I wrote this post on the night of Thursday, September 12th, 2013, but didn’t manage to finish the editing and refining process until recently (Thursday, September 19th). The reason why I am writing this is because I know I’m not the only one who struggles with fear and anxiety, and because I haven’t been able to relate well to people who felt fear in the past. Plus, it needs to be out there and known for the people who interact with me, but it’s generally a bit of a problem to randomly bring up in group conversations. Finally, my friends and community need to know how much I do value and appreciate them and enjoy their company even when I’m an internal mess of fear and anxiety. Now, let’s get this show on the road.
So, this article is going to be a bit of a “part II” to my “Depression in Christian Life” blog post. I certainly wasn’t intending for there to be a follow up post, but tonight I was given the opportunity for a bit of an epiphany.
However, before I continue with that, it’s going to be necessary to give a little bit of personal back story. I’m going to be a bit vague on the details of where and when out of respect for the wishes of the other parties involved, but that shouldn’t affect the point. When I started college, my ultimate goal in life was to become a youth pastor. Most people would ask me what I would do afterwards, and I would tell them, “There is no afterwards, I’ll probably be a youth pastor until the day that I retire, and even then I hope to hang out with the youth at my church and serve as a mentor and friend.” My entire identity was shaped around this idea and when I thought of myself, I thought of myself as a youth pastor. That was my primary vocational role and goal. Later on in college, I realized some of my gifting and calling to academia and that it would be worthwhile to pursue, but my primary goal and aim was to still be a youth pastor. I figured that once I got older and a little more physically unsteady I could use my savings to complete my education and become a professor at that time; being a youth pastor was a huge part of me. Fast forward a bit, and a while after I graduated, I finally landed my first full-time youth pastor gig. Things were a little shaky, and I figure that’s because this was my first full-time gig. However, within a month and a half of my having started my job at that church my time at that church was ended. I didn’t see it coming. I thought things were going well and I was preparing for a summer program that I was excited about when I was called into the senior pastor’s office. I didn’t have much of a relationship with the senior pastor at that church, if only because the senior pastor was very busy and we didn’t often cross paths in the midst of that work. The person I was most frequently in contact with and building a relationship with was the associate pastor. So, when I walked into that office the only reason I knew something had gone wrong was when I saw the look on the face of the one person in the room who I was sure was my friend (and that person has continued to treat me as such, even to this day). My world was destroyed that day.
Along with all of the logistics of living in a new town with a new lease with no job, the way I perceived myself was damaged. In the ending process, I was informed (this is paraphrased) that I would make a good teacher, but was not someone who should be in charge of a youth group. The goal and person I had spent more than four years of my life at becoming was devalued by the people who had offered me my first opportunity to fully live into that existence. By the end of the day, I had seriously considered suicide and had made sure that I was sleeping on a friend’s couch in an entirely different but much more familiar city. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t know who I was. This wasn’t because I no longer believed that I could be an effective youth pastor, but because I eventually came to realize that the kind of youth pastor that I would like to be is incompatible with many churches. My goals for youth ministry would not be able to accomplished within the current context of youth ministry as I am now. My talents are in creating depth and intelligence and knowledge, in building relationships and using those relationships to empower others, and in taking a long view of things when setting my goals. I’m not very good at growing numbers and I sometimes struggle to understand what creates a fun environment for certain age groups. So, it’s pretty obvious to me now that I have a lot I need to work and grow on if I ever want to return to full-time youth ministry. That being said, I doubt I ever will. I can no longer trust a church to help me provide for myself or any hypothetical future family that I might have and I still have difficulties trusting church communities at all (for example, when I started returning to church, I had to fight off panic attacks simply sitting in the back pew). I have been told by many of my mentors and people who referenced me for that job in the first place that it was the church’s fault, not mine for the loss of the job, and that makes sense to me, but it hasn’t helped me rebuild much trust in those possibilities or communities.
Now to the present. Ever since I’ve moved to Korea I’ve found myself experiencing a deep seated sense of unease and fear, and that fear has occasionally made starting a different chapter in my life here in Korea a little bit difficult. It has been severe enough that I will find myself sometimes delaying going to social events that I usually look forward to or skipping them entirely if the fear is bad enough. I have found myself drawing comfort from solitude because it’s the one place where there aren’t any hidden expectations that will cause people to reject me, which is highly unusual for me, as I am both historically and currently, a people person. Tonight, I finally figured out the source of that fear and discomfort, that is my epiphany. The question I have been asking myself in the back of my mind is this: “when will it all fall apart again?” which is then followed by “what will I accidentally do or not do to make it happen?”
It’s weird realizing that even though my body and physical life has left that particular valley behind, my soul still hasn’t. Even though I’ve been told it’s not my fault, it still feels like it is. It feels like it can be simply summarized as a “you aren’t good enough” statement, and I’m irrationally worried that I’m still not good enough for life over here, or life at all. If I make the wrong mistake, if I say the wrong thing, if I put my foot in my mouth at just the wrong moment (I used to do this a lot, but now I don’t as much if only for fear that my speaking will ruin everything) that my plans here will fall apart and that it will happen again. I’m not sure what would be worse, having to go back to the U.S. because I screwed some unknown and unexpected thing up, or having a job here but having no one to spend time with because I said the wrong thing at the wrong time.
I hate being so afraid. I hate being unable to just power through momentary instances of fear like I’m accustomed to doing. Stoicism and the practices of self-discipline haven’t been doing it for me anymore. I know that I don’t have control over a great many things and I do my best to own up to that fact, but it still hasn’t stopped me from being afraid. It’s even more frustrating because both my job and my friends here haven’t given me a reason to feel this fear. They have been wonderful to me and very open and accepting and yet I’m still having moments where hiding from the world seems like a smarter move. I’m an extraordinarily people energized person who has suddenly become afraid of people. Just tonight I had a moment of panic when I realized that I’d been acting in a rather petulant manner. A friend started a game where a dichotomy was proposed and for the purposes of the discussion that it would create, you had to give an answer within that dichotomy, but my oversensitive BS detector pinged so hard (on account of the false dichotomies) that the point of the game (relationship building and discussion rather than victory) sailed right over my head. At the point where I realized what I’d been doing, my fear kicked in and I started talking like even more of a dummy. At that point, the question came back “When is it going to fall apart and what will you do to cause it? Well, this is it, they’re just going to be fed up with me,” is what wound up going through my head as we talked, but they still gave the appearance of at least accepting my company and at the end of the day, nothing was said about it. My fear is wrong yet again as it has been every single time so far, but that still hasn’t stopped it from remaining as a persistently annoying houseguest with no intention of leaving.
Yet again, this is one of those areas where my upbringing in the Church hasn’t been a lot of help. The topic of fear was generally discussed in terms of is obsolescence, not of its realities. It was usually a lot of anti-fear Bible-verse lobbing. “If God is for us who can be against us?” “We were not given a spirit of fear…” Etc. Again, it fails to address the realities of day-to-day life and turns into a lot of finely-crafted leather-bound serif-font word vomit (oy the hyphens!) when it comes time for the rubber to meet the road. There are some ills that a Bible can’t cure, which is to be expected, given that it was never intended to be the end-all cure-all in the Christian community. That function and expectation was added much later within the history of the Church, and only by certain groups within it. A lot of the things I’ve had to learn about fear have been the hard way, now more so than ever. As it turns out, when you take someone who is habitually afraid of almost everything and put them in a new environment, the fears from their old environment don’t go away (at least not right away) and some new ones get added in. Of course, along with that is one of the downsides of the theological system that I subscribe to: free will. I am free not just to succeed, but also screw-up in the worst ways possible. God doesn’t have my future set in stone, though He does have an ideal path that He would like for me to follow. So, of course the fear is that my not-good-enoughness can and will get in the way, and that my not-good-enoughness will be too much for me to recover from it a second time.
Of course, the way people face fear is largely subjective but of course the first step is usually to realize that you are in fact, afraid. Unfortunately, it has been so persistent for me that I only realize that I’m acting out of fear after having hidden away behind a book or the internet for hours on end when there was something more important to do involving people. My usual strategy with things I have been afraid of has usually just been to get a running start and go for it. This works well for things like cliff jumping, bull-fighting, and opposing alien invasions, but for more long-term things like day-to-day life and going to group events when you are at your relational best in individual settings, it hasn’t turned out so well. The place where I have most often found peace is the recitation of liturgy. Sometimes that liturgy is a certain prayer, such as the “Serenity Prayer,” other times it is the recitation of the Creeds, that have been a part of the life and practice of the Church throughout most of its history. However, this is not enough. So, of course, some of the usual methods: listening to calming music (I recently created a playlist specifically for when I’m agitated), going for a walk, exercising, and surrounding myself in music even when I’m in public but don’t want to interact.
However, once again, the most effective thing I have found to help me with my fear is the presence of a trusted and loving community, which is of course difficult when your fear keeps you from the biggest thing around that can help you. That community will help you to build that thing that best overcomes fear: trust. The reason why I was able to recover at all from what had happened is because I had people that I trusted, people that I could go to and rest and be safe. Much like there are safe places to be depressed, there are also safe places to be afraid. It is an odd thing to say, but returning to the life you used to have, or a life you’ve never had before, will take courage. It won’t be an absence of fear, but it will be the ability to regularly overcome it and say, “Today, I will not be broken” and on the days where fear snuck up on you and took your time, you can say, “I may have begun my day with fear, but I will not go to bed with it. Tomorrow, I will not be broken.” As I write this, I know for a fact that I’m not there yet. Apparently recovery isn’t over once you’ve left the valley, it’s something you get to walk with for a while. So, while I once counted myself sufficient to overthrow corrupt systems and bring reform, for now I get to overcome the challenges of walking out my front door and actually going somewhere with people who will have expectations of me. For the moment, all I have to say to that is this: