Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...




For many years, I simply couldn’t talk about my OCD outside of the fortress safe circle of a very few beloveds.

Friends, I couldn’t even write about it in my journal. The condition of having a mind vulnerable to episodic invasions of vividly imagined darkness and disaster, and a heart terrified by it, felt so shameful, so shattering to who I thought I was and what I wanted to be that it locked me up in silence. I felt alien to myself; let alone the rest of the world. I was bewildered trying to figure out what it meant to love beauty or trust God when this darkness was my constant companion. I wrestled with the reality of my broken mind for a long time, and with the fear - of rejection, of disaster, of being misunderstood, of losing those I loved, of failing - that is so core to this fractured way of thinking. I did it largely alone, unsure of how to explain it all to the sane, successful people who seemed to exist in a different universe to me.

But the last few years have shifted the landscape of my inmost soul. Moving to Oxford meant facing down huge fears of loss or separation. Studying theology here meant finally getting to ask my hardest questions about what it means to love Jesus, to believe in his power, and still to know myself broken, to be aware that there are nights when prayer or Scripture have no comforting power and all I can do is ache in the endless shadows of the small hours. Theodicy, the study I’ve mentioned a few times here, and the bearing of a fragile little baby that who has my heart and its fears in a tizzy, has finally pushed me to a place where I want to write about the journey and grapple of my own darkness because I’ve realised something crucial: fear is the battle of every person alive. To live in a fallen world is to be afraid, but we are called to journey out of that fear by a person whose coming was foretold with the words “Fear not!”

I want to write more about being afraid, because I am beginning to understand that it is the condition, the inescapable backstory to the journey we walk and the stories we live in faith. Our lives are formed largely by our choice to listen to what makes us afraid, or to hear the voice that calls in and through our fears, drawing us toward hope. I posted yesterday on Instagram about that fear and was so struck by the comments of those who are also walking and trusting, struggling and grieving and it made me remember a post I wrote three years ago and never published because I wasn’t quite ready. I think I’m finally ready and I’m posting it here to start a conversation. I want to write more in the coming years about the wrestle and dance that is our journey toward Beauty from the darklands of the Broken Place. This is one of the deep themes I feel beckoned to explore. So here, today, is a post I wrote about being… fearless? Maybe not. Read on:

"You must never feel afraid. I mean, you travel and study abroad, you try new things. It's hard for me to imagine that you ever feel afraid."

The world didn't so much halt at the words of my friend, as dim. The nod I had ready froze. I blinked, but couldn't clear the sudden inrush of remembered panic that tinged the room around me, distanced me from the present. I couldn't keep back the fear my friend thought I never felt; it was a bitterness on my tongue and a hot crawl of fingers down my back. With my impending departure overseas, again, I'd tried to keep the old dread at bay, the wild, almost inchoate fear I feel at leaving those I love and flinging myself into a new place. I'd fixed my grin and steeled my soul. But those words unlocked the door of my heart where the darkness dwells, a incapacitating insecurity that I have known since childhood at every separation or change. I took a deep breath as the onslaught nearly knocked the breath from my lungs.

Never feel fear? Sometimes I think that my much of my hungry, determined, creative life is a defiance of the black fear that would bind me like iron to a tiny realm of predictable hours for the rest of my life if I let it.

On a blog like this, written by an introvert like me, with a life already a little too public for comfort, I often wonder just how much of my story to tell. But I've been here for three weeks. I've settled my soul, and tasted goodness as if were a ripened fruit placed in my hand. Aslan is moving in me and in this city; I can feel his breath roving the streets, stirring new thoughts in my inmost self. But the truth of the matter, the truth I think I'd be lax not to tell, is that I almost didn't come. I almost didn't taste the quickened life, the autumn beauty, the friendships and stories; the rich feast of learning laid out for me here.

Truth is, I've almost stayed home from every adventure I've ever undertaken. Oxford studies. Ministry. Roadtrips. Study. Because fear is a latent presence in me that rises to rage at the first hint of change. It's been given various names through the years; OCD, anxiety, disorder, you can call it what you will. But if I had obeyed its voice, a mesmerizing voice like Saruman's, tinging every image and future with peril, I would be little better than a prisoner, locked in my room, and in my own mind. Because it never gets any better, you know.

There's always a moment on the plane, about three hours into the overseas flight when a sense of spiritual isolation comes upon me. I look out the window, feel myself suspended in that airplane like a buzzing fly in the black honey of the trackless night. With all the little seat lights off and the strangers around me asleep, I waken, eyes red and wide and bright, to fear. I imagine the loss of every person I have loved. I berate myself for leaving. I wonder if I have contravened God by choosing the life I have. Images pound upon my thoughts; of people I love hurting, lonely, struggling, because I have left. Of the people I cherish in anguish, or ill, or dead. In that night moment I can almost taste the grief I will know in the death of those I love. The chill of the airplane cabin seeps into my skin. In the blackness, I feel unmade, unnamed, unknown, alone in "measureless oceans of space."

There's always the jetlagged moment when I arrive in my tiny little student room of some sort with grey walls and yellowed light. Every atom, every surface and smell declares itself foreign. I move within my new environs with a pained clumsiness, as if something vital in me was sick. The paralyzing shyness I knew as a teenager stiffens my muscles. I feel that I have forgotten how to make friends, how to form sane, balanced words. I sit in the dining hall the first night, and grope after conversation like a blind woman in a room full of rocks even as hunger for home racks my heart. Every word feels wrong. I stumble. I bruise. And I know that a sleepless night will follow. My heart rate will rise to a point where sleep is impossible. I'll close my eyes and the hot, sticky panic of separation will beat in my blood. And I'll think, at about 2:53 am that it would be best just to book a ticket home. Every ideal I've formed and conviction I've known will, in that instant, seem null and void.

And then will come the moment when I wake to the dim grey line of morning. I will look around me at the bags I haven't unpacked and the clothes I haven't folded. I will stare down every inch of my foreign little room until it meets my gaze. I will sigh, very deeply. And then I will rise with an exertion of will that feels like the lifting of massive weights, and I will do what I have done every adventure before: I will begin to build a life. I will open the window and let the stale air of the night seep away. I will fold my clothes and order my things. I will email my mother, and battle that black, hot darkness of fear with every atom of order and loveliness I can muster. I will pile books, find posters for those yellow walls, cram flowers in whatever random jug I can find. And when the panic comes, that hunger for home, that fear of losing all I love that riddles and shakes me, I will stride out hard down whatever new path I can find. I will walk until I have enough air in my lungs and sanity in my eyes to rasp a breath prayer I found in The Scent of Water: "Into thy hands."

I suppose the reason I want to tell this tale right now is because I cannot shake my friend's statement. I cannot escape the impression that she thinks we are fundamentally different in our orientation to the world; that she is afraid, and I am not, and that enables the life that I live in a way it never could for her.

The truth? I think that most of us live with crippling fears. Or at least more fear than we admit. We fear the unknown or our own inadequacy. We fear what people think. We fear old secrets. We fear failure. We fear loneliness. We fear our own despair. But when we won't admit or share the fear that stays our feet from going, our hands from reaching, our hearts from loving, we often dwell deeply in shame. Convinced we are the only ones with this malady, we do not name the battle that rages within us, and we never quite fight it as we ought. We stay home, whether in body or heart. We draw back from the people we think have the courage we lack. We speak less and we dream less. We stand more and more alone.

Fear, I've learned, is the great isolationist. He is the flattener of friendship, and thief of hope. In my early teens, when the panic that has plagued me ever since first reared its head, I remember the way I hid myself from others. First, from even my family. I put my body through hell trying to conceal my struggle. Then, from my friends. I went less and less to groups. I walked very much alone. I felt that if I confessed what I truly felt, hour by hour in that crisis time, they'd all abandon me anyway. I drew into myself and ceased to speak, and I was an island that few could reach. Fear, you see, sets us far apart from each other, and so from the love that is the only antidote I have ever found.

For only in love can fear be fought. C.S. Lewis once famously said that friendship begins when two people discover a common view, "what, you too? I thought I was the only one..." Courage begins that way too. The way fear shrinks when confessed is startling. It often shrivels to half its size when forced into the brisk air of articulation. But when those words are spoken to a friend, the strength between them becomes a shelter in which fear can be held at bay. When I first told my mom of all that was raging within me, after days of pushing it down, she simply drew me to her and whispered that all would somehow be okay. In that instant, half my terror abruptly ebbed. And when a women I held to be a heroine admitted to panic attacks just like mine; a person who traveled, who risked, who moved through life with what seemed an effortless ease, I thought what, you too?, and began to believe that fear did not have to define my story.

I'm glad I've reached the point where my friend thought me brave. But I'm heartily sorry she thought me fearless. For how can I stand by her in the fight if she thinks she cannot tell me she's afraid? How can I stand by you?

So let me be honest. Let me here speak of the fears I've held often in silence, for I see small meaning in writing for the sake of words alone. If what you read here doesn't name the things you struggle to tell, then grip you by the hands and help you on your way to hope, then I don't see the point. I know that much of what I write here is focused on beauty. I want to feast on thought and song and wind and starlight and story in this space with you. I live by affirmation in all that is lovely, but that is largely because I have chosen to use my words to speak the hope I often don't feel. My drive to ideals, my push toward adventure, my flint-faced love of beauty are my answer to their opposite, the voice in my own heart that would straighten and bind me if I did not fight it with grace. I'm often afraid and I want you to know it. Are you?

If so, let's fight together. Let's name the fears that make an awful question of our souls, and answer that question with life lived full and hard, in fierce, creative defiance of all that would limit and bind us. Let friendships grow here in the soil of shared battled, and chosen hope. Let's live out love and trust that it will truly, one day, cast out every fear.

What? You're fearful too? And I thought I was the only one...