the end of my twenties, my personal life fell apart in the form of all of my friends finding partners while I remained single. My rules were cold comfort then, since I had kept them so well and was still always the bridesmaid. Once grace located me within my ensuing rebellion (I was in New York City, FYI) and preached its truth into my heart, I relaxed into my own helplessness and God’s sovereignty. But an anxiousness still nipped at my heels, and it kicked into overdrive once I had kids. Whether it was post-partum depression, baby blues, or regular depression, it set off a powerful reaction with my already-latent issues and left me feeling often overwhelmed and rarely calm. So I prayed. I did yoga. I read. I got counseled. I took Epsom salt baths, dammit. The anxiety persisted. I wondered if I needed help of the medicinal variety, which really pissed me off, because I hate taking pills and–even more than that–I hate being the kind of person who needs prescription-level help.

It’s possible that this lone-wolf, hero-of-my-own-story mentality has something to do with my experience of grace being an ongoing journey rather than a solid arrival. Anyone else?

Along with repulsion at the pill idea was the lingering echo from my youth: that anxiety is a sin. Was I not praying hard enough? Believing intently enough? I asked myself these questions even as I knew that grace and its own echo–it is finished–had already answered them. 

simmaFinally, there was the ridiculousness that a white, educated, upper-middle-class woman in the suburbs with two relatively healthy children would have anything to be stressed out about, our particular troubles notwithstanding. It all seemed a little silly. Manageable. Blown out of proportion. 

Then I watched my oldest son as he turned two, three, and four. I saw anxiety appear in his own behaviors: lining up toys, frantically searching for escape routes, controlling his environment any way he could. And he didn’t even have a college admissions exam looming that he wasn’t handing over to God! Clearly this quirk of ours, this high-strung, Type-A tendency, was something that had been there for awhile. Maybe even written into genetic code. Present before I’d ever learned of terrorism or cancer or shark attacks or any of the other things that set me off on a daily basis. I considered how beautiful it is, how personal, that Jesus arose with nail marks in his hands. That even perfection can have scars. 

I rested in those nail marks and called my doctor.

I haven’t taken too many of my anxiety pills. If faith is a life-support system, then they’re actually just a crutch. It’s nice to have them nearby. They are a small, kind addition to an arsenal of oxygen–a mess of help–that was already there and always will be: Scripture, counsel, literature that reminds me of the Gospel narrative, movies suffused with grace, music, wine, Epsom salt baths, and the recent self-taught refrain I’ve mastered to whisper to myself–“That’s the law, baby”–whenever I feel the pressure of rules (little-L and otherwise) creep in and make me feel panicky. Examples: others’ expectations, approval from the general populace, children’s developmental milestones/sleeping locations, Facebook likes, etc.


I suppose I’ve come to accept that my factory setting is jittery and that this isn’t cause for recall, but part of a design that suits me for a purpose I can’t fully see. Grace doesn’t transform my worrying (or any lack of faith) into a virtue, but it does allow my anxiety to drive me deeper into God’s own faithfulness. When it becomes debilitating, I check my oxygen levels and consider pills. And when “Hakuna Matata” comes on Pandora and I think to myself, This is total bullshit, I don’t immediately accuse myself of a character flaw that needs correcting. I consider the thought, and come to the conclusion, that it is. It is total bullshit. Because a problem-free, neatly-wrapped existence is not only boring, but devoid of the need for grace.

I recently overheard an acquaintance telling a story of a mini-crisis he’d experienced. It quickly became clear that this was one of those “I’m the hero of this story” routines that would be swaddled in religion-friendly phrases like “learning opportunity” and “such a God thing” (Which is not to say I don’t ever use those phrases. Ahem.) By the end of the tale, I found myself grossed out by the primacy of “I” so central to the telling, couched though it was in spiritual terms. And I took the opportunity to look down my nose at the person, to label him unlovable and spare myself the effort of seeing him as anything other than a caricature. To spare myself the effort of relationship, and identification. And then I felt Jesus–who is called The Word and not The Law for good reason–whisper into my heart that he loves that person. I felt the inconvenient side of grace kick in, the realization that I’ll always be constructing my own version of the Law to let myself off the hook and/or earn my own holiness. Which made me feel not anxious or hopeless, but free: free to be put in touch with my own ever-present struggles and weaknesses and/or sin because the Gospel isn’t about getting better, it’s about dying. But more importantly, it’s about being raised back to life. Neither of which I control, thanks be to God.