In Which on the Starting Blocks of Life, We Wet Ourselves

Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.  1 Peter 5:7 (NRSV)

A lot of people check their doors at night to make sure that each one is locked before going to bed. At one time in my life this ritual would repeat itself, like some poorly-made parody of the movie “Ground Hog Day.” I would get up from my desk, not quite sure if I had checked both doors, and circle the living room, checking both the sliding glass door and the front door locks and return to my seat, only to get up a few moments later and repeat the process. And again. And again. If I told myself that, of course I had just checked them both, a little voice would whisper, “Are you sure?” and off I would go. I HAD to check them again. And again.

For more than a dozen years I baked two loaves or more of communion bread for the weekly Sunday morning services. The process would take hours for the mixing, rising, shaping, panning and baking. The latter half of my week revolved around setting aside the time. I had to make them, you see. People depended upon it. If I didn’t, well I never really finished that thought because the anxiety would go full-throttle and I would find myself baking. I have the burn scars from the hot oven to prove it. After hundreds and hundreds of baking sessions, one acquires accidental burns and the scars that their healing often bring.

And not infrequently, the baking of bread might like this: after mixing the dough, which involved pouring boiling water over a bowl of rolled oats, butter, whole wheat flour, brown sugar, and salt, I would allow it to cool before kneading in bread flour and yeast. Then I would set it aside to rise for a couple of hours, before the second kneading. And I would pause half way through this second kneading trying to remember if I had washed my hands first. And trying to remember what I had been up to before my hands had touched the dough. And I would throw out the dough and start over because the anxiety would lock up my brain and keep my memories prisoner. So the hours long process would begin again.

I want you to be free from anxieties…   1 Corinthians 7:32a

When I swam for our high school swim team, with my speedo and 145 pounds of body weight, the crescendo of anxiety came when I stood atop the starting block, every muscle primed for the starter’s whistle, adrenaline coursing through every cell, my mind a whirlwind of thoughts and fears to the point where I thought I would wet myself. Maybe I did on occasion. Science will tell us that this can occur when our limbic system overcomes the signals from our pre-frontal cortex. Basically, our fear overrides our will and our bodies do the things that we do not want to do, ever, especially in front of other people, and in this case girls. My brief perusal of the research on this suggests that there is no evolutionary purpose, no positive explanation. It just is. It just happens. We get nervous and anxious and occasionally we pee on the starting blocks before the 10 yard breaststroke.

If we are made in the very image of God, not just our eyes and noses, but our emotional selves, our capacity to love and deeply, our compassion and empathy, our desire for forgiveness and to forgive, to know and be known, then I figure anxiety is God in shop class playing with clay for the first time and having the project shatter into pieces in the kiln. God decides to keep those shattered pieces around as a reminder of, well something: A first attempt, a failed attempt, sentimental value, to fix later only to be forgotten about in some old closet. Who knows? After all, God created mosquitoes.

According to the website of the Florida State University Anxiety Clinic

…If these feelings [of anxiety] can be so uncomfortable, why do we have them? The answer is simple: protection! The body has developed anxiety, panic, and worry as a protective alarm system to aid in coping with potential threats and dangers.

This protective alarm system is even more amazing when you consider that the protective function really exists on two levels. We are set up to respond to threats in two ways: a “preparation” mode and a “reaction” mode.

The preparation mode, consisting of anxiety and worry, helps us prepare for future danger or helps us prepare for threats which may be delayed. In essence, this type of fear tells us “You are not in danger. . .YET! But let’s prepare for what may lie ahead….It can be difficult to tell if your level of anxiety is too much. A good rule of thumb is “how much does this impair my life or keep me from doing the things I would like to do?”

How much does this impair my life or keep me from doing the things I would like to do?”

Anxiety would often build in me and leave me emotionally paralyzed. I could not move on to the next task in my life without confronting what I believe to be that issue’s root cause. I could not put it aside. Box it up for later. Or sweet Jesus, just let it go.

I could take a moment now and apologize to all of those people in high school and college and beyond who I would call out of the blue day or night to apologize for some imagined slight or misunderstanding that I believe I had committed against them. They would pick up the phone and have no idea what I was talking about and I would have to take ten minutes to explain what wrong I believed I had done to them; words I might have said that could have been taken the wrong way. Stuff like that. Inevitably they would reassure me and my life would unfreeze and I could go on. I can’t imagine what went through their minds after they received the sixth or seventh phone call like that within in a few month’s time.

It was really like that. And it would get worse.

I grew up and grew older and got married and “Keith,” my wife would ask, “Do you want to…” and my knee-jerk reaction would be to say “No.” It didn’t matter what it was. Everything produced anxiety, especially anything new. My brain would kick into some other gear and my heart would beat faster and some voice inside my head kept shouting “No! No! No!” If I tried to list all of things I did not do. We did not do. That I ruined. Jeez. That trip down memory lane is about as healthy as one of those hamburgers that use Krispy Crème doughnuts in place of a bun.

Anxiety still occasionally pollutes the fresh air of this new life. Episodes are rare, but not gone. Projects that end up taking me as little as five minutes have just in this past month turned off my mental engine and walked away with the keys for awhile. And I sat there frozen, unable to take the first step to get them back, like I have forgotten how to walk. Thank God these are no longer frequent occurrences. They are merely occasional reminders of how delicate a thing brain chemistry is and how it works so well for so many so often that we do not give it a second thought until our thoughts skip like an old record.

Sometimes life is a choice between tossing out part of our record collection or risking the skip. And I’m OK with that.DSC_3046

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