Last August, my husband and I reveled in two quiet weeks away from the hubbub of our busy household and the pressures of work at a secluded and beautiful farm. There was time for walking, napping, talking and reading. It was glorious. But In the midst of this idyllic getaway, I started to notice little thoughts of worry regularly popping up, such as, if my husband was gone on an errand that I thought would take 30 minutes, but 35 minutes had passed, I would fret increasingly about this until his return.
Over the last decade or so, I had experienced so much healing and growth; I viewed myself as a person who loved and trusted the Lord and experienced a great deal of inner peace. Yet anxious thoughts of this sort continued to bubble up until I knew I needed to look at what was at the bottom of this.
The Lord gradually showed me that all of these little fears were springing from a larger one: shortly before this vacation our son and daughter-in-law, who were living with us, had both landed first year teaching jobs. These jobs were the culmination of a year-long Masters of Education program they’d just completed, and we were very excited for them… or so I thought.
But underneath my excitement was worry. Thirty years ago, I also had completed a degree and was hired for my first job as a teacher. But that year of teaching, along with many joys, had also been difficult and exhausting and had finally led to anxiety attacks and a kind of anxious depression that eventually hovered over me all the time.
I talked with trusted friends, I read a wonderful book about fear, I tried to practice the author’s wise prescriptions, and I cried out to God. All of this helped me to cope; it got me through. At the end of that year, a former job in a different profession opened up and I quit teaching, worn out and defeated not by the teaching job, but by the anxiety it provoked.
Safely returning to a job I knew I could do, with colleagues I loved and enjoyed, that deep anxiety and all its troubling symptoms gradually eased. Now, 30 years later, I understood that my anxiety for my children was rooted in my own past experience. I knew how hard teaching could be, and I was afraid that they would have an overwhelmingly difficult experience like I had had. I was afraid that teaching might provoke in them what it had provoked in me, and that they wouldn’t be able to handle that, nor would I. I saw that if I wanted to come alongside them in a healthy and hopeful way, I needed to separate my 30-year-old teaching experience from the teaching experience they were about to begin.
My old anxiety had faded, but I had never truly understood it or dealt with it. I hadn’t understood the need to do so at the time, but here, 30 years later, I saw how it would interfere with my ability to care for my children in an unhindered way.
In the midst of this discovery, our vacation ended and we returned home. Shortly upon our return, something went awry in our household that normally would have been an inconvenient frustration but inexplicably pushed me over the edge. Even as we worked to solve the situation I was seized with a deep, almost debilitating anxiety. I slept poorly night after night, lost my appetite and felt distracted, unsettled and nervous all day long, day after day, while externally I tried to finalize preparations for the new season of directing church choir and teaching piano lessons that was soon to begin.
It was as if the Lord was saying, you really have to deal with this, it will continue to get worse until you do. I sensed that his invitation was to go back to the scene, 30 years old, and open it up again, to remember all I could about that teaching year, particularly looking for clues as to what had caused such crippling anxiety. I didn’t want to do this – I was afraid to go back to that fear and for some days I resisted doing this work.
But a good friend suggested a simple path of writing that seemed possible to me, and so I began early in the mornings, writing about that that teaching year. That writing eventually led me back to two specific encounters with students that felt like they were at the heart of my anxiety. But why? I couldn’t understand. That year I had handled all kinds of things that could have led to anxiety attacks: teaching classes outside of my certification area, teaching in a chronically cold and damp classroom with little money for supplies, a crushing workload and just plain being a first year teacher. While those things had been challenging, they had not undone me. Why had these others?
And as I continued to journal and pray and wait, the Lord eventually showed me what gave these situations their power. In each, a small group of students had scorned and rejected me, despite my intentions to be a good, loving, and fair teacher and the enormous number of hours I poured into the job week after week. As I looked over what I’d written and thought about those situations and the pain that was still present all these years later, I suddenly grasped that I had been laboring under a “life- formula” that I had never perceived before: I work hard, this goes well, I am loved. I was the engine for the work, the amount of effort guaranteed success,the success resulted in people valuing and loving me.
All through my childhood and young adulthood up until teaching, this formula had worked, or at least seemed to. But with these two groups of students, it didn’t. If the way to get love is to work hard and succeed… what does it mean if you work hard and – in someone else’s eyes – you don’t succeed? According to my formula it meant I wouldn’t be loved… it meant I couldn’t guarantee that I could get people to love me. And even though I had not understood this consciously at the time, certainly my subconscious had registered the news and had responded with deep anxiety.
I had lived all my life under the umbrella of this belief system and never seen it. Oh, some holes had been shot into it over the years, such as the revelation that I was a workaholic andthe recovery process that led to: learning to set boundaries, making space for rest, and cultivating times offun. But the umbrella was still over me, tatters and all, and as I looked over my life from this vantage point, new light was shed on old painful situations and difficulties.
The morning of this revelation happened to be a morning that I was home alone, with only tasks such as laundry and cleaning to occupy me, and as I moved into these tasks, I continuedto think and pray. A few hours later, a new idea came to me: instead of attempting to no longer live by this terrible, flawed formula, perhaps I could ask God what formula He would replace this with? So I asked… and almost immediately I was given a new series of four short truths to Iive under. They were breathtakingly different from the old way.
Instead of “I work hard,” the new way didn’t begin with work, in fact it didn’t begin with me; it began with God. Nor did it culminate in love… it started there. My new first truth was, “God, you love me.” Before work, before effort, before initiative… I was loved before anything else.
That morning was a watershed of liberating clarity that had me in awe of God even while I knew the path of learning to live this new way was just beginning. It came to include praying for the cutting of soul ties; time spent forgiving and praying for the students involved in those long-ago painful experiences; a prayer appointment dealing with my struggles to know God’s love for me, disconnected from performance; and went on to more journaling, praying and conversations. The work and the joy of living into this freedom goes on.
But how amazing is our God! Along with all the healing, restoring and growth he had already worked in my life, here was a part of me — like the crippled man in John 5, who languished by the healing pool for almost 40 years. And then… it’s time. The Lord comes, right on time, and says, “Do you want to get well?”