Living with Fear and Anxiety

Living with fear and anxiety

I’ve been trying and failing to come up with any analogous time period in my life to what we are currently living through. I was twenty-one when September 11th happened, and for a time things felt strange and uncertain, but it seemed that people rapidly got back to normal for the most part, and adjusted to the new normal that was living with constant war that is now stretching into its 19th year. There was fear and speculation the year before that about what would happen at the turn of the century. People were stockpiling for the Y2K breakdown of civilization. I had just turned twenty at that point.

Perhaps it was being a young adult that made all of that seem unlikely. I’ve never really felt invincible per se but I definitely feel more vulnerable now. And while we’ve lived through outbreaks and things before, none of them have in our lifetime approached the scale of what we are dealing with right now.

There’s no road map, no place we can build a web of understanding, no idea of how long it will take for things to go back to normal. I can feel the anxiety in my chest, like a weight around my heart.

Like a good Episcopalian I turned to the prayer book for solace and then remembered there is no prayer for mass sickness, I already looked like last week. My husband was over here last night helping draft responses for our region to the pandemic and he remarked he’d had to look to the 1928 prayer book for a prayer that fits our situation.

That prayer book, or course, was finalized just a decade after the 1918 “spanish” flu pandemic. It seems the drafters of the 1979 prayer book thought we were past pandemics when they left out a version for that.

I was talking with my aunt yesterday about family history. Apparently the women on my grandmother’s side (several of whom were named Anna, yay!), for multiple generations kept family records and as my aunt was going through them, she was struck by how close death had touched all of them. Of course it touches all of us, but not as often as it did. Most of them lost babies. Many of them had mothers who had died in childbirth, husbands who had died young, and so on. We’ve made so many medical advances and progress with vaccines that I think it’s easy to forget just how recently in human progress the mortality rates were much higher just on a regular basis, never mind in a time of great sickness.

Reading history is one thing, living through it with no firm end date is something completely different.

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes read spoilers for tense television shows or movies or read the ends of books really fast if I can’t handle the tension of not knowing how the story turns out. I’ve done that less lately, but I’ve definitely not traditionally been good with suspense.

And in this moment we are living in, the suspense is unable to be mitigated and I feel the anxiety rising, I hear the fear that people are masking.

And the temptation is to go pull a verse from the Bible that is comforting. Perhaps a verse like Romans 8:28 “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

But there’s not much consolation there because we all know people who love God and things haven’t worked out for good no matter how many contortions you pull to try to make it seem so. Taking that verse out of its context is like trying to put a band-aid on a stab wound when it comes to stemming the tide of fear in this moment. Rather I think comfort comes from that context where after describing all manner of hardships: “…distress or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” the writer goes on to say, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35-39).

The call, friends, is to go deeper. Not to try to convince ourselves or anyone else that it will all be “okay” simply because “God is on the throne.” But to go deeper and say even when really terrible things happen, nothing can separate us from the love of God. No matter what happens, God is holding on to you even when you can’t always feel God’s presence.

And if God is promising the gift of presence in our darkest hour, I think we have our marching orders. We are to be present for each other through this. We are to hold on to one another (from our separate quarantines of course), and listen to whatever fear or anxiety needs to be named. Pretending it’s not there doesn’t make it go away nor does trying to carry it all on one’s own.

It’s strange, but even if you and I are both carrying similar loads, helping each other with them makes them both seem lighter.

Perhaps this time too in the middle of Lent we find comfort in the remembrance that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. But we’re dust that’s held in God’s hand. And in this there is comfort.

And remember to breathe. It’s strange, but sometimes we forget. Our shoulders get all hunched up, and our breathing gets shortened. It helps to physically straighten up, relax our shoulders, close our eyes and concentrate on our breath. Feel it going in and out, all the way to the bottom of our lungs. These breaths are all gifts, receive them.

In Time of Great Sickness and Mortality.
O MOST mighty and merciful God, in this time of grievous sickness, we flee unto thee for succour. Deliver us, we beseech thee, from our peril; give strength and skill to all those who minister to the sick; prosper the means made use of for their cure; and grant that, perceiving how frail and uncertain our life is, we may apply our hearts unto that heavenly wisdom which leadeth to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(BCP 1928)

Hope and Mortality

Lent, fasting, uncertainty, and hope
Lent, fasting, uncertainty, and hope

Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.

Ash Wednesday is always a sobering occasion, to walk around with a reminder of one’s mortality inscribed–albeit temporarily–on one’s forehead. Ashes suspended in oil cling to my skin and I resist the urge to wipe them away as though I could avoid thinking about reminders of death so easily.

There’s been much social media chatter and headlines this past week around the novel coronavirus that has jumped borders and leaves the entire globe poised for a potential outbreak. The anxiety I sense from some friends and acquaintances is very high, especially as I think many can agree, our government is unprepared in this political moment to organize a response if it becomes needed.

And here we are, as branches of the church that observe Lent, walking around with black smudges on our heads declaring the reality of death for ourselves and any who might see us today.

Where’s the hope in that?

An invitation to a Holy Lent is, as one of the priests at my church, Lissa Smith, preached this afternoon, “a recalibration that leads not only to a Holy Lent but a holy life.” Another pastor friend, Megan Westra, recounted in her Lenten newsletter a near brush with death a family member had recently experienced and what that does to be living in the daily reality of possible impending death.

And yet our lives still need to be lived. Death is the counterpoint, the inevitable period that all of us face and the reality is we have no idea when that period will come. For most of us it will be in old age, but that isn’t guaranteed to any of us. We brush it aside and we ignore it until we can’t.

Or until we go to church in the middle of a dreary gray Wednesday and receive the reminder of our deaths on our forehead so we can walk around like individual sign-acts for the rest of the day announcing that each day is a gift, for tomorrow is promised to none of us.

Gee, Anna, I thought you said you had some hope in the middle of all of this.

And yet I think there is hope in the middle of this. Hope isn’t needed where certainty exists. Where we are certain of things to come, we don’t hope, we know. Hope is needed when the future is uncertain. And hope is here in the imposition of the ashes where they are a sign of both our mortality and a remembrance that we have been given life eternal through Jesus. It is, as Lissa said, “…the reminder that God made me, and God will take me back. It is a reminder that we live, we will die, and we will be resurrected.”

She also pointed out a principle of mindfulness: “That which we practice grows stronger.”
So in the face of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety, I think the call to all of us this Lent is to practice hope. And practice as that great spiritual advisor, Pabbi Troll, said in Frozen 2, when it looks like there is no future, all you can do is the next right thing.

Reading any of our history as humans reveals both the beauty that humans are capable of and the brutality. Life on this green and blue globe has never been peaceful nor has it been free of tragedy. All we can do is the next right thing and make our Lenten fast one that is the fast the Lord has chosen: “to loose the bonds of injustice… to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke… …to share our bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin” (Is. 58:6-7).

There is freedom in embracing the inevitability of our own mortality and determining to do our best during the one thing we do have some say over–how we live.