I Am Not My Fear (except when I am)

When I saw a t-shirt earlier this week with the slogan “I am not my fear”, I knew I wanted to own it. I imagined wearing it as armor the next time I went to yet another doctor’s office or the next time anxious thoughts threatened me before I even got out of bed. But as I’ve thought about that t-shirt over the past few days, days where fear has synchronized with my every breath, I’ve wondered if those words are true. Am I truly NOT my fear?

The other day I grabbed the trunk of a small bush and pulled it out of the plastic pot. My husband wanted me to sprinkle the dirt over a flower bed before tossing the dead plant in the garbage. But I couldn’t. The roots had infiltrated every part of the soil and then stiffened into place. When I pulled the plant out, I couldn’t release any of the dirt because the roots were too many and too strong, solidified into the shape of the container they’d sat in for so long. Similarly, as I tug at my fears to test their root system, I encounter resistance because fear is deeply embedded into the shape of me.

On the harder days of living with anxiety, my fears are present in every cell. In The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Augustus describes the state of his cancer as shown on a PET scan, “I lit up like a Christmas tree, Hazel Grace. The lining of my chest, my left hip, my liver, everywhere.” If I could scan my body for fear, it would light up in every vessel, every organ, in my emotions, and in my hope. On those days it’s hard to believe that I am not my fear. And it’s exhausting to live daily life embeddded with fear,

“… as I tug at my fears to test their root system, I encounter resistance because fear is deeply embedded into the shape of me.”

Some of you might think I’m talking specifically about Covid-19, but I already lived in a world of fear long before this pandemic. I can look back and see fear was a constant companion from early childhood, but I only became aware of fear’s consistent presence about two years ago.

Some of you, however, are experiencing a depth of fear unknown to yourselves until now. My fear hasn’t necessarily increased since the pandemic started because it’s already been operating in a heightened state for the last few years, but I find myself less alone as more people step into the world of fear. Welcome to my universe. Though I’m truly sorry for the circumstances that have brought us together.

As a Christian I know that I am not my fear, but my fears don’t always know it. Though Covid 19 is a real threat spreading across our world, my fears usually show up as a form of anxiety, which means they are not based on an immediate threat but on the possibility of a future threat or the repeat of something that’s been painful in the past. Another way to put it is my fears are not usually based on logic and logic can’t make them dissipate. To move out of the intense places my mind can take me, I need a toolkit of ready strategies.

Rather than come directly at fear, sometimes I have to distract it with some Netflix. If I watch a few episodes of a series that has nothing to do with my life circumstances until the fear quiets down, then I can speak some scripture and truth to it. But when it’s elevated to code red, scripture and logic just slide right off of it.

Sometimes I have to run from fear. Or walk really fast, rather, with some truthful tunes playing in my ear.

Sometimes I need companionship. I can’t be talked out of fear, but I can be comforted and loved out of fear. If I’m snuggled against my husband with my head on his shoulder, his warmth and presence remind me that I’m not alone.

Sometimes I can create my way out of fear. Settling down with some watercolors and a sharpie pen and some flowers in front of me to paint is a meditative, calming process.

Sometimes I need to do some 4-7-8 breathing and picture Jesus standing on the water in the storm, walking toward me. In this imagining, nothing has changed about the storm yet, but the promise of his presence in the midst of the massive waves (and whatever waits behind them) is enough.

Sometimes I just need to do the next thing, which might be homeschooling my eleven-year-old or driving her to piano lessons. I’ve been dealing with racing thoughts long enough to know that a routine with some daily responsibilities that require me to get out of my head and take some practical next steps, is a mighty weapon against anxiety. I will wake up almost paralyzed with fears and realize by late afternoon that the day was better than I expected by executing a series of mundane tasks.

Because I deal with chronic physical pain along with anxiety, the two play off of each other like experienced poker players, counting cards and dealing their best hands. Ian Cron has said that those who are a six on the enneagram (that’s me) don’t need more courage to combat their fears. He says there isn’t enough courage in the world to fight against all of our fears. What you need, he says, is more faith. And he’s absolutely right.

“Just as pain and anxiety work in tandem, so do faith and courage.”

Though when I really think about it, I need both. It takes a plethora of courage to live daily life in the midst of fear and pain. Even with the strategies I listed above, it’s mainly about showing up to life anyway, in the midst of the anxiety and fear. At the same time, if I didn’t have faith that with Jesus all can be well with my soul, even in the midst of the storms, I wouldn’t show up to let courage do its work. Courage helps me show up, faith brings me back again tomorrow. Just as pain and anxiety work in tandem, so do faith and courage.

I am not my fear. But if I’m honest that doesn’t feel true a good bit of the time. I’m working to free the roots, spread the good soil, and let truth and beauty flourish.