I felt it when I woke up this morning, like an old, familiar friend. Or foe. It was a feeling of dread as I pulled myself up and crawled out of bed. It was a small rush of anxiety as I heard Elijah getting ready to head out the door into the still-dark of the morning. It was the mantle of worry that I pulled around my shoulders as I reflected on our night, on how many times the baby woke up and whether or not she has an ear infection, and if she does, whether or not I should subject her body to antibiotics or let it fight on its own, and if I let it fight on its own, how long I should let it go, and then how long will it be until I feel confident that she's ready to sleep through the night again...
It goes on like this, and it's not really about ear infections, at least not entirely. The deeper, darker questions are the real ones - am I doing the right things? How will I know how to do the right things? Am I enough? Will I ever be enough? How can I keep all the broken parts of this world outside of my home and away from my family?
A door opened, and a daughter slipped from her room into the bathroom. I turned on the kitchen light, took a long drink of water. I contemplated coffee, or tea, then decided to wait to minimize noise. I finally thought to pray. "O Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere present and fillest all things..."
What is it about my life, this beautiful life, that causes me to worry? And what is it about the night that presses those worries down fast and hard until they feel suffocating? How do I let go of fear and embrace this life, with all of its uncertainties and heartaches, its ear infections and lice infestations and death that comes too soon and its suffering and hunger?
This early morning feeling of worry is nothing new. I slip it on like my coziest sweater. Even before I had children I would sometimes wake with dread about an upcoming test or presentation, worries about my students or my parents or my siblings, fear for this world. But without question, becoming a mother has intensified it. The stakes, now, just seem so much higher. When I love these little people so deeply and powerfully, how can I bear the possibility that one day I may have to let them go? That they will feel pain, or suffer, or be unhappy? How can I bear the possibility that, at some point, I might be the cause of those things for them? How can I accept that they live in such a broken world and that its brokenness will break their hearts?
So, in a feeble attempt to control these possible outcomes, I worry about them. I tell myself that if I think long enough and hard enough about how to do the RIGHT THING, then I can just do it and we can avoid all of the WRONG THINGS. Easy peasy. And all around me hearts continue to break and people keep dying too soon and Mamas try to find food for their starving babies.
All around me the world offers up beauty and hope like a gift. All around me, right before me, are moments of joy and miracles both tiny and large. All around me there is goodness, kindness, creativity, bravery, redemption. People speaking out against injustices, people moving toward love and away from hate. The glory of creation, and a small hand tucked into mine. Friends who give their lives in the care of the hungry and the desolate, and friends who give their lives in the care of their beloved children. A voice that whispers, "Be still and know." Oh, if I only had the eyes to see, the ears to hear!
I don't mean this in a trite or oversimplified way, as if I can erase true suffering with some magical formula of thanksgiving and prayer. The world and our pain are too deep, too complex for that. As each day passes, I see this more clearly. But I mean this in a real, true sense, that as I live in this complicated mix of the terrible and the beautiful, I look for the gifts. I name them. I hold them close to me - not because I'm afraid that they'll one day be ripped away (my first inclination), but because, in doing so, I rest in the Light of life rather than dwell in the darkness of fear.
I used to think that if I could just attain a certain level of gratitude and peace I could check it off my to-do list and go on my merry way, floating above the realms of worry and anxiety for the rest of my days. And there I was, striving and listing and praying and wondering why it kept feeling like such hard work, and like it wasn't working. But I am learning slowly - so slowly - that there is no single moment, no single decision to reject fear and embrace gratitude that will be a cure-all. I really wish there was, because then it wouldn’t be so dang hard. Instead, life seems to go more like this - I wake up in the morning and, without even thinking about it, shrug on the worry like it’s my coziest sweater. Sometimes I’m already buttoning it up before I realize what’s going on. I make the conscious decision to take it off and to pick up a different garment, one woven from many strands - gratitude, trust, prayer, surrender, eyes purposefully looking for joy and beauty, hands and a heart purposefully unclenching to let go of the need to control. This one doesn’t fit quite so cozily. It’s tight and stiff in some places and hangs awkwardly in others. It’s a bit flimsier; it doesn’t keep much out.
But it lets so much in - all that beauty, all that hope.