When I am Afraid

I’m afraid and anxious a lot lately. I noticed this yesterday because for a few hours yesterday, as I cleaned our little guest cottage, I felt peaceful and happy; I was quiet and still, and nobody wanted me for anything. Nothing clamored for my time. Nothing was holding me hostage and demanding that I do this, take care of that, protect and defend the other, save something, explain the situation, prove myself. The world seemed, for a few hours, to be calm and safe. I was at liberty, free to putter and just breathe.

Soon it was time to stop my puttering, return to the big house, and shift gears for after-school homecomings, dinner, and the return of himself. I went to the mailbox and a large stack of mail confronted me. As I shuffled through the mail I saw that the legal firm representing us in a lawsuit had written, and that the county clerk had sent me appeal forms for another matter. As I opened these letters, anxious, fearful feelings sprouted and grew, filling my abdomen and growing up through my diaphragm and all the way up into my throat. My heart beat faster; I felt dizzy with anxiety. All because of the mail.

I never used to feel this way. My friends said I was naively optimistic, sometimes too happy, too energetic, too enthusiastic about life and God, and especially too generous with my faith in people. No amount of disappointment could dampen my spirits. I was like an emotional Bob the Builder: Can we do it? Yes we can! Can we love it? Yes we can! Can we overcome it? Yes we can!

And then my daughter became ill and died.

Considering how much other grief and trauma we’ve experienced in our nearly 30 years of marriage, you’d think that by the time Olivia died, I’d be a veteran of grief and trauma. I had worked with many grief-stricken clients. Loved ones had died. Old friends came to untimely ends. My life hadn’t been charmed or easy, and yet the universe seemed reliable, safe, and constant to me. God was on his throne in the heavens, and all was well, all was well, and all manner of things were well.

But, as I’ve written several times here, when Olivia died I came unhinged somehow. The world wasn’t safe any more. Anything might happen. I was not immune or exempt from life’s largest losses, and neither was I able to weather every storm. I might break down; I might go crazy with grief. I might not survive; my loved one might die.

Ever since then, though Olivia has been dead for eight years now, I’ve been different.

So, when I opened the mail and saw that nothing bad had come to my door, I still felt anxious and fearful. I think I felt that way because after Olivia died, like all those who are traumatized, I knew an awful anything could happen at any time. Just like that. Usually, we all know this, theoretically. We don’t live with it in our faces day after day, though. To live with the consciousness of the fragility of life day in and day out is anxiety-producing. We’re not meant to live that way.

A few years ago, the son of a friend of ours went to a bar after work and had a few beers. Then he got into his truck and drove home. On the way home, he hit a cable television worker who was working with a crew to bury cable. The man died. A trial occurred, and our friend’s son received a very small consequence to his actions. But the family of the man who was killed received a lifetime consequence: her husband, their father, is dead. He is gone and dead, and he won’t come back.

This is the power of others. This is the power of the universe: it is large and overpowering. Anything can happen; any bad thing that can ruin a life or an entire family can happen. One lawsuit. One illness. One drunk driver. One opportunist. One criminal.

In spite of this, I am reminded of the song from Psalm 56 that we used to sing with our children:

When I am afraid,
I will trust in you,
I will trust in you,
I will trust in you.
When I am afraid,
I will trust in you,
In God whose word I praise.

In God I trust,
When I am afraid.
In God I trust,
In God, whose word I praise.

When I am afraid,
I will trust in you,
I will trust in you,
I will trust in you.
When I am afraid,
I will trust in you,
In God whose word I praise.

In the past, trusting God meant that I believed he would keep me and my loved ones safe. Being safe meant that we were well and free from large suffering, and alive. Even though countless people have suffered illness, disease, torture, imprisonment, injustice and other traumas, I must have somehow thought it would not come near to me, and should not come near to me. But when Olivia died, I knew that unbearable suffering could come near me at any time. In an instant, everything could change. All could be lost.

I’ve been trying to learn how to live in that place where “underneath are the everlasting arms,” but I’m not there yet.

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