Anxiety is my familiar and unwelcome friend. In my early twenties when I was teaching seventh grade, I’d stand in the shower first thing trying to breathe in the warmth, the heat, the calm, while my heart pounding uncontrollably in terror at the day ahead. Before book releases, twice I’ve landed in the doctor’s office, hooked up to an EKG. The second time, my doctor asked, “Have you tried breathing deeply?” I hadn’t. When my mother died my foundation crumbled; I struggled with high blood pressure for months; I’d wake up in the night, unreasonably panicked and sweaty.
Our house was burglarized recently and all the jewelry I’d inherited from my mother was stolen. It was awful for the expected reasons, but also because it triggered that old anxiety: A smoke alarm chirps in the night and I’m awake, drenched, heart racing. This, I know, is anxiety in small proportion. In larger doses it’s debilitating and even life-threatening. Today anxiety is an epidemic among teens, a health crisis of daunting proportion, even a cultural norm. These are difficult times.
So I was intrigued when Brother David Steindl-Rast in a recent On Being interview with Krista Tippett embraced anxiety. Acknowledge it, he suggested; affirm it.
“Anxiety—” he said, “this word comes from a root that means ‘narrowness’ and ‘choking.’ The original anxiety is our birth anxiety. We all come into this world through this very uncomfortable process of being born, unless you happen to be a cesarean baby. It’s really a life-and-death struggle for both the mother and the child. And that is the original, the prototype, of anxiety. At that time, we do it fearlessly, because fear is the resistance against this anxiety. If you go with it, it brings you into birth. If you resist it, you die in the womb, or your mother dies.
“Anxiety is not optional… We come into life through anxiety. And we look at it and remember it and say to ourselves: We made it. We got through it. We made it. In fact, the worst anxieties and the worst tight spots in our life, often, years later, when you look back at them, reveal themselves as the beginning of something completely new, a completely new life.
“And that can teach us, and that can give us courage, also, now that we think about it, in looking forward and saying: Yes, this is a tight spot. It’s about as tight spot as the world has ever been in, or at least humankind. But if we go with it — and that will be grateful living — if we go with it, it will be a new birth. And that is trust in life.”
Fear is our resistance to anxiety; fear is life-destroying; fear, Steindl-Rast implies, is optional. But anxiety is simply what it feels like to move through the birth canal, and awful as it is, it brings us to birth. So now, when I’m awake at night, I try to welcome the anxiety, I trace its wild course through my blood stream, and I imagine welcoming it for our whole country so we can pass through these narrow choking times into something new. Welcome anxiety, welcome anxiety.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
Second Friday spiritual memoir drop-in series at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality
3/9: Writing as Exercising Forgiveness
4/13: Characters: Real People in Two Dimensions (This session is facilitated by Carolyn Holbrook)
6/8: Adding by Subtraction