Sunday, July 09, 2017

Fretting is my spiritual gift

Those of you who read this who are naturally Nervous Nellies will sympathize with the dilemma I face daily:

On the one hand, the Bible clearly tells us to be anxious for nothing, to cast all our cares upon the One who cares for us. We also are not supposed to fret ourselves because of evildoers. We're also (general Biblical principles) not supposed to obsess, or rant, or wallow in anger. (The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.)

On the other hand, we are supposed to be prudent, responsible, canny, and not fools. (See Proverbs, passim.) We're supposed to be good stewards of our time, talents, and treasure. (See the Parable of the Talents.) We're supposed to try to give good advice to those for whom we are responsible. We're supposed to be hard-working rather than lazy. Sloth is one of the seven deadlies. (See the life and teachings of the Apostle Paul.) We're supposed to remember all the gazillion details that are our responsibility to remember. (Tautology.) We're also supposed to work hard at praying for our needs and the needs of others. Men ought always to pray and not to faint.

To a naturally worrying person, these two sets of injunctions are almost psychologically impossible to satisfy simultaneously. It is simply true that some of my best ideas have come during fretting sessions. "What can I do about problem x? Surely there must be something that one can try!" And lo, a constructive idea appears after some period of otherwise fruitless head-beating. Focused prayer sometimes becomes nearly indistinguishable from painful worrying. "Dear Lord, please, please deal with issue x. Please show me what to do about x. Please show me what to advise so-and-so to do about x. Please show so-and-so what to do about x." And so forth. As for "being prudent and responsible," well...If you're a hyper-responsible person, you know what that means. "Okay, what's the next thing I need to Google in order to deal with the next of five million things about which I have to be full of up-to-date, perfectly accurate information, both for myself and for every member of my family, from here to the end of time?"

Not doing any of these things, or, God forbid, forgetting something or making a mistake that harms someone else, brings a crushing feeling of guilt. Yet at the same time, one feels guilty for getting all wound up and not "resting in Christ." Then one has to add to one's list of things to do sitting down and figuring out what is false guilt and what is accurate. Because remember: Thinking aright about all of one's deeds and thoughts, in order to confess sins and make changes where necessary, is also a duty--the examination of conscience.

If you are reading this blog post and are waiting for the Big Reveal that will tell you how to wend your way through this dilemma, you can stop reading now. There isn't going to be a Big Reveal, because I don't have any brilliant answers. In fact, the idea that there is an Answer with a capital A out there for every problem is one will-o'-the-wisp that I've finally learned not to keep chasing. At least I try to remember it. That, at least, can prevent some late nights--the realization that, in the inspired words of economist Thomas Sowell, there are no solutions, only tradeoffs and compromises. It's simply not true, a lie of the Enemy, that if you stay up late enough you will think of the solution to some problem or other. Not even the problem of not worrying or how to worry more constructively.

So all I have are a few tips that may help someone else. By the way, I'm not including "learn to say no" in this list of tips, though many over-conscientious people do need that advice, because I'm actually pretty good at saying "no" to other people's demands. So if you're looking for advice on how to do that, I'm probably not the best person to ask. That isn't where my overactive conscience happens to operate. (Maybe it should. Am I a selfish jerk who says "no" too often?? Huh. Better think about that some more...)

1) Take fun breaks from whatever you are laboring on or worrying about. This side of Glory, we anxious pilgrims are unlikely to achieve a saintly calm at all times. Our lives are probably going to alternate between fretfulness and rest. But make sure at least that you do alternate. When it's nothing but tension and fret all the time, you're headed for disaster. Take a walk, during which you think about something enjoyable, not (not) the latest Thing. Sit on the porch. Watch a sunset. Listen to good music. Do something you actually feel like doing. It's not a sin. It's important. If necessary, tell yourself that you have a duty to take breaks. That'll do it. You know it will.

2) Learn to recognize when you are really just spinning your wheels and burning up your motor, and learn to stop yourself. Yes, it's true: It's logically possible that if you continue to stay awake thinking about the Thing, you will come up with some smart idea about the Thing that will actually help. But that's not the way to bet. And probability is indeed the very guide of life. Stop and go to bed. Break off. Do something else. If it isn't bed time, then right now do something different, profitable, and attention-requiring. Bonus hint: If you're married, your spouse can help you identify these times. If you're engaged or dating, that person should be able to help you. Otherwise, see if you can get a friend to help you with it.

3) Offer it up. I'm not going to write a whole blog post here and now about the psychology, theology, and metaphysics of offering it up, but I think it's okay with God, and I think it's a spiritual exercise worth engaging in. Recognize that your sense of psychological burden over the current Thing is a kind of suffering. (No, that's not too melodramatic. It's okay. And it's true, isn't it?) Once you recognize it as a kind of suffering, then you can recognize that God can use that suffering, maybe even in wholly mysterious ways, for His glory. Get rid of resentment (that's the hard part), and tell God that you offer up your psychological pain over X, to Him, for the furtherance of his kingdom. If you really want to be somewhat Catholic or High Church about it, you can get really daring and tell God that, if it's His will, you want to offer up your suffering with this worry for so-and-so--someone whom you want to help or bless. It doesn't even have to be someone connected with the worry in any way, though it might be. Does it "work"? Does it have metaphysical meaning? I'm not, honestly, certain, and I'm too much of an analytic philosopher to pretend certainty where I don't have it. But I think it might, and I don't think it's wrong. What I do know, as a psychological matter, is that offering up one's feelings of anxiety to Our Lord for someone else is quite helpful mentally. Nor does it seem to have the effect of making one try to generate more unpleasant feelings in order to have more to offer up. It's not like that at all. It is, rather, a calming thing, leading one to a sense of acceptance of one's teeny little cross and to a feeling that things aren't just pointless. Then you can stop fretting and turn to something more profitable--sleep, for example.

4) Take spiritual breaks. It's fine, even important, to pray for a list of needs. The Bible tells us to. But that shouldn't be all of your prayer life. Not even pleading with God, wrestling with God, for some serious and urgent matter should be all of the Christian's prayer life. No doubt Martha felt like giving a smart answer to Jesus. I've often written her answer for her in my own mind: "Hey, Lord, if everyone were like Mary, how would your supper get cooked?" But the fact remains that Martha does need to play Mary's role sometimes. Regularly.

When you pray, leave time for thanksgiving, for remembering His mercies with joy, for meditation, and for interior silence in the presence of God--coram Deo. Do this intentionally. We worriers have to come to the Lord with our frets and follies, our contradictory demands of conscience, our emotional incoherence, and present ourselves to Him. It's a thing in itself. It isn't just praying in a generic sense. It's telling the Lord, "Here I am. Show me yourself. Use me as you see fit. Make me in your image. I shall be satisfied when I awake with your likeness." And then being quiet for a while.

8 comments:

Beth Impson said...

Wow, Lydia, this is wonderful! I love the understated humor with the true descriptions (have you been reading my mind?!) and helpful suggestions. (And thank you for not telling us you have found the Answer.) This was an especially good read for me today.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thank you very much, Beth, that is encouraging!

Mary Fuller said...

Excellent post!

Tony said...

We worriers have to come to the Lord with our frets and follies, our contradictory demands of conscience, our emotional incoherence, and present ourselves to Him. It's a thing in itself.

I think this is a critical piece of learning to pray for everyone, not just worriers: present yourself to God WITH your distractions: "Lord, I want to attend to you and only you, but X keeps intruding, and while I can set it aside (with difficulty), that too takes up attention...so, bear with me and help me forget myself and forget X for the moment." And then stop bothering about whether X keeps distracting you. Sure, it might. So? What, were you pretending that God can only hear the part of your thoughts that you actually address to him and not your distracted moments in between?

To a naturally worrying person, these two sets of injunctions are almost psychologically impossible to satisfy simultaneously.

Not to pile on with the Martha side unduly, but to me it always seemed that Christ's "not a sparrow falls" and "not even Solomon in ally his glory was arrayed as one of these lilies" were a bit too, ummm, fatalistic. We humans have been given the gift of intelligence, and it is part of our perfection to take thought for consequences of current acts and work toward goals and purposes by taking those into account. God gave the sparrows instincts for building nests, so they don't have to take thought for how they will keep the eggs warm - God has already done it for the birds. He didn't give us instincts, he gave us our intelligence instead: he wants us to do for ourselves what he did for the sparrows.

One decent bit of advice I have heard, which doesn't count as a "solution" but I think of as the outline of a solution, is the old saw "work as if everything depends on you, pray as if everything depends on God." Among other things, this requires having a finite-sized box for "work", though, right?. I gather that this means that "working as if" doesn't imply "worrying about" what you are working for. I'll let you know how that turns out when I figure it out.

I am a problem-solver. It's what I am good at, and part of my personality. So, how do I address the following problem: How to stop being a problem-solver (temporarily)? Let's see, I think I can solve that if I...chop off my head and seal it in granite. Yep, that should work. Oh, the temporary part, I missed that: back to square one. Just give me enough time, and I am sure I'll have a solution...

Lydia McGrew said...

I find that I take the "work as if everything depends on you" maxim much too literally!

About the problem-solving: Exactly. The best way for me to stop angsting about something is to *solve* it. But of course life isn't like that. There are some things that can be solved ("Why is there water on my basement floor? Oh, it's a leaking dehumidifier.") and a lot more, and more serious things, that can't.

Tony said...

OK, so another tidbit I came across - possibly in one of the books my spiritual advisor had me read, is this. Did you ever have a day where you started out working on the things on your list, and nearly everything you came to, you nailed, and not only did you get it done, but you did it in roughly the amount of time that you would have allotted to it if you were a boss and gave it to a subordinate. At the end of the day, about 10 of the top 11 things got crossed off. Great day.

And other days where every time you try to tackle a project, something else needs to be done first, and then you can't do that until something else is done by somebody else, so you drop that and move on to the next. And you try 16 different ways to make #3 come out, and none of them pan out, they all fail. And in the process you made your neighbor mad at you (you can't even tell why), and you lost your temper with a kid, etc. Nasty, rotten day all around.

Did you plan out the week before hand, and decide "OK, on Monday, I am going to have the first kind of day, and on Tuesday it will be the nasty kind of day"? No, of course not. We don't get to decide by choice when our efforts will be successful and when they will not. Since we don't get to decide that, it must be that this decision is in Somebody Else's Hands. So, if we don't get to decide that, it's off our plate, and we can drop worrying about it. Let Him worry about it, it's not my problem. All I have to do is put in the effort.

I didn't say I was good at it.

Callum said...

Lydia, I may be completely wrong about this so please say if so, but would a part of this burden be from helping so many people? You have helped me immeasurably. I don't doubt that you have helped a great number of others, too. I've always been a bit amazed at how such a good defender of the faith has so much time and charity to help complete strangers out, strangers over the internet no less. It's quite unique.

Having said that, I could imagine the burden that one in that position could feel, when there is a fire burning to help others and the Kingdom and difficulties arise.

I know there is no answer with a capital A, but your important role in building the Kingdom, it seems to me, is helped not just by your expertise in historical Christian evidences (among others) but coupled with a fierce drive to help others and serve God.

It's a difficult dilemma, but the characteristics you have which put you in that position also serve to make you a powerful instrument of God. I can testify to that!

(Also, I would want to make it seem like I haved reduced your situation to just the area of helping others with doubts!)

Lydia McGrew said...

Callum, I would not be honest if I said that helping other people is a *major* cause of my difficulty. Most of it is a matter of temperament. Here are the biggest ways in which helping other people intersects negatively with my nervous temperament:

1) I get to feeling responsible for the possible deconversion of someone who has contacted me on-line with doubts.

2) I become unnecessarily annoyed when a correspondent (or a "friend" on Facebook) is raising unnecessary, misguided, or exaggerated doubts about Christianity or about some moral issue. Annoyance tends to increase even more in proportion to how well I know the person otherwise. If you're an in-person Christian friend for whom I have serious affection, and you're being stubborn and dense about, e.g., Christian evidences or homosexuality, I may start tearing my hair out at the roots.

3) I am tempted to respond to questions from correspondents instead of writing a new paper or doing something else that requires long, focused concentration.

But none of these would be a real problem if it weren't for my personal temperament faults.