I was standing in the middle of the community garden for a “serve day” with my daughter’s second grade class when I received the phone call. I hardly remember what my husband said but I remember I stopped breathing. Results of biopsy. Melanoma in the lymph nodes. My healthy, athletic husband had cancer. At 40.
I stood there frozen, somewhere between the corn and the kale, holding a diaper bag and several water bottles for the kids on the field trip. What should I do? Text our family? Call our life group? Cry? Sink into a heap in the dirt? Scream? Pray? Leave the kids and go to my man? My head was swirling but I was stress paralyzed. Couldn’t move. The fear started to suffocate me.
My healthy, athletic husband had cancer. At 40.
In the days that followed, my mind could only imagine the worst. I spent my days weeping, imagining myself a widow raising our three daughters on my own. I envisioned my CrossFit husband in a hospital bed, writhing in pain. Every song on the radio, every commercial, every meal was a trigger for me. My mind would race to the worst-case scenarios, my worst fears somehow coming true.
Fear is something I have struggled with most of my adult life. I have had many experiences where I have been forced to battle fear. In college, I was assaulted on the way to class one day. In the days and months and years to follow, I had to daily battle the fear of being attacked again. When you have experienced physical violence, many things trigger that feeling of fear. Someone simply walking behind me, a public restroom, a television show depicting violence sent me into anxiety attacks. Through Christian counseling and Bible study, I learned to cope, how to discipline my mind and breathe through those triggers, but it took years of practice. And the triggers do not necessarily go away.
In my young twenties, my fiancé and I moved to California from Chicago. I was planning a wedding, and starting my dream job as a features reporter for the newspaper. One day I came home from work to a note from my fiancé. He was leaving and he couldn’t go through with the wedding. For years after that, I struggled with fear of being abandoned. My romantic relationships so often felt like they were about convincing someone to stay with me, willing them not to leave me.
I learned how to discipline my mind and breathe through those triggers, but it took years of practice. And the triggers do not necessarily go away.
Several years later after I was happily married to a man who far surpassed my fairy tale dreams, I landed an exciting book deal. I worked tirelessly for a year – interviewing, researching, writing – with little feedback from my editor. When I finally turned in the manuscript, she basically said she didn’t like it, and I needed to start over. I was devastated. Paralyzed again to move forward. The fear of failure seeped deep into my soul.
I am a strong believer that God does not intend any journey to be wasted. Through my own battles with fear, I have gained some weapons, some tools to use in the future and share with others.
I have learned that just like in labor we have to breathe through the contractions, the triggers, the difficult circumstances. My natural reaction is to tense my muscles and hold my breath through pain. My midwife told me when I was birthing my second baby girl that if I held my breath the contractions would hurt even more. I needed deep, long, measured breaths to carry me through the pain. She was right. Somehow leaning into the pain, breathing deeply, helped me access that strength I needed through the Holy Spirit.
I have also learned to preach the gospel to myself, to bathe myself in grace. A mentor of mine encouraged me years ago to make a little notebook of scriptures to read when I was fearful or anxious. I carry them in my purse, attach them to the gear shift in my car, leave them near my nightstand. I read these truths over and over, sometimes memorizing the words if I can. These meditations lift me out of the mental battle, the worst-case scenario fears.
About three years ago, a friend gave me the book One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. This book changed my life as I learned about the power of gratitude. Ann taught me the discipline of counting gifts. I realized that each day – no matter how blissful or tiring or terrible – is filled with gifts, specific reminders that our Father loves us. These past three years, I have been listing these daily gifts. Ann writes, “This living a lifestyle of intentional gratitude became an unintentional test in the trustworthiness of God – and in counting blessings I stumbled upon the way out of fear.” The discipline of daily thanksgiving has given me new eyes to see past the fear and even embrace life’s hardest offerings as gifts.
Leaning into the pain, breathing deeply, helped me access that strength I needed through the Holy Spirit.
I believe every battle with fear puts us at an intersection. We have to choose fear or faith. It’s no coincidence that one of the most common admonitions in the Bible is “do not be afraid” or “fear not.”
Some of my favorites include:
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go” ~Joshua 1:9
“Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” ~Isaiah 43:5
“’Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,’ declares the LORD.” ~Jeremiah 1:8
“But Jesus immediately said to them: ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.’” ~Matthew 14:27
This living a lifestyle of intentional gratitude became an unintentional test in the trustworthiness of God – and in counting blessings I stumbled upon the way out of fear.
When I was younger, I was dancer. I remember my instructor would have us fix our eyes on one point in the room whenever we were practicing pirouettes or spinning through a jazz routine. Later, I learned the same principle when I practiced yoga. I was much stronger to hold a pose and balance if I could fix my eyes on one point. I could not even for a second glance around the room, comparing myself to others or even to look in the mirror. I had to steady my eyes on that one point and breathe.
The same is true in my present circumstances. *Updated* On September 9th, 2014, four weeks after this article was published here, my husband made an Olympic-sized long jump into the arms of Jesus. He is free from pain and cancer and all the fears of this life. As I raise my three daughters without him, the road often feels difficult. I have to simply put one foot in front of the other. I am learning to use my tools: to breathe deeply, lean into the grief and pain, to preach the gospel to myself and to fix my eyes on Jesus. I choose faith over fear.
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