Do not be afraid.
Throughout the Bible this phrase is declared 365 times. 365 days of the year we live in fear. 365 days of the year we find ways to cope with the life God has given us, because we give in to a world that tells us we can do it on our own. We’ve bought into the age old lie that our life is what we make of it, and when our life isn’t what we’ve been striving to make it, we suffocate. Our head barely reaches the surface and we grasp onto anything, anyone that will help keep us afloat. Our minds become consumed by cyclical thoughts, always leading us back to that single provoking thought that in turn forces our faith to fade and our fear to increase. Personally, I have fallen victim to my own fear. My faith has drowned in fear of my own inability to survive in a world that suffocates us each day. Oftentimes my faith has been driven by my fear. Until one night changed it all. I finally broke the surface and realized that fear is merely a lie.
In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl elaborates on our pursuit for meaning in life and the purpose of suffering. Frankl details how we have brought fear upon our own shoulders, which he poignantly dubbed anticipatory anxiety. According to Frankl, anticipatory anxiety is our own contrived fear before a stressor or suffering has yet occurred.
Over the course of one summer, this rung true in my own life with bouts of insomnia. Attending a prestigious University where every student is overcommitted and actively engaged in myriad clubs, non-profits, jobs, and internships, not to mention a full course load… my schedule had always been busy. But I enjoyed my productiveness and found my worth in my effectiveness. Small accomplishments and simple joys in my everyday kept me going and provided hope.
I had just finished my sophomore year, a very rigorous year, when I started summer school. My summer break was virtually nonexistent, as I took three courses for my major and held two jobs for the summer (one as Residential Advisor for over 400 students-which demanded me to stay up until at least 2am each night, as well as a desk job for the campus ministry office). I had been in school since August and it was now the end of July. A full year without any downtime to process. My body had reached its limit. Once I finally had a couple of weeks to recoup back at home, my seeming “unproductiveness” left my body unable to fall asleep. Frankl describes this anticipatory anxiety as cyclical:
“The fear of sleeplessness results in a hyper-intention to fall asleep, which, in turn, incapacitates the patient to do so”.
My body had grown accustom to being busy to the point where when it was finally allowed to relax, it couldn’t. These 2 weeks at home were the longest 2 weeks I have experienced in awhile. Each night as I lay down, my mind raced every which way: to-do lists, finances, future goals, contrived scenarios, hypothetical conversations, childhood memories, and optimistic hopes. My thoughts consumed me, I could not sleep for more than 30 minutes at a time.
Time passed slowly, but sooner or later I was back at school starting a new academic year. But my insomnia insidiously seeped back into my life. Soon it came to a point where I dreaded the night, for fear of my inability to fall asleep. Each night I would venture out into my apartment living room where tears streamed down my face. My bones ached and I felt as if I was losing myself. I began to detest my overly active mind. The contemplative, thoughtful, and optimistic woman I once knew myself to be, had become an anxious, paranoid, and guilt ridden girl whose days were fogged by her fear.
One day I had arrived back at my apartment to try and take a nap. I had never been one to like mid day naps but I desperately needed sleep and thought that if I couldn’t find sleep at night, I might find it during the day. As my eyes slowly shut my mind remained awake but my body fell asleep. What I would later discover to be sleep paralysis had come over me. Later that evening as I tried to fall asleep, thoughts of sleep paralysis became lodged in my mind. I tried to wish them away, but couldn’t. My heart beat faster and I started to feel like I couldn’t breathe. And then I couldn’t. My strivings for perfection in the daily underpinnings of life led me to experience my first (and hopefully last) panic attack.
As I heard the paramedics come into the apartment, my panic increased. My vision became blurry and my hands and feet went numb. Because my breaths were so ragged my body could not get the oxygen it needed. The paramedics carried me out to an ambulance where I was taken to the hospital.
As my roommates drove me home from the hospital that night, I fell into a deep sleep, the best sleep I had gotten in months.
Early the next morning my father called. And gave me a couple verses to meditate on before bed each night, Matthew 6:25-34. Each night I recited this passage over and over in my head, and just like that I was able to fall asleep.
But soon, memories of the panic attack challenged me during the daytime. Bouts of sudden anxiety would randomly overwhelm me at the most inconvenient times.
In his book, A Grief Observed, C.S Lewis details this reaction:
“Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.”
Fear had seeped into my every day, making every day a never ending panic attack. I had been desperately trying to avoid panic to the point where I was causing myself panic. I vividly remember this happening to me while I was sitting in my Psychology & Religion lecture. The entire class, I had been focusing on my breathing for fear of another fit of panic, when suddenly, my body became hypervigilant. I quickly became overwhelmed with the fear that I was having another panic attack right there in the classroom. I quickly recited the verses my father had given me, and slowly but surely I regained composure–scripture and prayer had become my means of coping. But this still leaves us with the question of why we have to cope in the first place.
Fear itself, is the product of suffering. But what is suffering the product of? Further, why would a good God allow us to suffer so? Lewis asserts that suffering becomes evident in those times where our will transgresses the will of God:
“God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t.”
Suffering is evident because of our own lack of faith.
God seemed to be wanting me to realize that my fear was outweighing my faith; on multiple occasions thereafter he presented opportunities where loved ones bolstered my heart with courage. While studying for finals with a friend, I had been venting about an upcoming presentation that was required and how I was afraid of speaking in public. My friend asked me: “Do you know why you’re afraid?” of which I answered “Well yes, I don’t want other people to think I’m ignorant. I just want people to relate to what I speak about”. He then answered: “No, you’re afraid because of a lack of faith”.
Similarly, upon arriving home for winter break my father and I drove to Starbucks where we talked about my upcoming summer mission for Lets Start Talking in Thailand. We talked about how my mother was afraid of me going and how she did not wish me to go on the trip, which had become an inner struggle for myself. I understood that I was to honor my parents but could not come to terms with choosing between God’s will to evangelize, or staying behind to honor my mother. That night my father quelled my worries. He told me that I am to honor my parents, but first and foremost I am to honor God. My father described how at times we all let our fear outweigh our faith; which is precisely the point where I understood that I could not let it rule my life any longer.
This is not to say that fear is illegitimate. Fear serves a purpose, specifically in our relationship with God. Lately it seems as if there is a general lack of fear in accordance with how we view God, which needs to be addressed. We don’t fear our God enough! But as far as fear goes for earthly things, fear is merely a lie. Fear only serves a temporary purpose. It can either get us back on track in our relationship with God, or we may let it consume us and pull us further from Him.
While attending a Global Missions conference in Memphis, I had the opportunity to have dinner with one of my professors, Dan Rodriguez, who told a story of how a student in a study abroad program had lost his life in a rip current off the coast of South America. The student and his friend had been swimming out in the ocean when the current swarmed them. The students friend who had survived the rip current described how the boy had become so terrified of drowning that he tried to fight the current and swim back to shore. But the current fought harder. The friend however, survived because he knew not to struggle against the current. He knew that if he just let the current take him, he wouldn’t drown.
So often we let life’s currents overwhelm us. We struggle to survive on fear because our faith is lacking. But we need not fear because we always have Someone looking out for us:
“Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble, for the LORD your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you.”-Deuteronomy 31:6
No longer do we need to fight against life’s currents. Let life’s currents take you where they may, and enjoy the ride along the way.