Some Musings on Fear and Pain

Everyone has fear.

I had tons of fear, it leaked out of me. I allowed it to run rampant in my thoughts and actions. My life became a blur of awful. What happens when your life becomes a blur of awful? The lives of everyone around you become blurs of awful. Soon you start making your fears a reality.

You see, fear is typically irrational. You latch onto the idea that something catastrophic will happen and then you let it run your thoughts. From your thoughts come your feelings, and from those feelings are born actions. We act on the irrational.

Some fears are rational: death, losing someone else to death… actually, that’s about it. Death is the only certainty in life, therefore it’s perfectly rational to fear it, for most of us. For Christians, not so much, but that’s another topic.

This fear of death can manifest in both rational and irrational fears. We fear out of self-preservation, which is rational, but most things we fear won’t ultimately kill us. Sure, they may be painful, but pain itself doesn’t kill. There is a fine line between rational and irrational though, and sometimes we take some pretty stupid risks because we don’t categorize correctly. And what may be a rational fear for some, like rock climbing the face of Half Dome if you’re an untrained couch potato with literally no experience, may be completely irrational for someone else, like a trained and experienced rock climber. It would be absurd for that person to refuse to climb what is probably easy for him.

But as I said, most of the circumstances we fear won’t kill us. Most things we fear won’t even come close to killing us. Why do we fear those things?

Why do we fear our feelings? Why do we fear rejection? Or losing material things? Why do we fear taking chances? The words of others? None of these things can kill us.

Ultimately, we fear pain. We are comfort loving creatures and pain is what we seek to avoid the most. Even our fear of death is largely tied to the pain of it. We all want to die peacefully in our sleep, not in some horrible drawn out pain. But pain doesn’t kill us.

Depending on what we do with it, pain can injure us or it can strengthen us. Our goal should be the latter. What we think about pain ultimately determines what we do with it. If we think negatively of it, and begin to fear it, we will act in ways that weaken us. We get hurt and think “I’ll never do that again.” and instead of learning how to work through the pain and become stronger we give in to fear and become weaker for it.

If we think of pain as an opportunity to learn and be strengthened we fear it less. Sure, we hate it when we are in it, but we are less likely to cower the next time it comes or avoid it all together and miss out on some of the best things in life. This applies to both physical and emotional pain, accepting both can be a tremendous step towards growth.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a cliché, but it’s a true one. However, it’s only true if you let it be. Sometimes we let the things that hurt us damage us and hold us back. We allow the hurt to create fear in us. We fear that we will be hurt again. We then allow this fear to drive our actions and end up getting hurt. Our fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Often the process of creating this self-fulfilling prophecy is subconscious. No one wants to be locked up in fear. But our brains are cautious creations. Our brains want to keep us from pain, and will do anything to keep us safe, even things which make absolutely no rational sense. This is where anxiety disorders, PTSD, dissociative disorders, and other such trauma illnesses come from. Our brains would rather function in disarray than allow us to get hurt. Ironically, this disarray ends up hurting us more in the long run.

Outside of those particular disorders, which require professional and often spiritual help to overcome, our fears are in our control. We can turn them around. We can use them to our advantage just like any other negative emotion in life. Fight your fears, face them, you might just find yourself stronger the next time they attack.

War

That moment of peace
That calm in the storm
When you think of the release
And the racing thoughts form.

Bombardment out of the air
Twisted wicked in your mind
Seemingly out of nowhere
True thoughts left behind.

Urging you onward
To carry through.
Filling you with the wrong word
“Do what you must do.”

Call upon the angels
Cry out to God above
He’ll rescue you from this painful
Moment with His love.

Doubled down the attack
Dark forces reconvene
Throwing you off track
With thoughts in between
Darkness and light
The wrong and the right
Confusion settles in
Temptation within
Deep the battle rages
Into the night.

“No one will miss you
You’re being dramatic.”
“That is not true.”
In between is static.
The battle is erratic.
“You’re not strong enough
Life’s too rough”
Thoughts are automatic.

“Be still”
You hear
Breaking your will
And killing your fear.
Chaos ensues
Evil hates to lose.
Raging darker deeper
Evil is a sleeper
Who gets worse towards the end
Willing to send
The darkest thoughts ever deeper
Down you descend.

“Be still”
You hear again
“This is not My will”
You feel insane
These voices in your head
The battlefield not red
With blood
Only strewn with broken dreams.

You wake up
Unstable as hell
Tears erupt
Shaking a hallow shell
Of a man who once was standing
Long before he fell.
Finding your Foundation
You rise
Stronger for the next invitation
The demons will devise.

Paul’s Contentment

“…for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:11b-13

A few months ago a sermon on these verses whacked me over my head.

Contentment eluded me for my entire life. I had spent years familiar with these verses but never finding the meaning. Here was someone (Paul) saying he had learned to be content in every circumstance.

Wait. What? How? How was Paul content when he was low, hungry, and in need? Was he bluffing?

I could understand his contentment in plenty. I was frequently quite settled when things were going well, but when times were hard I freaked out, often disastrously.

What was Paul’s secret?

We often hear that last verse quoted as though it were some kind of good luck charm. But “I can do all things” isn’t pertaining to some feat of strength or passing a test. In context it’s so much more.

The secret to Paul’s contentment was his faith in Christ. Instead of depending on his ever changing circumstances for his peace he depended on the solid foundation of Jesus. Jesus never changes. There is no fluctuation in the love of Christ, unlike the other things we put our faith in.

A lifetime doesn’t seem to be enough to grasp this concept. Even though I tried to be content in Christ as all good Christians should be, I didn’t see my idols. For many years I was plagued by anxiety because this or that wasn’t right in my life. I experienced long periods of want. Instead of trusting God and being content, I allowed these periods to devour me. Anxiety and fear ran my life.

Only recently did I discover that I made idols out of so many things. And everything failed me one way or another. Instead of rightly seeing the things I had and desired to have as gifts from God, I made them into demands. When I didn’t get my demands, I became a poster child of discontent. This discontentment then proceeded to destroy many of those good gifts.

It took losing the most important thing in my life (my biggest idol) to show me the power of my idols. It took months of floundering and grasping for that idol to wake me up. I had depended on something temporal, something delicate. When it broke and went away, it almost broke me.

I was drowning but those verses hit me like a lifebouy. Paul depended on Christ, and Paul made it through excruciating suffering. Not only was I made aware that what I had lost was an idol, but I realized that all of those things which had driven my anxiety were idols as well: financial security, steady employment, well behaved kids, a clean house, sex, intimacy, friendships, my pride, etc. All of these things had failed me at times and because I had depended on them I was always left staggering.

Christ never fails. He never gives up on me. He never stops loving me. Even when I run towards my idols He always pulls me back into the fold. When I lean on Him I am never left staggering. It took going through hell to teach me this, but when I started to grasp it I felt a peace like I never have before.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t hurt or have days of discouragement and discontent. I am still going through this trial. I am still suffering. At times I feel like a train is sitting on my chest. It’s hell. I still want to restore what was lost (it is a good thing in and of itself, when properly esteemed). But I am content. Christ is sovereign, God is working for my good and His glory. I don’t have to flail or kick against His Providence because I know it is perfect.

When I am lonely or struggling with thoughts of suicide (I am ashamed to even admit this) or wasting away in pain I can call on Him and He restores peace to my soul. I can read His word and find comfort in His promises, as well as instruction on how to handle difficult people and circumstances. I can know that no matter what happens to me I am secure in my salvation. I may suffer and even die, but my eternity is secure.

Perhaps “I can do all things” means “I can endure all things”. No matter what God gives or takes away in His Providence, we can be sure that if we (like Paul) rest in Him we will endure. If we call on Him when in trial or despair we can find real comfort. When we obey His law and trust in His word we can handle any circumstance that comes our way.

That is true contentment.

Pain

A brilliant man once said “Life is pain, highness, anyone who says differently is selling something.” He may not have been too far off from the truth. In my thirty-five years of life I have found that pain is one of the few certainties in my existence.

Since I was twelve I have suffered from nearly constant back pain and neck pain, the result of a bike accident. I have had two surgeries, one to remove a benign bone tumor from my knee and one to place a titanium plate on my broken collar bone. Both resulted in nerve damage which is often painful. Wear and tear from hard work has given me various aches from my feet to my hands. Our physical bodies are certainly frail. But what of our minds and souls?

I am no stranger to emotional pain. This is the kind of pain which rots your soul and makes you wish to die. It is tempting to flee this pain in myriad ways, frequently replacing the internal pain with a physical pain. Unfortunately, this is a dreadful payoff.

Death seems like a great escape. After all, I believe there is eternal bliss on the other side. But who am I to tell God when it’s my time? And what of those I would leave behind? What of their emotional pain? As my son put it “You can’t die, who would take care of us?” Escaping my pain is not worth dumping it onto them.

Other temptations are equally fraught with ugly. I could drink myself into a stupor, but that would result in not only a dreadful hangover the next day but it could result in neglecting my loved ones or worse. Same with drugs. Sex? Temporary. And when used incorrectly, also dangerous to others.

So what do I do with my pain?

It would be easy to say I simply pray it all away. After all, that’s what the prosperity preachers say to do. But prayer doesn’t always eliminate pain. In fact sometimes it seems more pain is the answer to prayer. I definitely do pray and cling to the promises of God. But there is more to it than that.

I’ve come to the conclusion that pain never completely goes away. There is always going to be some kind of pain in our lives. Knowing that pain will always be present gives me some consolation. I’m not cursed. I’m not strange. What I deal with is common to all.

But is it my fault? I think this is the most common question people have about pain. “What did I do to bring this upon myself?” I don’t internalize too much. Not all the pain in life is purely your fault. Don’t listen to Job’s friends and assume your pain is the result of some horrible sin you have done (though it might be).

Sometimes pain is the result of the actions of others. We live in a world full of depraved souls, friction is inevitable. People hurt us with words, with actions, and sometimes in ways we don’t fully understand. Often we allow even the innocent actions of others to hurt us. Our thoughts about the actions directly feed our feelings of pain. The best we can do for this pain is to forgive. Vengeance or wrathful responses will only injure us more.

Escape if you have to, then let it go. Or simply seek to understand the motives behind the actions and words of others. If pure, you may need to examine your own pride. Maybe you are being oversensitive, maybe you hate yourself and are projecting that hatred into what others do. Maybe you simply need to tell them it hurts. We all do the best we can with what we know, it’s likely you hurt many people without knowing or intending.

It soothes my pain to know that we are all suffering in this world together. We all hurt each other. We are all equals in this respect. I can respond with anger, or I can respond with compassion. Compassion is much less painful for both parties, at least in the long run.

I refuse to let pain consume me. I refuse to let pain lead me into giving up my faith. I refuse to let pain kill my love for others. Or kill me for that matter. Pain can only grow me.

I choose what I allow pain to do to me.

Remake

New hat, who dis?

Sometimes life needs a giant reset button. Like that giant “Easy” button from those commercials, large and easy to just slap and make everything flash to a different plane of existence.

But life isn’t like that. Life tends to take the slow route. Nothing ever truly “resets”, it just evolves. Moment by excruciating moment our lives unfold, steadily leading us to an inevitable end. Even at death we are still waiting for that next second.

Frequently we try to hurry things along. We reinvent ourselves, try new things, move to a new place, try on a new look. We seek to break free from the dreary present and the often drearier past. But those things don’t simply topple like dominoes. They hang on. Memory is often our worst enemy, hounding us, reminding us of our failures, our broken dreams, and all the regrets of yesterday.

There is no speeding through this life. God has placed a strict speed limit on the movement of time. We must take it every second by second, allowing our natural evolution to work on our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls.

Sometimes we want the clock to slow. We want to savor the best minutes. Even this is futile. The best we can do is commit them to a foggy memory and hope our brain doesn’t dispose of it. Often this disposal comes at exactly the same time we need those memories to keep us going. Good is replaced by bad. Bitterness drowns out the best parts of our lives.

Why do the pivotal times have to drag on for so long? Changes can happen in a blink. Big ones. But sometimes the change takes so much time we begin to lose all hope. We begin to think it’s all pointless. Just end already, I’m ready to take the next step! We don’t count all those tiny steps and large trips along the way. We want giant steps. Even if a moment can change everything, the most important changes take place almost imperceptibly.

The way to maturity is a long and arduous road. Struggle makes us stronger. Trials and suffering build our character and keep us humble. We cannot rush through, we must endure all the way to the end, bitter or not.

I have never prayed so much. I have never clung to my faith so tightly. My current suffering has grown fruit in me and reminded me that all I truly have in life is a God who loves me and holds me in His hand. Even when others fail, even when I stumble, even when the circumstances seem stacked against me, He has me in mind.

The moments are still excruciating. Pain is constant. There seems to be absolutely no end in sight. He loves me and He knows me. He will hold me forever, no matter how much I may stray. He will save me out of my darkness, in due time. He allows all things, pain and pleasure, to work together for my good and His glory.

And what a glory it is.

Perspective

Perspective is a hell of a thing.

What we may perceive as small is actually an illusion created by our relative position to the object. This kind of illusion applies to many places in life, not just visually. Sometimes when we are distant from a person we tend to underestimate the big affairs going on in his or her life.

Sure, we may see the problems, clearly even. But because of our distance from the situation we may interpret what we see as a small issue. We may even think “we could handle that, why don’t they seem able to?”

But we don’t see how big the problem truly is to the person standing right under its power.

The only way to truly see how big the troubles are in someone’s life is to get closer to them. Spend time with them, talk to them, maybe share some of your big struggles with them to encourage them to bring up theirs.

Remind them that with time and distance problems always seem to shrink. What seemed big last week is now a tiny speck on the horizon of memory.

Of course this also should remind us all that what appears to be a little problem way out there in the future may end up quite large by the time we confront it. Small problems grow to big ones if not taken care of.

Don’t let your perceptions fool you. “Small” is not always small.

Thankfully “big” isn’t always big either.

Is It Wrong To Want Things?

Sometimes you just have to scrap an entire blog. My original title for this was “Happiness As a Goal”. But I’ve renamed it and rewritten it. And then rewrote it again. And then renamed it again.

So here it is, after a ton of editing:

I have struggled with the concept of wants and needs for a while. God gives us everything we need, so everything we don’t have we don’t need, right? And if God doesn’t give it to us and we don’t need it, it’s sinful to want it, right?

For a long time I felt that contentment meant being completely satisfied with what you have. This means that any desire for something one doesn’t have is discontentment and therefore sinful.

This was my train of thought: It is a sin to be discontent, to be content means you don’t want anything, you are satisfied with what you have. Therefore to want is to be discontent, therefore to want is to sin. Furthermore, God gives us everything we need, if we don’t have it we don’t need it. If we don’t need it we just want it, and wanting anything is a sin.

From the last three paragraphs you can see why my life has become kind of messy. I have shoved down a lot of desires and drives mistaking them for sin. This has made me a bit of a limp noodle. If wants and desires are inherently sinful what’s the point of trying? After all, you’re going to get what you need.

But then I realized that the Bible clearly talks about wants.

“You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” James 4:2b-3

James does not condemn his audience for asking for things.

In 1 John we read this:
“And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.”

One only asks for things if one wants something. Since asking is not condemned, wanting is not condemned. I was wrong to think merely having wants was sinful. God clearly wants us to want things that are in accordance with His will and to ask Him for them. Asking is encouraged, and we are to do it with confidence.

Ultimately I don’t have to feel shame or guilt for wanting things (or experiences, or good feelings). But I do have to ask the question “is this in accordance with God’s will?”

Probably the easiest way to determine this is to ask the questions “Do I want this purely for selfish gain? Does my desire ultimately serve others and/or bring glory to God?” If the answer to the first is no and the answer to the second is yes then I am free to ask and to pursue what I want.

This whole train of thought has further implications, obviously. This is me after all. I can’t keep anything too simple. Keep checking back and I will try to further expound on these thoughts in other posts as I get to them.

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Diversions

Ooo, shiny!

We live in an insatiablely intolerable world at times. Life is a messy, dirty, steaming pile of excrement some days. There is no escaping the to-do lists and the schedules and the ever growing piles of bills. It almost makes me jealous of the people of old who lived short miserable lives. At least they were short…

I’ve never been able to drown out my worries with diversions. I hear of people escaping their troubles and woes with movies, music, video games, or even alcohol. Perhaps I’m just not a focused enough person to forget my cares and immerse myself in numbness or fantasy? I can only be so distracted before my mind wanders back to the struggle of the day.

Painting, writing, playing Pokémon GO with my kids and wife. I enjoy these. But none provide any forgetfulness. Stress is always right there making it hard to find forgiveness for not accomplishing everything on that to-do list. “Why are you taking a break when you should be doing this?!”

Will it ever change? Maybe. Maybe one day my cares will be few enough to drown out with frivolity, at least for fleeting moments. Until then I’ll just continue distracting myself half-heartedly.

Not There

I’m not where I want to be.

This might come as a surprise to most of you.

Or not.

Maybe you have guessed that I am a bit restless in my current situation. Maybe you suspect that I am merely living a lie and will eventually give it up and go back to my old way of life.

I don’t want to go back.

I left a career of nearly ten years to go do something else that I loved. Then I left that after two years to give my wife an opportunity to do something I knew that she would love (and I wasn’t wrong). But am I doing what I love?

Yes and no.

I love being with my kids. I love teaching them and talking to them and watching them become great little people.

But sometimes they are real jerks. Sometimes I get tired of being around them. Frequently I feel like I fail them on so many levels. But I love them. So yes. I love what I do.

But.

I need adult interaction. And more than just the superficial internet interactions. The presence of people is a balm for my anxiety and loneliness. There are times when being around the kids perks up my spirit, but they are the takers in the relationship. Adults give and take, the dynamics are different. Right now where I am I do not get the kind of adult interaction I need.

I have dreams and goals. But I never think I am good enough. I am always the contingency guy. I have a goal, I assume right off the bat that I won’t get to it, so I automatically search for all the secondary plans.

Where do people get their optimism? How does one make a goal and dream and actually think themselves good enough to get them? How do they take control of their lives and make the things they want happen?

Or do they? Do people ever actually get what they want? Or am I just watching too many movies? I swear I see people out there on blogs and Facebook and elsewhere living the lives that they want. Surely there is something flawed in their life, something they don’t like, something that is not quite right.

How do they live joyously despite those things? How are they successful in jumping past those kinds of problems and focusing instead on the good things, the successes?

The simple answer is that they aren’t. Everyone has struggles. No one is arrived 100%. Some people are just better at displays than others. They are simply good at social media.

Or perhaps they really are hopeful. Some people are just optimists. They do a good job at seeing the good and understand the best way to make those good things happen is focused work towards them.

So the answer to getting where I want is simply focused discipline? Make an effort to get adult time? Focus on the good goals and spend a little less time on contingency?

Time will tell.

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Stabbing Anxiety In the Face With a Soldering Iron, Part 2

Last week I discussed some of the things I do to conquer the physical aspects of anxiety. But what about the thoughts?

In order to kill bad thoughts it helps to understand the motives behind one’s thoughts. Most of my anxious thoughts stem from my severe need to be in control of all things. I am a control freak. When things are out of my control I panic. I begin to think the worst. I lose all faith and go into the selfish cocoon of anxiety.

Knowing what motivates my wrong thoughts helps in creating a strategy to defeat them.

So what do I do?

Well, I take control of the things I actually have control of. Despite my negativity, there are things I actually have some power over. Like my time, my children, and my personal space.

I make a schedule and try to stick with it, understanding that sometimes things happen that make that schedule obsolete for the moment. At the very least I follow a routine and make habits.

I work on establishing healthy boundaries with my children. Kids can be chaos incarnate, but usually only because we don’t put a foot down and make it clear what is allowed and not allowed. Discipline goes a long way towards helping calm that storm. Boundaries are important to all relationships, if there are other relationships in your life that create stress and anxiety it is likely that you need to establish some basic rules regarding it.

By personal space, I mean my house. I have control over the cleanliness and clutter of my home. Part of a good schedule and routine is taking time to organize and clean up. Visual clutter and messes are huge triggers for anxious thoughts. It took me years to figure this out, but it has made a huge difference since.

As for the things I can’t control… (which are far fewer in number than my mind will let me believe) those things get put into my prayers. Only God can control those things.

That may seem like a cop out answer, but I assure you that faith is harder than any scheduling, disciplining, or cleaning. Having faith requires catching my thoughts and correcting them. Taking every thought captive requires constantly telling myself truths to correct the lies that my mind wants to tell me. In order to do this I have to know truths, I have to study and think about truths, and I have to believe truths.

Anxiety is ultimately the antithesis of faith. Faith is ultimately the solution to anxiety.