For years I believed that a strong connection to God and enough faith would carry me through challenges without too much difficulty, at least when I viewed the path through the lens of “the long haul” as my dad would say. Until a particularly tough stretch of stressful events nearly did me in.
Here’s an annoying thing about stress: the body doesn’t distinguish between “good” stress and “bad” stress. The circumstance can be quite positive like getting married, starting a new job you’ve wanted a long time, or buying a building that fulfills a clear vision and need. Or the situation can be clearly categorized as negative like a divorce or death or serious illness. From a neurobiological standpoint, stress is stress. And it’s all…stressful.
Stress can also be cumulative. Each new dis-ease builds on former ones, sometimes even those involving situations that were years in the past. The layers of strain, anxiety, disturbance or trauma stack in weighty layers like the boulders that tumble down the mountainside and crash into the road.
The latest stress for me involved the purchase of our new building and the fundraising associated with it. Although that stress was positive in terms of the freedom and opportunities it promised, it was still enormously nerve-wracking. And when piled on top of the wreckage of other ongoing stresses – a loved one’s significant diagnosis, and then the devastating violation of clergy sexual misconduct in a church I held dear – the seemingly optimistic possibility of a new building for Bethesda Workshops felt surprisingly heavy.
I found that a firm belief in God’s goodness (and ultimate triumph for truth and justice) are not anesthetics that remove the cavernous pain of life. Faith is a comfort, for sure, but more in the intellectual sense than in the emotional, gut-level experience. The distress of massively taxing times transcends cognitive understanding to alight the flames of the soul. There is no way through searing pain but through it.
There are, however, some important salves that help you keep moving forward. I’m learning anew that the key to surviving the yawning blackness of the deeply stressful times is a rigorous commitment to self-care. The most obvious level involves nutrition, rest and exercise. Boundaries about pushing myself beyond my limits are key. (That tool requires self-awareness and discipline, which must be developed long before you get in the middle of the flames burning across your soul.)
More importantly, I’ve found that spirituality and community are imperative. These days I define spirituality as being intimately connected in a dyadic relationship with Jesus. Through a marvelous period of spiritual direction, I’m learning that inviting Jesus into the rooms of my heart and talking with him there – really talking, which means a back and forth process of asking or saying things and listening to his answers and assurances – is the best antidote for the loneliness of stressful times. This practice, coupled by silent meditation and mindful contemplation of Christian thinkers and mystics, is opening my spirit to an indwelling of God’s spirit on a visceral level beyond anything I’ve known before.
As I’m able to give myself more grace for being an imperfect, wounded, hurting and fearful person, I can better accept my need for Jesus-with-skin-on. I and all humans are made for relationship, first with God for and also with other human beings. We are not meant to attempt life alone!
As Henri Nouwen so eloquently insists in The Return of the Prodigal Son, “We need to be angels for each other, to give each other strength and consolation. Because only when we fully realize that the cup of life is not only a cup of sorrow but also a cup of joy will we be able to drink it.”
I am immensely grateful for those with whom I share the journey. For the countless hours dear ones have listened, comforted, challenged, expanded, consoled and simply been with me. The best form of self-care is to lean into the care of safe others and a loving God.
Marnie C. Ferree