This piece is brought to you on behalf of Michelle Brigid in celebration of her recent confirmation.
I didn’t know the secret meaning of the word “anxious” until I was older—seventeen, maybe, or eighteen. I knew that I felt different, that I worried a lot, that I was fearful. But I just thought I was strange, and generally kept to myself about it. When, on occasion, I would talk to a close friend or a church small group leader about what I didn’t know was anxiety, I was met with varying responses, from “That sounds so hard,” to, “It sounds like you haven’t prayed about this enough.” Somehow, I had enough common sense and confidence not to listen to the voices that told me this was my fault, that if I just prayed more I would be okay. I stopped listening to those voices pretty early on.
I grew up in a family of five, the oldest of three children, in a home that was a lot of fun and very Christian and moderately liberal. I never had a crisis of faith, and don’t anticipate one coming on. I grew up evangelical, and weirdly enough am exceedingly grateful for that upbringing. I was never told that gay people were going to hell; when our church hosted a leadership conference at which Bill Clinton spoke, abortion protestors came to us. In faith as in life, the world made a sort of fluid sense. We didn’t listen to Christian music, but had (as Mallory has mentioned) approximately five CDs on constant rotation for eighteen years: Bonnie Raitt, Billy Joel, Jim Brickman, Dan Fogelberg, and the soundtrack from The Mission. Hearing any song from any of those CDs will instantly transport me back to the glass-topped table in our Illinois family room.
Words were our currency and language; an Ortberg without a love of reading was as unthinkable as an Illinois winter with temperate weather. So, when I had what I now know was a panic attack, I wrote to myself in a journal I kept behind the stereo on my nightstand: “I thought I was dying. My breath stopped and my fingers went numb. I didn’t know what to do next.”
“Next” was the most pressing question that I could not answer, and even after blocking certain voices out, I couldn’t help but feel that something in me was deficient. And sometimes, for some people, that’s what faith does best—makes you feel deficient. If faith is the kind of endeavor that demands perfection, all you ever see is where you fall short.
I want what has been to always be. “Faith in God is, finally, faith in change,” Christian Wiman wrote. And he’s right, he’s right, I know he’s right. This anxiety that has nested in my body for so long, though, tells me otherwise. My anxiety makes me a stranger to myself, a weary traveler paying admission to rest in my own mind.
There is a painting I have always loved, a famous painting by Andrew Wyeth, called Christina’s World . It is, as most of Wyeth’s paintings are, an ordinary moment made transcendent by the story behind it. The woman in the painting —Christina—was actually one of Wyeth’s neighbors in Maine. She is shown, at the bottom of the painting, sitting on her right hip and leg, feet trailing her torso, body twisted toward a house at the end of a long driveway. Her arms support her—right arm at the side of her body, left arm straight ahead of her in a gesture of half-reaching, half-crawling. We only see the back of her head—black hair tied back in a bun, loose pieces escaping near her right temple—while her face is turned toward the house in the distance. She is going home, but she is not there yet.
Christina had polio. She could not walk, but daily took herself on crawling tours of the grounds on which she lived. Through his kitchen window, Wyeth saw Christina on one of her outings and was moved to paint this woman who, felled by a degenerative muscular disorder, eschewed the confinement of a wheelchair and became again like a child, crawling where she needed to go.
Wyeth saw in Christina that her disability made her different, somehow, but not in the way most people would conceive. Her polio made her, if not beautiful, at least interesting—and what she did with it, her crawling and scraping to and from her home, was the most interesting thing of all.
The lines are not parallel here—Christina’s polio and my anxiety. I am not more interesting because I am anxious, although my response to anxiety may be of interest to some. I am not more beautiful or whimsical, not the Manic Pixie Dream Girl determined to make every moment shine spectacularly. But I am someone who is caught between where I am and my home. I understand that feeling, that longing, with great clarity. And the way home, for me, is the way with God.
If I think of anxiety as this entity separate from myself, a curse from a God who would test me, I become this divided person who is constantly trying to walk half of herself out the door. And sometimes I do this; I look down at red nailbeds and wayward cuticles and wonder who has been biting my nails. I turn on NPR in the car and, arriving at my destination, wonder who has been listening to the radio while my mind has been racing. And my anxiety is not now at the level it has always been; thanks in large part to therapy and medication and time and maybe prayer. But she is still there, this mirror image of myself in which left is right and the world is known yet strange-tasting. This is where, in my anxiety, I recognize my own need to become whole.
I don’t want to play more internal games of tug-of-war. I think that anxiety is one of the things I will wrestle with all my life long, and am not in a rush to get rid of it. When I’ll let it, anxiety can be a useful thing, pointing to and excavating spots in my soul I wasn’t even aware existed. When I listen to it, I’ll see that it’s trying to tell me something. And on my best days, something in my body will turn the anxiety from straw to gold, and in that process, I know I am on the way with God.