All good stories are about brave people. They’re risk-takers, the charge-ahead and take life by the horns type. They’re sacrificial; they’re passionate. We love to read about them; we love to watch movies about them. But when we look at our own lives, we see how very different we approach challenges. We are bound in anxiety about the direction of our culture, fearful of the pandemic conquering the planet, and scared out of our minds and panicking about government overreach and control. We don’t look a thing like the heroes in our stories, our movies, and even the memorially gigantic, historical figures who preceded us.
We all want to be brave. We want to face our fears. We don’t want to cower when adversity strikes. But what does bravery look like for us? How do you walk in bravery and boldness when the headlines scream that you should panic? How do you muster the courage to face all the possibilities of your circumstances?
I was taking a personality assessment a couple of years ago. And inevitably, in the middle of it, I shouted to my husband, “Dave! Am I an anxious person?” I always crave his perceptions of me because I am easily blinded to my own deficiencies and weaknesses. He walked into the room, gave me a quizzical look shaded with what he saw as the obvious answer,
“Uh, yeah. Of course, you are.”
“What? Really? You think I struggle with anxiety?”
It had really NEVER crossed my mind. I grew up with cautious parents, sure. But I had always taken on hard things. I always pushed myself to do things that might be uncomfortable. I later came to realize that the motivations for doing hard things weren’t at all from a place of bravery or fearlessness. I have a lot of other issues that play into those motivations (for another conversation).
It really shook me to come to terms with this idea that I struggled with anxiety. I guess it was such a familiar feeling that I never recognized it for what it was. I began to see my world differently after that. I started paying attention to how my body was reacting in stress. I saw how prone I was to run away from stressful situations and to seek a place of peace. I was all too familiar with the tightening in my chest, the heart pounding, and the racing thoughts of all the possible outcomes of my actions and circumstances.
The anxiety I had struggled with was exacerbated during the first year we lived in SE Asia. We came, not knowing really how it would turn out, but we had dreamed of it for years (decades for me, about 15 years for my husband). Our experience was similar to all expats in that we experienced all the stages of culture shock. At the time, I didn’t realize the toll of anxiety in my life, but it was certainly amplified because culture stress is a real thing. Everyone everywhere has stress in their life, so there is a base level of stress at all times. But when you move cross-culturally, you add on a generous layer of culture stress (this is ongoing and not the same as culture shock) which is largely due to language barriers, cultural behavioral barriers, and just the process of doing everything differently than you’re used to doing. I began to not be okay. I blamed it on culture stress, but really it was MY response to my stress. It was anxiety having a heyday with my mind and body which, in turn, affected my soul. There were multiple layers to our final decision to return to the USA (with an intent to live cross-culturally again), but we finally bit the bullet and moved back to our passport country with heavy, broken hearts as we watched our dream crumble.
We returned to the US, and I developed an auto-immune disease that ramped up the familiar anxiety to new heights. That coupled with re-entry culture shock was not fun. But, with time, I was able to find my place and my way to serve the local church to which I belonged. I reached a pretty peaceful place in life.
After a couple of years, we decided it was time to return overseas after having had time in the US to reassess our health, emotional and physical, and to reorganize our life. We sold our house—huge stress reliever!—and sold most of our belongings. Paperwork snafus happened, and we were in limbo. The process dragged on for five months. Anxiety began to wrap its Medusa-like snakes around me, making me doubt my dreams, distrust my callings, and question my purpose. We finally arrived, but it didn’t go away.
Little did I know this was to become a pattern that I finally recognized as my stress response—doubt, fear, flight, rinse, repeat. It just kept happening. Multiple situations in our host country brought fear, doubt, anxiety, desires to flee, and then I would counteract with truth, encouragement, prayer, music, going outside, and then something else would happen, and it would begin all over again. It’s been an exhausting couple of years.
And here we are now, in a global pandemic of Covid-19, and I’ve experienced it all again. But I’m grateful and glad to say that although my stress response isn’t really different, I am now actively aware of how I’m going to respond, I know it will be short-lived, and I know what I need to do to stay out of despair and hopelessness. So, I’m not really here to speak to you as an expert on overcoming anxiety, fear, despair, depression, or hopelessness, but I want to share how I’ve been encouraged, counseled and held together in the middle of it. My hope and goal is to embolden you to face hard things with faith, surrender, and grace.