Because there is evil in the world,
dear one, and brothers slay brothers, and men are cowardly, even in their words, hiding behind rhetoric and platitudes, and even less valiant in their actions; let me rest in your arms tonight and listen to the gentle rhythm of your life, defying this creeping despair.
Because fear and apprehension are wasted time,
a disservice to uncertainty, to humanity, to God,
a surrender to the tragedy,
a capitulation to the darkness;
let me stay by your side for whatever
minutes or hours or days or weeks
or months or years remain to us.
Oh darling, let me come Home.
Because there is beauty in the world,
casting the light of redemption—
when good is allowed to grow,
when heads and hearts forget
their fancied or fabled fear—
even on the darkness of death;
let me rest in your arms tonight,
becoming one within and without.
Because there is Love in the world,
whispering sight and sound and health,
overwhelming the grave, defeating defeat,
living every day as a gratitude,
a grace, a gift, a greatness;
let me sing, too, the susurrant hope
of the Creator and the created.
Oh darling, let me come Home.
There have been times, and maybe there will be again, when fear gripped me so tightly, that I struggled to breathe. I forgot everything else. I forgot to see. I forgot how to turn on the lights to scare away shadows. Those moments have shaped and rearranged me. I am not my anxiety. I am not my depression. But I carry them with me, even on the sunniest days, in the happiest moments.
The first time I had an anxiety attack, I was thirteen. This was right after a Sunday school lesson about demons, and I found myself wondering for months, maybe even years, whether I had experienced a demonic attack. It was a scary time, a time before my nightmares had stopped, a time before I knew how to have faith without positive emotions. I thought that if my emotions could be swayed so easily, my salvation and my Christianity were false. I questioned God’s existence, and, despite continuing to attend church regularly, I felt wildly alienated from it.
It happened just before I registered for seventh grade. I would be in a new school, in with the big kids (in my school district, 7th through 12th graders shared a building). I had been dreading growing up all summer and mourning the loss of my childhood. Finding comon ground with Peter Pan, I didn’t want to grow up at all.
It was a Sunday night. I had been lethargically spending my last days of summer, being as unstructured as possible. After the talk about demons, I had an uncomfortable feeling as I got ready for bed, a tightness in my stomach, a sense of dread pawing at the back of my head, right above my neck. I decided to sleep downstairs, on the main floor, instead of in my bedroom, upstairs. This is something I did often when I was younger due to frequent nightmares; I had grown adept at predicting when I would have one and preferred to be close to my parents’ bedroom. This way I could stay up late reading without keeping my sister awake, hoping I could ward off the various villains of my dreams with a book. I would eventually fall asleep, regardless of my efforts. Then, the nightmare would come.
This particular night it was different. It was dark and warm, as Augusts in Minnesota are apt to be. I laid out sleeping bags and tried to settle in, but I couldn’t. Instead of drifting into an unconscious hell, I was wide awake. My chest got tighter and my mind raced faster until I could no longer think. Fear was all there was. I felt paralyzed. Just the same, I forced myself through the kitchen and dining room—it seemed to take an eternity—into my parents’ room. My mom was still awake, a lamp lighting the room, providing some amount of relief from the terror of darkness just outside.
My mom looked at me and asked what was wrong. I don’t remember if I managed to say anything or if my face gave away my distress. Then my mom prayed. She prayed and prayed. I threw myself on her bed and cried. Eventually, I began to breathe normally again. The gripping sensation in my chest subsided. My mind calmed and I focused on the words my mom was saying, the love and concern in her voice, the reassurance.
My mom began to sing a song that I had heard ever since I was little “Jesus has all authority here in this place, He has all authority here, for this habitation was fashioned for the Lord’s presence, all authority here.” It was immensely comforting.
For the rest of the night, and for several nights after, I slept on the floor in my parents’ bedroom. I would fall asleep holding my mom’s hand.
In the following months, I seemed to lose my identity, my sense of grounding. I didn’t trust anything I thought or felt. Seventh grade began, which was difficult enough; new classrooms, new teachers, new classmates, a whole new way of life. And while cruelty exists among children of all ages, suddenly cruelty was coupled with extreme emotions and the makings of deeply rooted insecurities. For the most part, I could handle the blonde girls with straight hair who had icy stares and snide comments. I could handle the guy from Illinois, (who I thought was kind of cute) calling me ugly “as a joke” every day. Even then, I knew these things were ultimately unimportant.
What I handled less well was the existential angst I was undergoing. I hadn’t discovered Descartes yet, so my eyes hadn’t been opened to the ultimate good that comes out of doubting everything; and I really, really wanted to be a good Christian. I wanted God to exist. I wanted my faith to be real.
I did not know then that my depression was probably made worse because of some vague impression I had that Christians were supposed to be cheerful. I had had little to no exposure to healthy attitudes regarding depression. Mental health was a taboo and framed as a spiritual affliction, not a chemical imbalance. Even when my youth pastor resigned that year due to his wife’s depression, he skillfully skirted around the word, talking instead about stress and serotonin levels. For many evangelicals, maybe even people in general, negative emotions are associated with feelings of shame, when the reality is that negative emotions are healthy in light of negative life events. You can have negative emotions without abandoning hope, and you can forget your hope without abandoning God or the church. What’s more, you will not be abandoned because of these things.
These were things that I did not learn for years after seventh grade. They are things that I am still learning. This keeps my depression more or less at bay, and my anxiety attacks are short and relatively irrelevant. As a thirteen-year-old I used the tools I had available to me, which, while shoddy, have made a significant difference.
The first tool was logic: If God exists, God exists whether or not I believe it. Unless you are hardcore into Berkeley or some other form of idealism, this is pretty basic. I would repeat this to myself to prevent going down mental rabbit holes even Alice would probably have shunned. While I didn’t realize I was being intensely philosophical, this premise became a significant step in the process of understanding the relationship between belief and ontology. That simple sentence was an existential lifeline.
So I had tackled the notion that existence was belief-independent. However, my work was far from over. I had to tackle the eerie feeling that perhaps my experience of God was completely false, and that I was really being tricked by some demon, possibly without an actual will of my own, heading down a path of complete destruction and eternal torment.
No big deal. Buffy deals with this kind of thing in her sleep, right?
I remember sitting in the bathtub one day. I was nearly through my seventh grade year, and I had stayed home from school. I was staring at the faucet sticking out of the wall. The water looked almost as if it were tinted blue-green as it lapped gently against the sides of the bathtub. My mind was turning over and over again, stuck and numbed and terrified.
Suddenly I thought of something I had heard in youth group, “God is not a God of confusion.”
For the first time in months, I felt that I could trust my senses and emotions. Sure, sometimes they jumble things up and get it wrong. They don’t always match reality, but for the most part, I can trust my experiences. However defective these tools are, they worked. They gave me enough space to breathe and enough time to sort through other big questions as time went on, without a sense that I was somehow failing all of the time.
I slowly rebuilt trust in my mind, trust in God.
Today, I don’t know how many anxiety attacks I have had. They usually erupt out of an unbearably deep sense of loneliness, at times of great uncertainty, not a fear of the demonic. Lately, they have had an affinity for grocery stores as well.
I have close friends with anxiety who have taught me a lot. Recently, I’ve learned that I have a lot of family members who have anxiety. Some are medicated; others aren’t. Some see therapists; others don’t. Still others don’t even recognize their constant sense of fear as having anything to do with mental health.
Talking about it, sharing my fears, and learning from others’ experiences have all helped me shed some light on those midnight monsters that tried to steal the last moments of my childhood. Despite all the weird and destructive instruction from that Sunday school lesson all those years ago, one things was true: beastly, dreadful monsters cannot live in the light.
When by my solitary hearth I sit,
And hateful thoughts enwrap my soul in gloom;
When no fair dreams before my ‘mind’s eye’ flit,
And the bare heath of life presents no bloom;
Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head.
Whene’er I wander, at the fall of nights,
Where woven boughs shut out the moon’s bright ray,
Should sad Despondency my musings fright,
And frown, to drive fair Cheerfulness away,
Peep with the moon-beams through the leafy roof,
And keep that fiend Despondence far aloof
Should Disappointment, parent of Despair,
Strive for her son to seize my careless heart;
When like a cloud he sits upon the air,
Preparing on his spell-bound pray to dart:
Chase him away, sweet Hope, with visage bright,
And fright him as the morning frightens night!
Whene’er the fate of those I hold most dear
Tells to my fearful breast a tale of sorrow,
O bright-eyed Hope, my morbid fancy cheer;
Let me awhile thy sweetest comforts borrow:
They heaven-born radiance around me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head!
Should e’er unhappy love my bosom pain,
From cruel parents, or relentless fair;
O let me think it is not quite in vain
To sigh out sonnets to the midnight air!
Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head!
In the long vista of the years to toll,
Let me not see our country’s honour fade:
O let me see our land retain her soul,
Her pride, her freedom; and not freedom’s shade.
From thy bright eyes unusual brightness shed-
Beneath thy pinions canopy my head!
Let me not see the patriot’s high bequest,
Great Liberty! how great in plain attire!
With the base purple of a court oppressed,
Bowing her head, and ready to expire:
But let me see thee stoop from heaven on wings
That fill the skies with silver glitterings!
And as, in sparkling majesty, a star
Gilds th bright summit of some gloomy cloud;
Brightening the half-veiled face of heaven afar:
So, when dark thoughts my boding spirit shroud,
Sweet Hope, celestial influence round me shed,
Waving they silver pinions o’er my head.
In the last few months I’ve heard a lot of people talk about the damage evangelical Christianity is doing. I’ve even talked about it. For better or for worse, I don’t intend to add to any of attacks concerning recent issues. I can’t clear up any of the pain people are experiencing from the evangelical culture wars, interpretation of scripture, or purity culture. I can’t talk committed evangelicals out of their beliefs, or liberal Christians out of theirs. In fact, I don’t want to. While I no longer participate in evangelical culture, I deeply value the experiences I had because they inform who I am today.
Would it have been freeing to grow up without a constant and deep fear of the Other?
Would it have contributed better to church flourishing to view scripture in the context of Christian community and tradition?
Would it have been healthier to view sexuality as an integral and biological part of humanity, rather than a source of shame?
The answer to all these questions is yes. Of course, a thousand times, yes. But I didn’t, and maybe you didn’t either. In fact, evangelical or not, a lot of us can relate to the misguided, well-meant shortcomings of our childhoods.
But I can’t change what you think. I can’t fix any of these problems. I can’t make World Vision reverse its reversed decision.
I can tell a story, though. I can tell you about being broken, not by the crushing weight of evangelical normative pressures in my childhood, but by compassion and by stones.
I can tell you about a dark sanctuary where the only light shines on a band playing a song about God’s goodness, love, healing, or friendship. Whatever the lyrics are, no matter how redundant the chord progressions, the music invokes more emotion in you than you’ve experienced in the last three months combined. You feel empty and full all at once, and before you know it you are having an experience, even if you walked in with a complete reticence to God, the church, or Christians.
In high school, I was a star evangelical, the kind that carried my bright pink Bible to class and sat up front at all the youth group functions. I refused to date anyone until I had graduated. And I was so sincere.
There I was, at the front of a sanctuary, steeped in the synthesized emotion of the moment, kneeling, praying, contemplating. I didn’t respond to whatever version of an alter call that had been given that night (even at the time, I didn’t think it was a good idea to respond to every single alter call), but the girl on the floor just a few inches in front of me did.
I had just met her the day before. She was closed off, rebellious, and, to me, rather mysterious. I felt like I should pray for her, so I did. When one of the adults came over to pray for her and talk her through a commitment to Christ, she said she didn’t want any of it. What was she doing at the front of the church, then?
She said she didn’t want God’s love or anyone else’s. She talked about her mean step-dad and cruel people at school. She said she didn’t have any friends. She wasn’t the first person I had heard say things like this. A lot of teenagers feel that way. A lot of teenagers struggle with feeling accepted and loved, and they are, on average, a lot more volatile about it than adults who struggle with the same things.
She said she had built up walls around her heart, and it had turned to stone. That was exactly how she was going to keep it. She said that if she let God into her heart, if she let herself feel loved and connected, she’d have to take down the walls. If she did that, her mean step dad and the people at school could hurt her. She’d have to feel that too. All of the brokenness in life would get in if love got in too.
She wasn’t talking to me, but I heard everything she said. Then I began to weep. I was overwhelmed with compassion for her. I couldn’t imagine damage so permanent that God couldn’t heal it. I also knew that her heart walls would get in the way of loving others. Nothing gets in, but nothing gets out, either. Her pain was so evident, but her voice and face were so calm. As she recounted the frustrations of her home and school life, she was calm. Her walls were working well. They were not poetry.
The baffled adult left to get reinforcement. I continued to weep, to long for her to know love and let that be her strength in the face of her suffering. A second adult came and asked her how he could help. The girl said she didn’t need help. Then, pointing at me, she said, “Help her; she’s the one crying.”
Through my tears I said, “I’m crying because I love you.”
I think we were both genuinely surprised.
“You don’t want to love me,” she replied.
I grant that this was an exceptionally odd encounter to have with a near stranger. The adults didn’t get any further with her. She was present. She wanted someone to break down her walls, but she knew it wasn’t safe. I don’t know what happened to her after that weekend. I don’t even know her name.
However, this moment has stuck with me. I don’t know what song was playing or what the take away message of the evening was supposed to be. I remember this wounded girl who understood and expressed what I spend so much of my time struggling with. This stone-hearted girl understood vulnerability—well, half of it. She was right; letting herself feel loved in the safety of our weekend away from the world was easy. We had a band adept at evoking very positive emotion. We had adults around us whose mission was to love and cherish us, and we all had homes with plenty of dysfunction to go back to. So this girl knew that letting love in meant letting pain in. It’s what loving in an imperfect world is like. I think what shook me up, beyond her account of painful life experiences, was that while she had the premise right, she had drawn the wrong conclusion. She treated pain like a heavy weight when love is the proven champion. And that is what broke my heart.
You are the beautiful in life
that I told you about
on that late autumn night,
crossing the bridge between our worlds.
In you lies a goodness more compelling
than mere right or wrong,
a mystery, a heart-balm.
And you are stronger than you know,
wiser than you trust.
You are the beautiful in life,
resting so calmly by my side,
slipping into my In Betweens,
until every accidental thought is of you.
One day, you will know your strength,
learn to smile from the inside out,
learn to laugh in the same way,
find a hope that does not disappoint.
One day, you will see that it’s you
the masterpiece, not the art on your walls.
You are the beautiful in life.
As silence stretched us oceans apart
and dusk deepened,
I forgot the stars,
the sound of the rain,
the early springtime budding blooms;
I was, instead, afraid,
afraid of saying more than I meant,
afraid of saying nothing;
We were afraid to want
for fear of loss and failure,
afraid of sounding desperate;
We were afraid to trust,
afraid to hope,
afraid of our own happiness;
The silence deepened,
the ocean grew more vast between us,
until our fears grew more monstrous still,
swirling, tumbling, and tightening;
And when my eyes had grown
accustomed to the dark,
I saw that I was afraid
only of my own shadow.