This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.
“It didn't used to be like this. I didn't used to be like this…”
It's the mantra that swirls in my mind when I'm having an anxiety attack. My neck lights up bright red and my brain starts shutting down. I feel my heart rate increasing and no matter what breathing techniques I try, I can't slow it back down. I'm so aware of it happening that I start grasping for things to say, questions to ask the people in front of me, anything at all so I can have a normal reaction with whoever is in front of me… but when it comes time to speak, my brain and my mouth aren't aligned, and even worse, my body is in a state near panic.
I didn't used to be like this.
Over the past decade I underwent the most dramatic internal growth spurt of my life. I was confident, funny, authentic, compassionate and didn't have to try so hard. I started my own video production agency, had great friends, great community, a wonderful wife, and eventually we started popping out wonderful children.
Once the kids entered the scene we were having the time of our lives in new ways, though those amazing times were also mixed in with some of the most heightened stressful times as well. Like when our oldest dropped off the weight chart entirely and we fought our gastrointestinal specialist on finding a different solution to weight gain than poking a hole in his stomach. The threat was that they would report us to CPS if we didn't comply with the only option the specialist suggested, even though we thought there was a less invasive alternative. They finally recommended a nutritionist instead, which helped get our boy back on the charts.
We had never experienced stress like this before, but even so, I handled it with relative ease.
Fast forward a couple babies later and the desire had grown to move back “home” to California. Some loss in the family sparked a renewed desire for our kids to live near their grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. We loved our families deeply but until then hadn't experienced a strong desire to live nearby.
We made plans and moved quickly because… well, because I don't have much patience when my mind is made up, but beyond that, if we didn't move quick, our preschooler would spend another year making friends at preschool, our roots would deepen even more, and uprooting ourselves would be even more painful. So the time was now.
We sold most of what we owned and moved across the country. Our family was loving and supportive, allowing the 5 of us to stay with them as we looked for a place to live.
We eventually got on our feet, but in the time being, some major shifts had happened in my video production business. I thought I was going to keep my Indiana office open while building a new California office, but the Indiana office quickly went into the red and unfortunately we had to shut it down. Everything now relied on swiftly and successfully starting up well in California. Welcome to the Bay Area.
It's in this season, with a combination of factors and stressors, that performance-based acceptance fired up in me in a big way, and with it came anxiety for the first time in my life (or at least the first time I was aware of it).
Performance-based acceptance lead me out of authenticity and into performing for approval. That meant it was rare for me to be living true to myself, and more common for me to be analyzing situations to figure out how I was supposed to behave. It was subconscious. It was automatic. It was new. Or was it?
I was in the thick of it. Life felt new in a bad way. I felt like I had entirely lost my previous decade of growth. I felt like I had no purpose except to exist and provide for my family. I felt confused and wandering and doubted my everything. I felt, most of all, shame about the totality of my being, and I couldn't even name why.
“I didn't used to be like this” swirled through my mind enough times to seek help. My counselor helped me recognize what was happening within me and start tracing back the insecurity and anxiety I was feeling to their roots. I'm still unpacking that.
So how do you keep moving when your internal world comes crashing down? Well, for me, I had to listen a lot. Deep within my soul, if I listened well, I noticed God speaking in ways that I've not often recognized as His/Her/Its voice. If I'm honest, I have to admit that I wish God would just text me. I would totally text back and we would be buds, even if God occasionally said something I didn't want to hear. But unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) that's not how God works.
I think God speaks to us all differently. I've heard people say that God speaks to them through the Bible. Not me. I've heard people say that God speaks to them when they pray. Not me.
I hear God when I simply shut the hell up.
But then I started learning that that was my new way to pray. Rather than trying to lead the charge with words that I say to God, I enter a space ready to listen. And when I do, God speaks. And when I hear, I try to continue the conversation in that direction.
Sounds crazy right? Yeah, me too. But it's real, and that's saying something for a guy who has as many doubts about God as I do. But the more I listen, the less I doubt, because I hear and even more strangely, I see. I can't explain how God shows me my path forward, but the way forward becomes so vividly lit up that I've recognized this sense as a power beyond myself.
There are two new mantras playing in my head this year after being seared into my soul in a number of ways:
“Open yourself up to that which is beyond you.”
“God is out ahead of us, preparing the way for us.”
May it be true, and may I take the time to listen for the way.
It's hard for me to recommend practices when I haven't mastered steady practice in my own life… but if you were to take a look at my business notebook you would notice that my business notes have been overtaken by personal journaling and messages I've heard from God. If you were to step into my bedroom, you would notice that my poor wife has to put up with a giant whiteboard that I hung on the wall to capture more of the soul messages I'm receiving. I also put my questions on that board, and jot down poems and stories I receive as well.
So if I were to encourage you to do anything, it would be first, to listen. Listen for longer than you're used to. See how long you can listen for…
My second recommendation would be to write.
It could be a word.
It could be a phrase.
It could be a story.
It could be your future.
It could be confusing.
Who cares. Just write.
One time I booked a conference room at work, closed the door, and wrote down every life event I could remember on a whiteboard. I found moments of my life that needed to be lamented, and I took some time for that. Other times I've hiked to a spot in nature, pulled my journal out and realized I have nothing to write. Then I accidentally listened, and eventually words flowed and new insights poured out.
I can't explain it, but I know I need to keep listening and writing. Maybe it could help you, too.
Ben is a husband, dad, and video productionist in the East Bay of San Francisco. When he's not losing wrestling matches at home with his 6, 4, and 2 year olds, Ben creates videos that help people #thinkfeelactnotice. In high-school Ben had a 32 inch vertical leap; now he struggles to roll out of bed.