Is Stress Inevitable?

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We were gathered over our Bonhoeffer biographies, ostensibly discussing Dietrich’s life story, but our words had skipped off trail into the lives we were living.  We were talking about stress; how everyone seems to have quite a lot of it, how it becomes unbearable, overwhelming.  How do we manage it, reduce it, live well with it?

As we spoke, I found I couldn’t fully relate to the levels of stress, anxiety, and it’s corollary, depression, that seem endemic in our society.  Yes, I’d had stressful moments; I think of those times when the phone is ringing, the baby is crying, and someone spills the rice bag across the floor, but they are moments, not a chronic state of affairs.

“Is stress inevitable?” I asked.  The question left a wondering silence.

“Stress is simply a reaction to a stimulus that disturbs our physical or mental equilibrium. In other words, it’s an omnipresent part of life. A stressful event can trigger the “fight-or-flight” response, causing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to surge through the body.”  -Psychology Today

Certainly there will always be stimuli that provoke us to internal agitation, but can we determine the dominance of that energy?  Can we contain that disruption and maintain inner peace?  Are we at the mercy of stress?  How does our faith, or lack thereof, inform our response to this malady?

I head to my bookshelf and open my 1970’s Webster Dictionary and look up stress.

stress:  tension; strain

That was it.  Wondering if “anxiety” would yield a more modern interpretation:

anxiety:  worry; concern; disquietude; uneasiness

The modern version of Webster’s Dictionary defines it thus:

stress:  a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc.;  something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety

So is it, following Psychology Today’s wording, an omnipresent part of life, or is it a reaction to normal life that can be chosen or not chosen?

Clearly this isn’t only a modern problem; life’s stressors may have changed over time; we may no longer worry as much over marauding bands plundering us, nor famine, nor dying of a simple infection; but we fragile humans have always had provocations to worry.  What has changed though, is how we regard this agitation, and what we believe about it.

Christianity has always taught that worry and anxiety are sins; a choice to not trust God.

“O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.” (Mt 6:30–34)

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; . . . not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27)

 “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”  (Philippians 4:6)

Today though, it seems, we are led to believe that stress, anxiety, worry, and depression happen to us, and that it is the norm.  It is something, thus, to medicate, moderate, and live with.  When did it go from being a choice to a  chronic condition?  I do not speak here for those with chemical imbalances in their bodies who wisely have sought medical treatment; I am not a doctor and certainly not an expert on mental health; I address only here the very common experience of being regularly “stressed out”, anxious, and/or depressed without an underlying medical condition.

Understanding stress, anxiety, and depression as external to choice would have been unfathomable to our Christian predecessors; if God had commanded us to not worry, nor be anxious and cast down, would He not also provide us with help to fulfill that command? Could it be that we are to take life’s stressors as good medicine for us, rather than reasons to fall into despair and fretting?

“Sometimes men are tested by pleasure, sometimes by distress or by physical suffering. By means of His prescriptions the Physician of souls administers the remedy according to the cause of the passions lying hidden in the soul.”  -St. Maximos the Confessor

“You have anxieties about your life… Pray fervently to the Lord from your heart in this way: ‘I place my fate in Thy hands, O my Saviour. In the way that Thou knowest, arrange my life as is best. From now on I cut off every care about myself, having but one care, to do what is pleasing before Thee.’ Speak to God in this way, and by doing so you will already have placed yourself completely in His hands, not being concerned about anything, but calmly accepting every sort of situation, pleasant or unpleasant, as being arranged for you purposely by God. Your only concern should be to act according to God’s commandments in everything. This is all that is required of you.”  -Saint Theophan the Recluse

 “Without winter there would be no spring, and without spring there would be no summer. So it is also in the spiritual life: a little consolation, and then a little grief—and thus little by little we work out our salvation. Let us accept everything from the hand of God. If He comforts us, let us thank Him. And if He doesn’t comfort us—let us thank Him.”  – St. Anatoly Zertsalov, 19th Century Optina Elder

 

That admonition, “Let us accept everything from the hand of God,” has changed me deeply, causing joy to seep into the cracks where despair and anxiety had reigned.  If I truly trust God to be working diligently on my soul through the hardships, blessings, and day-to-day occurrences in my life, to make me more like Christ in all of it, then I have no reason to worry.  Being captivated by worry and anxiety would be like turning away my face from Him, the Great Physician of my soul, and declaring that the prescription was all wrong, and that I’d take care of my self, thank You very much.  I speak not as someone who has arrived at a constant state of peace, but as someone who has discovered a tool to help me get there.

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Well, how do we learn this trust then?  How do we stop the swirling, anxious thoughts, the mounting stress, and the harrowing depths of despair?

Here, as in many things, children are a good example for us.  If they have good and loving parents they do not worry that they’ll not be fed, clothed, and cared for.  They can look back and remember that all of their days everything necessary was provided for them with loving hands.  In speaking with their parents they feel the love and kindness in their voices; they hear good words and feel assured.

So also with us, we must look back and acknowledge that God has been faithful to us, bringing us through, sometimes in spite of ourselves.  We must speak with Him and listen to His loving voice.  When thoughts swirl we must take them captive, holding on to truth, praying for God to help us.  We must trust in His abiding love which does not let go.

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“O Lord, I do not know what to ask of You. You alone know what are my true needs. You love me more than I myself know how to love. Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I do not dare to ask either for a cross or for consolation. I can only wait on You. My heart is open to You. Visit and help me, for the sake of Your great mercy. Strike me and heal me; cast me down and raise me up. I worship in silence Your holy will and Your unsearchable ways. I offer myself as a sacrifice to You. I have no other desire than to fulfill Your will. Teach me to pray. Pray You Yourself in me. Amen.”   – Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow

Is stress inevitable?  The causes for stress, yes, however our reactions to stress need not follow a dark trajectory.  We have, through constant prayer, a good defense from fear and melancholy, from anxiety and fuss.  We choose, and we can learn to choose well.

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It’s All Unexpected

Maybe not everyone is so regularly startled as I am.

I came home from a ten day trip to find that my gardens had exploded with new blooms, clutches of green tomatoes, and dozens upon dozens of cymes of elderberries.  The grapes decided to indulge in a bit of conquest, leaping over the roses and aiming for the sidewalk. It reminded me of the children’s book character Mr. Tickle, who had extremely long arms and used them most mischievously, giggling at day’s end about his tickling pranks.  The sunflowers had thrown their orange petals back in glee and were waiting, swaying and smiling broadly.  I could almost hear them laugh; laugh at their own audacity and pomp.  A flower with a stem the size of a small tree!  The very notion!  In my mind they are the giraffes of the flower world; a small proof of God’s sense of humor.  I digress.

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So that was just walking in the main path.  Then I was assaulted by the sheer number of things, useful and good, that proliferated in my home.  Sturdy pots, a deep sink, machines to wash and dry, toilets to perform humble but ever-useful duties.  The prayer corner, a place that becomes more beautiful with time; this too is an astonishing sight after many days away from it.  There is where home feels most poignant.

It’s all unexpected and I looked about and in my heart the impression was, “Oh, so you’re all here still, I suppose!?  AH, you are so much!  How has this all come to pass?”

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My dear bird was wary.  For a number of minutes he stared back at me as I called to him in our familiar language of clicks and purrs and words.  Then his guard dropped and he pressed his warm little body close to the bars of his cage and purr-trilled back.  It was all unexpected for him, that he’d come home again and be with us all again.  He had no idea of return, of this remembered life being his again.  What joy!  I opened his door and he snuggled under my chin, rubbing his head back and forth.  “Pretty bird!”, he said.

There has been some healing in my soul though I was not aware of any particular treatment prescribed nor followed.  I used to expect too much, want too much; to my shame I truly did have an ugly expectation troll, grumping about in my heart, hollering about what I deserved and stomping around, ruining moments I should have been grateful for, should have enjoyed more.  Somehow he was evicted, and joy moved in, and gratitude. All is in reverse now; it’s a joyful pessimism of sorts…I expect life to be quite hard; I do not expect easy times and smooth ways, and yet, I am almost ridiculously happy with each and every good I encounter.  I do not lay claim to blessings, and yet I find them dumped over my head.

God is kind.  I don’t endeavor enough, I do not struggle enough, I am ordinary.  I did not merit any of this, but God gifts as He sees fit.  It’s all unexpected._MG_5001

 

Even The Grays

It has been a week of clumsily wrangling table cloths and bedsheets over my flowering peach and nectarine trees in a futile attempt to save them from freezing into fruitlessness.  It has been a week of hunching over an old kerosene heater at midnight in the greenhouse trying to coax some robust heat out of it to keep the seedlings from certain, cold death.  It has been a week of washing poop out of underpants with a toddler who has no interest in potty training.  It’s been a week without a single order for soap and all the questions that can kindle.

It has also been bright.

Mr. Mango, our beloved parakeet, has begun making word-like utterances, much to my over-the-top delight.  Tobias has learned how to grin mischievously.  My daughter comes home from her long bus commute with a handful of poems she writes on the way; often springing from topics she’s learned about that day in history class.  Sunflowers, dahlias, and coxcombs are coming up in the seed trays, lifting their leafy hands up to the sun.  My boule bread has been turning out quite good, and we’ve cut down on our food bill via creative means.  My bees are still alive.

My daughter was asking me about hair dye.  She wanted to know why I rarely use it (I highlighted my hair in Chile, oh, six years ago or so).  I fanned out a handful of my hair in my hands.  “Look at all the colors.  Browns, blonde strands, copper.  Yes, gray too.  I don’t want to miss this, from bright to dark, even the grays.”

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It may not be a fashionable look; I may look older than I otherwise would, but I find some delight in looking my age, my thirty-six years of life under the sun.  I make no argument against dyeing of hair; just saying that I like to watch the march of time of browns and blonds and grays, right on my own head.  I don’t want to miss what the transition between youth and middle age looks like; I do not want to look perpetually young in anything but my childlike delight in life.  I welcome my years; would that I could kiss God’s feet in gratitude for all they’ve held.

As regards these days of both trials and blessings, I feel the same.  It is me, yes, bent over the toilet, swishing feces out of underpants for the third time in one day.  It’s me!  It’s also me that gets to hold my dear son, all cleaned up, and teach him the names of colors, and hear him mispronounce them, and smile all the way out to my ears.

I’ll take these days, these bright ones, and grays too, with great gratitude from a full heart, for God has dealt kindly with me.

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Rocks and Hard Places

 

burdenIt’s hard to write when a baby is crying.

I lay the words aside, over and over, and tumbleweeds roll across my blog and cobwebs hang dusty in the corner.

There’s pain too, and that can either release words in a torrent or swallow them whole in one dark gulp.

I threw out my back.  Stomach bugs went through the children.  Teething.  Babies up throughout the nights, fitful sleep.  My father had six bypasses put into his heart.  Fevers and hacking coughs.  Long hours caring for a friend who has no one; her hand gripping mine ever so tightly while pain wracks her body.  Tears like ripe fruit brimming my eyes; with the barest touch they fall, and a perpetual knot made swallowing hard.

There’s more, but that is enough.  Who am I to tell you that life can be hard?  You know it too; you have your own sorrows.

The match scraping against the box has become a part of my prayer time.  It’s like the pistol marking the beginning of the race.  We have begun.  The end ignites and I light the shrinking, puddling candles in my prayer corner and feel their warmth.  I blow out the match and lay it on a growing pile.  My prayer book has dog-eared corners; the book’s been opening easily to “Prayer for a Sick Person” and “Compline”.  “Prayer for Forgiveness” too.

My eyes read the words and my lips say the words that my soul longs to pray and set heavenward; they are whispered, and the candles lend beauty and warmth on gray days.  I tell it to myself, that prayer is the most important work I can offer; that I am not helpless.  The enemy knows these things; how often am I led away from my prayer corner, thinking, ah, I should get the laundry changed over first, and then this, then that.

My baby is crying again, and it is hard to write.  He is fed, changed; he needs to sleep but fights what is best for him.  He and I have much in common.

I used to pray at my bench, but my babies were routinely destroying that sacred space, scattering my candles, mouthing the spent matches, throwing the books on the floor.  I have this antique washstand, a beautiful piece, and I moved my prayer corner there, above the curious hands of my  toddlers.  My beeswax candles hang along the towel rail, my Bible, my lectionary reading calendar, and my prayer book lay unmolested.  It’s a place set apart and claimed for holy work.

And when squeezed between a rock and a hard place, you really need a holy place.  I didn’t used to believe in them; at least in my head, my theology did away with holy places when the curtain was torn.  It didn’t stop my soul from feeling the opposite when sitting in a cathedral, when wandering church ruins.  My soul was wiser than my constructs.

A lot changed for me when I read the Old Testament story…

As they were burying a man, behold, they saw a marauding band; and they cast the man into the grave of Elisha. And when the man touched the bones of Elisha he revived and stood up on his feet.  

II Kings 13:21

Holiness lingered in the holy man’s bones.  Peter’s shadow healed the sick.  Handkerchiefs that Paul had touched were brought to the sick and they were made well (Acts 19:12).  Holiness permeated matter, and suddenly, matter mattered.

This made the keeping of relics of saints a whole lot more understandable; it wasn’t some macabre idolatry, but rather an acknowledgement that holiness remained; that God’s working Presence doesn’t desert our matter; that our matter truly matters.

As this hard season continues, I have deep gratitude for my holy work in my holy place, and the Holy One who catches every whispered word.

Make Room

There were red lentils spilled across my floor and the perpetrator was in tears.  I had ripped a bag of wheat berries and those too littered the tile.  Babies crying and I really just needed to get the coffee going; I craved that warm fragrance in the air and the promise of a moment sitting down and sipping.  Two emotionally-charged family issues were taking turns churning in my heart.  Both babies wailing at once and the phone  rings.  My friend whose daughter would be taking sewing lessons from me on the line asking if I’d like to re-schedule as they hadn’t procured fabric.  “YES” shouted my rather frazzled heart, but my mouth formed other words of “No, come, we’ll figure it out”.

I swept up lentils, tended to my fussy babies, and prayed; it’s the simplest prayer and all-encompassing:  Lord, have mercy.  It doesn’t mean only “Lord, forgive me”, it means, “Lord, HELP!”, “Lord, let Your good intentions in this moment of suffering bear fruit!”, “Lord, protect me from sin and error”.  I love this useful prayer which has helped millennia of Christians.  Because sometimes I’d just rather run away from my day and hide in a closet.  With chocolate.

She sewed along a marker line I’d drawn on the fabric and gleefully examined the small stitches.  “I did it straight!”, she exclaimed, and I smiled.  She quickly learned to work the machine and soon had finished both a doll blanket and a small pillow.  We shared a plate of cheese, crackers, and apples together with my friend and her other two children and there it was; that sweetness, that undefinable feeling of Christ’s Presence among us.  I had been able to pass on a simple skill to an eager learner, mess and all.  We figured it out, God giving timely grace.

I was glad that I had not heeded the fear that had lurked in my heart this morning, when everything was going wrong at once, the fear that said, “Look, you can’t even manage this day and these children well; you certainly have nothing to offer to another”.  My foe doesn’t attempt grandiose temptations much anymore, but sly, practical ones.  “Because of this hardship, you really shouldn’t expect of yourself to help with _____”.  So it goes.  I am learning to hear that cajoling, wheedling, whining, nag for the enemy that it is.  I cross myself, I pray “Lord have mercy”, and place my thoughts elsewhere.  As I’ve heard it said, you can’t control whether a bird lands on your head, but you can control if it builds a nest there.

Over on Facebook and in the news there’s been quite a bit of ugliness about the refugee situation following the attacks in Paris.  I have been appalled by what some fellow Christians have said.  Behind a lot of the blistering words is fear.  Fear that some bad guys will get in; that they’ll hurt us.  That we won’t have enough aid to help the hurting, wounded, and needy among our own citizenry, much less refugees.  Sure…if we waited for the government to do all the work, we’d be in a bind.  But…we’re the church, we are the hands and feet of Christ; how can anyone stop us from giving?  It’s devastatingly simple:  give sacrificially, make room in your hearts and lives for others’ needs.  A complex problem can have quite simple solutions, if we decide that helping one person at a time might actually change things, instead of whining about the problem from our sofas in tandem with the talking heads, casting blame and pointing fingers and really doing nothing to help.

And what if they do hurt us?

We remember that Christ washed Judas’s feet knowing that he would be betrayed unto death by him.  We remember God’s mercy on Saul, the murderer and persecutor of Christians, how God made him into Paul, a man who would go on to give his life in martyrdom.  We remember our own sins, our own failings, and we cast a more merciful gaze outward.

We need to make room; our brothers and sisters are coming.

Come, we’ll figure it out.daily2

 

 

My Right To Die

Standing in line to pay, I was boiling angry.  A woman had shouldered herself right in front of me; physically moving me so that she could be first.  All sorts of scathing monologues were writing themselves in my mind, my favorite being, “Ohhhhh,” touching her on the shoulder and crooning sarcastically, “I’m so glad that you let me know how much more important you are than me.  How could I possibly expect you to wait in line like the rest of us commoners?”  It gave me some dark pleasure to then imagine a kung-fu scene in which I karate-chopped her purchases to the floor, all the people cheering.  Justice!

1920534_10152247494038352_1265178566_n We want the rules respected, don’t we?  We want to see cheaters and line-cutters put in their place.  Sports have referees for a reason.  Even checkers can’t be played if suddenly one person decides he wants to use the white spaces too.

There are rules, and relatedly, there are rights, and we tend to take them very seriously.  They are the fuel behind major movements and even wars.  They can draw lines in the sand between us and others, some shouting about a mother’s right to choose, and the others about a baby’s right to live.  One camp argues that marriage should be definable by two people’s love and commitment, another that marriage is only to be between a man and a woman, having been God-designed that way, as is His right as Creator.

Day-to-day though, our sense of our rights forms a smaller orbit.  It’s that inner irritation when there are only two check-out lanes open, lines four people deep, with workers seen chatting away, unwilling to open more registers.  It’s the waiting room angst.  The tense mood on an airplane stuck on the runway for hours.  People start mumbling, rolling their eyes; their “right” to be attended to promptly is not being honored.  A car whips into the parking spot that another driver was clearly signaling to enter; indeed, almost all road rage sparks from someone trodding on someone else’s rights.  Closing the orbit more and it’s the wife’s ire that her husband isn’t washing the dishes after she cooked the meal; it’s her inner rant going something like this: “I should be the one stretching out and relaxing, not him.”  My rights.  Mine.

It was a while back, when praying or contemplating, I don’t remember which, but a word came born upon my thoughts:  die.  There was a relationship at the time that was peppered with grievances of my rights.  I had many reasons to take deep offense, to demand my due; I was quite provoked.  Every secular counsel would have been to stand up for myself, to get the negativity out of my life by avoiding the person, to think about me, my rights.  But…die?  Die to self?  Die to demanding my rights?  There was a resounding yes, an inner warmth, even a joy as I gave that thought space to grow within me.

Our world knows little of the joy of self-denial.  We are encouraged to buy, to accumulate, to improve our physical selves, our marketability, to make a name for ourselves, to strive, to climb, to self-actualize, to get what we supposedly deserve (wealth, recognition, respect, or even simply our own way).

So, what if I died a bit daily?  Died to all these nagging rights of mine and all their hooks and barbs?  What if I sent my Record of Wrongs through a paper shredder; what if I dared to forget my injuries a bit, and focused my energy and strength on loving well?  When a resentful thought came into my mind, what a delight to be able to let it find nowhere to rest.  It could slide right off of me, it really could.

Ever since the Resurrection of Christ, death has been a gateway to life; true, brilliant life.

And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.  For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.”  -Luke 9:23-24 ESV
Think of what a discordant note this makes with contemporary thought about our rights.  Our sense of justice conveniently ignores our own failings and focuses outwards, to the offenses committed by others.  We really are called to live in a manner exactly the opposite of this; we are to “keep our eyes on our own plate” as the Orthodox say, and to consider others as better and holier than ourselves.  Instead of focusing on our rights, we should be keenly aware of our sins and the determined routing of them when they become obvious to us.  Others’ offenses, when they become plain to us, become another opportunity to exercise dying, holy forgetfulness, and true forgiveness.

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  -Matthew 6:14-15 ESV

What I did not expect in all of this, especially in the difficult relationship, was that God would bring about justice in a beautiful, healing way.  When I agreed to die, He enabled me to live.  When I did not demand, He delighted to give.  The testimony of my, though very imperfect, sacrifice caused a change in the relationship, and the person who had grieved me sought my forgiveness without me ever having to name the offense.  I was quite floored, honestly.  And since God had enabled me to let their offenses take no bitter root within me, my heart was already full of love and not resentment; there was ready grace and no debt to satisfy.

shortstory9I have so very far to go yet, in this dying to self, to my rights, to my own way.  But the joy that follows is a very good bait to advance further on in love and holiness.

Out of Nowhere

I stuffed green beans into the hot jars as the sky grew black.  I had just picked those beans, squinting into the over-bright sky through the dense leaves, my eyes trying to sift through the shapes and find the edible ones, long and slender.  Now the sky was breaking wide open and cracking whips of electricity, and the rain came down as though poured from a bucket.

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It was in the middle of prayer, there laying on my side in bed, all peace and petition, that a rank fear latched onto me.  Like a black blanket being lowered over me, a malignant presence, but this has happened enough times before, and there is always a remedy:  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  The darkness pulled away, but my heart was still disturbed.  I padded across the hallway to check on Henrik.  He was running a low fever, and had refused supper, and sometimes a mother just has to lay her hand on that little belly and feel the life there.

Returning to bed Dustin was awake and wide-eyed.  He’d had a terrifying dream, gunshots firing and his heart was pounding to beat the band.  He’d had his nightmare at the same time I had experienced that dark fear.  We wondered about that as we lay in the moonlight.  We prayed.

It can all come out of nowhere.

One minute sun and clear skies, the next torrents of rain and lighting crashing.  One minute peace, the next a spiritual attack.  In both, there is within this thanksgiving for shelter, for protection.  A sense of being held.

So do not fear, for I am with you;
    do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.  

                                                                      Psalm 41:10

As the horrors of the Planned Parenthood videos have rocked the nation, I pray for a bit of blindsidedness, a bit of out-of-nowhere, caught-off-guard reality checks for our convenience-worshipping society.  I pray that those who were comfortable in their distance and apathy will be rattled to the core, blind no more.  I pray that there will be no shelter in their excuses, their rationalizations, their loyalty to the sexual revolution’s mantra of sex without consequence.  And I pray that they will say, “I knew it not, but now I do, and can no longer abide it”.  And I pray for God’s mercy upon them and for shelter true and good, the Father and His startling, strong love.