What Stress Can Teach Us
After seven weeks of unemployment, I started a new job. It’s a great job at a good company with great pay and benefits. And it’s only ten minutes from my house! The problem (read: opportunity) is that it’s a very fast-paced environment. Sometimes the deadlines pop up out of nowhere. A project you think is finished needs three more revisions, with a couple of levels of approvals—before end of day. Last week they took it easy on me, and the pace felt very doable. Today knocked me sideways.
I was thinking as I drove home, “Today was really stressful.” But that’s not ultimately a legitimate statement, in that it does not get to the heart of the matter. The more accurate statement is this: “I responded to today’s events in a fearful way.” Because stress is just a fancy word for fear. Things happened today in such a way that I felt threatened and responded with fear. This caused my heart rate to accelerate and my adrenal glands to pump adrenaline through my veins, as if I were being attacked. In a way, I was—by fear.
But the fear of what? This is the heart of the matter. For those familiar with the Enneagram, I am a fear type (Type Seven), though most who know me would never guess it from my usual happy, carefree demeanor. As I consider today’s events, and those of countless days before that involved hurry and switch-tasking, it is difficult to drill down to the core of underlying fear that drives this stress reaction. More surface-level fears include the fear of looking unintelligent or incapable, which would threaten the personality I have so carefully crafted, and even the fear of getting fired. But I am pretty convinced that I’m at least reasonably, employably intelligent and that if I get fired, God will take care of me as he unfailingly has. I can’t quite put my finger on the true reason for this stress reaction just yet.
Whatever that thing is for me, and whatever is it for you, I am certain of two things. First, that God did not create us for fear; it is not our birthright or our natural state. Second, that when we experience non-legitimate fear (see below), it is because our personality is driving and we have stepped away from the experience of our belovedness. If we were truly able to dwell in the living knowledge of how treasured we are by the creator of the cosmos, it is my conviction that we would never again experience stress.
Consider the natural world for a moment. Everything has its pace and purpose. Water flows at a particular rate based on factors like its volume and the pitch of the ground beneath it. Birds chirp, snakes wind their way across the ground, deer munch grass—and homeowners’ beloved snapdragons. Nothing is in a hurry. Ants may seem like they’re in a hurry, but that’s their natural pace. In fact, the only time you’ll see animals hurrying is when they’re being chased by something that wants to eat them! Or chasing the thing they want to eat. Human beings, in our collective fear, have manufactured hurry.
Today, the Earth revolved on its axis over a 24-hour period. The sun rose all over the Earth. People like me and unlike me got up and went to work. Some of them, probably a very few, accepted whatever came to them with equanimity of spirit. The rest of us experienced varying levels of fear as we unconsciously clung to the limbic notion that our very lives would be in danger if we didn’t get our work done just right and ahead of deadline.
My point is that today was not a stressful day. It was just a day. A day in which things happened, and in which I reacted to those things. I don’t beat myself up for having “failed” to be totally at peace at all times; this would just add to the stress I already experienced. Instead, I observe my personality in action, because that’s what is at work when I fear. My true self abides in the eternal now of God, free of scurry and deadlines and expectations. When I am removed from that reality, when I forget myself and forget God (to paraphrase St. Augustine), my personality works hard to perpetuate itself, and fear inevitably rises up.
So, I accept that today I was afraid. I don’t punish myself or try to push that truth away. I allow myself to be where I am at this point on my journey. I recognize that the surest path to a less-fearful life is to return to the presence of God, where I can rest in the deadline-free Present and in the actual feeling of being loved by the Almighty. Various factors in my life over the past week have made me Presence-poor, but at last I have both time and energy together to go rest in God and remember who I am. I’m going to go do that right now.
Quick Start Guide to Centering Prayer
This short guide gives you the essentials for learning to be still and quiet before God so you can hear his voice and feel his love in a deeper way.