I am a terrified flyer. It is not a mental thing. It is a physical response, a tension that threatens to overwhelm me. I always flash back to a particular moment at an amusement park in my teenage years when my fear of heights became unbearable. Barely able to breath, I found the strength to yell from the Ferris Wheel that I wanted off, saying the words until the concerned attendant stopped the ride and let me exit. I stood there watching my friends circle around. I knew I had been silly but could not convince myself to try again. The panic was unbearable. On the plane, I always have the same urge. Just as the wheels leave the ground, I fight the urge to scream out for them to stop and let me off. I don’t, only because I know it would not be received as gracefully.
I can sometimes experience this same terror in the darkness of the night. It is the terror of a person who internalizes the tragedies of the world and realizes exactly how little control she has. I will lay there and wildly wish there was a way to stop the entire earth from spinning so that I might get off and watch safely from the sidelines. Unlike the plane and the Ferris Wheel, I do not know where this ride of life is going and it is this thought that terrifies me. Perhaps you know how it is, to lie in bed and imagine all the horrors of the world? To think on your family and ISIS and gun violence and simple car crashes and realize how instantly, awfully, life can change?
I remember reading Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly and identifying so strongly with her assertion that we are all living in a sort of PTSD following 9-11, international struggles and the Great Recession. We have realized that we are vulnerable and we are deeply, deeply afraid of this. I felt as though she had diagnosed my fears so well and in giving them a name, she gave me a way to begin to understand them. (This Salon interview has a good summary.)
I was so relieved to find some insight that I shared this insight with my husband. He nodded but I could tell that he didn’t understand it, not really. He is one of those calmly rational people who simply chooses not to worry. (Or so he claims.) “What good does it do?” He shrugs and says, “You cannot change anything by worrying.” Such words of wisdom, echoed in my faith and others. Hearing him say this always strikes me as wise, just as reading it in scripture does but despite recognizing the wisdom, I struggle every day to act on it
Another psychological insight came my way years ago when I read that worry is sometimes an attempt to control a situation. I see the possibility in this idea. After all, if I worry about something, I make it my own. It is as though I have drawn these dark things to me and given them a place in my mind where I can keep them caged up rather than allowing them free reign in the world.
Of course, this doesn’t work. Any rational person sees this. Worry does not keep dreadful things from happening nor does it provide any real peace of mind. But old habits are hard to break. We all know that it is hard to simply get rid of worry and fear. It appears that we must learn instead to replace it with something else.
In her book Found: A Story of Questions, Grace and Everyday Prayer, Micha Boyett reflects on the practice of thanksgiving saying, “Maybe thankfulness is difficult because it’s a sacrifice. Every moment I break my mind from the present fear or tedious daily task or even from the feeling of joy and turn my thoughts into a thankful recognition of what God has done, I break down some fear-constructed wall.”
Perhaps this is my sacrifice too. To learn day by day how to relinquish control by relinquishing worry. To choose instead to experience gratitude. Perhaps regularly turning my head toward something—thanksgiving–rather than away from something—fear–will be a way I can live more fully into the life we are called to, a life that does not ignore the realities of our world but calls us to rise above them.
Maybe it is by leaning into these things, not away from them, we find our center.