I have often wondered about writing about what it is like to live with anxiety as a disorder. Especially as a priest, probably especially as a woman priest, and definitely as a control freak, it can be difficult to admit vulnerability. I have occasionally written the odd comment, and I certainly haven’t hidden my experiences, but often these are written with the perhaps disingenuous implication that everything is all fixed.
I haven’t meant it to be like that of course (or perhaps I have), it is very easy to give the impression of, what is it…wholeness perhaps? To be fixed, to be self‑sufficient, to be in need of nothing is the goal to which our western culture draws us. Easy then, to proclaim from the safety of Twitter that ‘I will pray for you’, or to even say ‘we all need prayer, I have needed prayer’, it reveals nothing of our own present vulnerability, and the ‘now-ness’ of vulnerability is important to share. I recently heard someone describe it as the difference between transparency and vulnerability. We can often switch one for the other, giving clarity and a pseudo-vulnerability in place of the real thing. We are, I am, desperate not to be needy.
So, I wonder what it is like to write in the present. Because the reality is that this is always my present. I have lived with anxiety all my life. It isn’t a ‘disorder’ it is simply ‘me’. It is how I process the world around me. It has on occasion, become a little overwhelming and I’ve needed medical help to restore the balance of my brain, but perhaps surprisingly to others, needing medication hasn’t been the defining mark of having an anxious heart, the vast majority of this life has been in the daily walk, the daily choosing to live with courage.
I am thankful that I have had the capacity to make that choice. I don’t take it lightly that this is a mercy, and I don’t expect anyone else’s experience of anxiety to match my own. For some the choice for life has been taken from them by the nature and severity of their particular condition. And there have been, and are (the now-ness being important…), moments where I feel exhausted by having to make such an active choice to live expansively, generously, courageously. And perhaps often I don’t. But the moments where I have had victory are so definitive, that they are to me the defining characteristics of this, my, anxious life.
Perhaps it is strange to talk about an anxious life, as one which is marked by courage? And yet what else would I call it when, at one point, I had to instruct my soul that ‘this is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it’. An instruction to Joy. It is on writing those words that I recoil a little – I don’t want to expose myself and that reality feels exposing, but I shall continue because there is a little voice in my head which dares anyone to call it weakness. This steely resolve to damn well live abundantly, I think I’ve always had that. Sometimes it can be a little kamikaze, a kind of ‘fuck it’ mentality, which isn’t careful enough with my own vulnerability. But there was a moment a long time ago when I decided that I wouldn’t say no to things because I was afraid. I can say no because I don’t have enough time, the right skills, the inclination, but I must not say no because I am afraid. And for the most part I obey that voice and, for the most part, I think this has been a friendly voice in my head.
One of the things that has helped to make these choices towards abundant life and away from a narrow, desiccated life, is the cultivation of the imagination. As a child, I wrote stories, read stories, sometimes far too often lived in a dream world. This imaginative nature, I think made me an adventurer, a risk taker, by default. A life which is defined and contained by its anxiety is only going to get smaller and smaller, as I try to control the risks that are inherent in life, to make the anxiety go away. This is counteracted by imagination. I suppose one of my choices was to live with the risk of living, of not knowing what was over the horizon and heading for it anyway – that’s where the stories are told. Like Reepicheep this has been the overriding attraction – there is more!
“'Where sky and water meet, Where the waves grow sweet, Doubt not, Reepicheep, To find all you seek, There is the utter East.' I do not know what it means. But the spell of it has been on me all my life." (Voyage of the Dawn Treader, italics mine)
JOHN 1O REFLECTION
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. John 10.10
The passage that talks most famously and directly about the abundant life of the disciple, is from John’s Gospel. The passage that brings to life the image of the Good Shepherd. This is perhaps one of the most conflicted images in scripture. And it is good for the anxious to ponder. The Shepherd is the image of safety, the thief or the ‘bandit’ is the image of fear or destruction, together with the bears, wolves and lions (oh my!), the thief and the wild animals sit in the background of this image. The lurking darkness which we find in Genesis 4, has resonance here. There is something snapping at your heels, you see it out of the corner of your eye, the hairs stand up on your neck, but the predator is always just out of sight.
For the anxious, the safe place is the sheep pen, and is thought all the safer for the presence of the Shepherd. All is well, in the pen, with the Shepherd. The Shepherd is safety. But the Shepherd does not allow the sheep to stay in the pen. The Shepherd arrives and leads the sheep out, goes ahead, and they follow him. They go in and out, freely. The concerning thing is that the abundant life is one which offers freedom, not penned in, but one in which…you might get lost.
Even worse, the image of the thief, the lurking darkness, keeps you in the pen. The illusion of safety. The frightened sheep ends up staying in the pen to be safe, but loses out on life.
The image is switched: the Shepherd, who is also the gate, lets the sheep out, out into the potential world of danger, but the thief has already climbed over the wall and is in the pen.
My anxiety tells me that I am safer maintaining the status quo of my life, doing what I can control, and only that, then I will be safe. This is an illusion. I do not have control and the thief is already in the pen.
The best place for me is to take the risk of following the Shepherd. I might get lost.