In last week’s readings, Jesus exhorted us to “stay awake!” This week, the Baptist cries out “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Everyone knows the slightly anxious edge that come along with waiting for something unknown. There can be joy in the anticipation — like for gifts under the Christmas tree, when you trust that the unknown is something good.
I’ve never been good at waiting. And part of this is something I have only recently come to terms with: generalized anxiety disorder. I’ll admit that for a long time, I struggled to in name this part of myself because it didn’t seem significant enough to warrant claiming. I’ve always functioned within my anxiety; I never experienced the same depths of depression that I’ve seen in other people I love. Prior to last year, I had typically “dealt” with my anxiety by squashing it down, by never speaking of the multiple, extensive, worse-case scenarios I would build up in my mind. Prior to last year, I never missed an important deadline, I never had a day where I couldn’t get out of bed, I never stopped eating. I was functioning, so this weight on my heart couldn’t be that bad, right? Other people have it so much worse.
What controls I had in my life slowly unraveled when I started working on my dissertation, until just about Advent last year. I’ve written about my father’s heart surgery from last year, and my gratefulness for the many littles graces of mercy and support as my family went through that. But it was only in the wake of that overwhelming experience that I realized, or rather accepted, that my anxiety was not a burden that I had to hold onto. I thought I had to hold onto my anxiety, to my fear. If I didn’t plan ahead, take every possibility into account, put multiple contingency plans into place — if I didn’t do that to protect myself, no one else would. I was spending my life waiting for the next tragedy to happen.
In that Advent, I finally realized that waiting, Christian waiting, is not meant to feel that way. Of course, knowing the difference between the Christian, hope-filled anticipation of this season and the fearful knot of dread that never left my mind was one thing; learning to actively embrace the former while still dealing with the latter was something else entirely.
That’s one of the things about mental illness that is hard for people on the outside of it to really understand. Knowing isn’t the same as doing. I know my anxiety is often uncalled for, but that doesn’t mean I can turn it off.
The mind is a muscle, and it needs to be trained. I know how to throw a baseball; but I cannot throw very far or very fast. Some people are born with a stronger, more accurate arm, while others who may have started weak are given opportunities to keep throwing, to learn better techniques and practice until they become proficient — the pitcher on a rec league baseball team, perhaps.
No one would expect someone without training to be a good pitcher as soon as they know how to throw a ball; the same goes for people with mental illness. If some part of the mind is already weak, it needs to be coaxed to strength. And the process will be slow. We work at it with counselors, spiritual directors, and medication — but while we work, we are waiting to get better.
Dealing with anxiety can make it hard to receive the exhortations of the season. Stay Awake! Lord, I am awake. Lord, I spend so much of my waking hours and energy hedging against everything that could hurt me or the people I love. Repent! I relive so many moments that have gone wrong, where I wish I could have done better, made a better choice, done something to change where I am today. These exist in a constant reel in my mind, fill up my heart with fear, crowding out trust.
Advent is a time when we learn to wait well, but this is not an easy task. The Baptist cries out to us with no words of comfort, calling out those who might be self-righteous as a broad of vipers. Our anticipation of the Lord is hopeful, but it recognizes that with God comes a purifying, refining fire. Our waiting should not leave us entirely at ease: we may well have to face to worst of ourselves before we face the Lord.
And yet we are to wait in hope. We are learning hope throughout this season. We are learning of the shoot from the stump of Jesse, awaiting the one with a spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, and strength. We await and hope for the one who may peer into my heart and understand all that I have been anxious about. For the one who might lay fears to rest. For the time when there will be no harm, no ruin — for the time when our anxieties may finally be laid to rest.