“I was trying so hard. And hard wasn’t working anymore.” – Shauna Niequist
I’ve been trying to write this here blog post since the beginning of the month. It’s almost embarrassing the number of hours I’ve spent typing to inevitably scratch the whole piece. I’m not surprised because this is typically how the writing process goes, and sheer willpower or force never seem to bring the words I’m looking for. Maybe that’s not just true in writing but in life as well. Sometimes we white knuckle our way through uncertainty, pain, or change. Life veers left or takes a tight right, and we’re desperately holding on, bracing for the impact, or thrusting ourselves forward.
I went on my first roller coaster at the tail end of this summer, and I was holding onto the indents of the lap bar until my hands turned pale. My stomach was tense, and I pushed my back as hard as I could against the seat, afraid of somehow falling out of this safe, yet horrifying steel amusement ride. With my eyes closed and my face turned away after the first drop, I was conserving too much oxygen to even scream. Breathe, I think to myself, you just watched half a dozen groups return safely, and so will you. When I felt the sudden stop, I fearfully opened my eyes. My legs were wobbling when I went to exit. As we walked down the wooden steps, I could feel parts of my body throbbing.
We tried two more rides. The second was very tame in comparison, but I think the last one was my favorite. It had overarm restraints and corkscrew-like turns. It wasn’t as high, and it felt like you were gliding through the air. This time I let my body hang more gently and I actually opened my eyes. I wasn’t in danger, but by the end of it I had enough thrill to last at least until next summer. My body didn’t pulse like it did before. I didn’t have to try to keep it safe. It already was. It always was. It was as if my body looked up to me as child would with wide eyes asking, why did you have to be so hard on me?
Perhaps the answer is actually quite simple. I was afraid. I didn’t trust what I knew to be true, and my body clearly informed me that I was feeling unsafe. In her book, Try Softer, Aundi Kohler shares the intricate design of our nervous system and the ways it tries to communicate with and care for us, particularly when we are presented with a stress-provoking situation. Our emotions often begin as physical sensations, and when we are in tune with what is happening inside of us, it can become easier to identify what is happening emotionally. This awareness helps us name what’s bothering us and allows us to sit with our rising feelings without them plunging us under.
Sometimes it’s easy to name our triggers or stressors, like spotting a bear a hundred feet away as you’re backpacking through the woods. We quickly step into survival mode. Every part of our body that is unnecessary, such as a digestion, shuts down to preserve as much energy as possible to deal with the threat at hand. Similar to how our stomach twists and turns when we try to process difficult news or anxiously step in front of a group to give a presentation. Other stressors aren’t so easy to name, such as an unmade decision, a new beginning, or our daily turbulence. These things can also move us from a place of safety to one of fear and scarcity.
One thing I love about Aundi’s book is that she reminds her reader of the importance of self-compassion. We don’t have to white knuckle our way through life, stuffing our emotions and shaming ourselves for our humanness. We don’t have to push and shove and ignore our physical needs to be productive. Our anxiety doesn’t have to be the catalyst that motivates us to get things done.
We can extend the same kindness to ourselves as we would a friend. We can nourish ourselves with food and rest and social connection because that’s what keeps us in a state of feeling capable and safe. When a threat comes our way, we are better equipped to handle it when we’ve had a good meal, decent sleep, and time with life-giving people. Here, we are more likely to extend ourselves freely and show up to our lives in a meaningful way.
I’ve tried to write this post a half dozen times, but this time, I’m sitting with a vase of yellow flowers next to me. It reminds me to try softer. To stop forcing something that isn’t working and trust the slow process that comes with making any kind of art, much like we make a life. It’s not perfect, and maybe that’s something I have to be okay with.
Maybe it’s time to give up some control and lean into the uncertainty, lack of clarity, and foggy future, trusting that Christ goes with us wherever we go. May we be reminded that God delights and dwells in us. And when you are afraid, may you have the eyes to see God as a loving parent, compassionate, patient, and kind. May you learn to try softer, and extend that same compassion, patience, and kindness toward yourself. May you learn to trust God with your worry and be gentle with yourself when you worry anyway, for you live in the strong and unshakeable kingdom of God. May you be reminded that the kingdom is not in trouble, and neither are you.
I was safe on that first roller coaster. I always was. And darling, so are you.