This is going to be a different kind of post than the previous ones, a more personal one with spiritual content. Those of you who are more interested in Gratitude’s adventures themselves than the psycho-spiritual effects of them may want to skip ahead to the next post, which will feature pigs! And snorkeling! But this one seems necessary for me to write, regardless of how widely it’s read or received. So move along, if this is not your thing; if it is, let’s dive in to the murky depths of my soul!
When Andy and I first began to dream about creating a new life aboard a sailboat, we knew that we didn’t know everything to expect. We did a lot of research and reading; we took instruction on a live-aboard cruise for a couple of weeks; we talked to a lot of people who had done this before us. But we knew that there would be no way to truly know what we were getting into except to Just. Do. It. That’s always the way it is with risky ventures – you can plan and prepare and calculate the risks, but there are always going to be unknowns that you just have to deal with when they appear. It’s part of the adventure.
We’ve shared some of those unknowns with you as we’ve experienced them: waiting on weather to sail; dinghy drama; overheating engines and broken impellers and blown fuses; getting out of the path of approaching storms. And I’ve hinted at how those things have been tough for me. But the fuller truth is, after a while, the cumulative effect has been downright disruptive. At first, these stressful events would cause a temporary unpleasant adrenaline rush, until we figured out a solution to the problem. Then the stress reaction would subside, sometimes with the help of a glass of wine and a good night’s sleep. And we’d wake up ready for the next day’s challenges. That’s still pretty much how it works for Andy.
But about 2-3 weeks ago, I began to struggle with ongoing anxiety. I would wake up in the middle of the night worried about something that had happened that day, or that might happen tomorrow. Or I’d begin my morning with hypervigilance, dreading the day, for no good reason, with sweaty palms and a racing heart. I’d pray, and journal, and read the Psalms, and ask God for help. But for reasons unclear to me, these things would provide only minimal, usually temporary relief.
I reached out to a few trusted friends and spiritual advisors. I asked them for prayer, and any words of wisdom or comfort they might hear from the Lord for me. This proved to be invaluable – I began to gain some perspective on what was happening to me, and possible theories on why. As someone who does not often struggle with high anxiety in my normal, land-life, I desperately needed some basic understanding of what can trigger it and how to cope with it.
So on my last trip home, I visited my doctor and met with my counselor and my pastor. Each had good strategies for me to try, and I have put their suggestions into effect. The result has been positive; my stress levels are no longer on constant high-alert, and I am sleeping better, and when things go wrong (as they will keep doing) I am able to focus, with Andy, on the problem and help solve it. This is major progress, for which I am grateful.
But the anxiety is not totally gone. It has subsided to manageability, but it has not disappeared. So I am now in a phase of soul-searching, asking God what it is He wants to show me about Himself, and about me, in this experience. As one of my favorite authors, Father Richard Rohr, says, “Invariably when something upsets you, and you have a strong emotional reaction out of proportion to the moment, your shadow self has just been exposed.”
Much of my professional and personal work over the last 10 years has been around identifying and facing my false self, what Rohr calls the “shadow self.” I do it because it has brought me a lot of freedom and a closer relationship with Christ. And I love helping others who want to do the same. My false self is all the “good” I want to believe is true about me, and I want others to believe, while minimizing or justifying whatever is negative or sinful. This false self is a real hindrance to spiritual growth and to true, loving intimate relationship with others and God.
One thing I’ve known for a while is that I think of myself as a calm person. I have the desire and the training to be a good listener, a calming influence, a steady companion through emotional challenges. I think these are a part of my True Self. Yet here I am, living on a boat in the Bahamas, in the grip of varying intensities of fear and anxiety. Another facet of my self-deception has been brought into the light; I am not entirely the Steady Suzy I thought I was.
What to do with this new self-knowledge? I believe the Gospel, which says that only Jesus can save me. I cannot change or save myself; only He can do that.
My best hope is to ask Jesus to take me on a journey – a spiritual journey that parallels this sailing journey. A journey of self-discovery, and repentance, and true heart-change. I am asking him to help me befriend and embrace anxious, fearful, stressed-out Karen – to gently show her the unbelief and misplaced trusts at the root of her fear, and to transform those hidden places with His love, as only He can. I have taken similar journeys before. They are usually painful. As a friend once told me, “You know it’s real repentance when it feels like death.” Yet the death of my false self always, in my experience, leads to resurrection and freedom and new life.
Hopefully it is clear now why I needed to write this post, and make public a rather personal struggle. For one thing, honesty is a good and necessary tool for someone who wants to see and repent of her false self. Not just honesty with self – but honesty with the world at large, with life, with the people at the various levels in my circle. For another, I know that life lived in community – even the virtual community of a blog – is richer and deeper and more satisfying. Maybe some of you have prayers, or wisdom, or help to offer me. Maybe something I’ve written here has something to offer you. Either way, we are fellow human beings learning how to stumble our way toward God in an unpredictable world. Let’s learn together.