This past Sunday we were returning from a long weekend visit with my husband’s extended family in Iowa. It was a thoroughly pleasant trip, but as the road passed beneath us and we got closer to home, I could feel my anxiety rising. Running through my head was a ticker tape of things to accomplish once the minivan was safely in the garage: unpack, clean out the car, start the laundry, buy groceries, cook the meals for the week, bathe the boys, get them to bed. And maybe, just maybe, take a moment for myself? But I was already so tired! I do not sleep well on the road, with all the sounds that do not sound like home; my sons waking me up at 6 a.m. ready to hit the hotel pool before checking out had only made matters worse.
While I was unpacking the groceries, a good friend called. About six months ago, her husband told her that he wanted to separate, against her own desire to seek counseling and work on the marriage. She was calling to tell me her husband had now asked for a divorce, and understandably, her grief was palpable, even through the phone line. I could feel her sadness seeping in to me, too, mixing with my anxiety about getting everything done, deepening my exhaustion, and resulting in a quagmire of negative emotions that threatened to overwhelm me.
“Chocolate!” screamed my brain,” “Just eat some chocolate and get on with the night.” Over the years, my one “tried and true” way of dealing with sorrow has been to eat my way through it, or rather, to eat to avoid it. I write this somewhat sarcastically, since my rational brain knows that Haagen Dazs ice cream is no match for true woe! But somewhere along the line in my life, I got into the habit of avoiding the strength of my negative emotions by indulging in the instant gratification of junk food. But in the past few months I have been working really hard on breaking this habit. Really hard. And in this moment of anxiety mixed with grief on top of fatigue, I found myself sitting motionless on the kitchen floor.
As I willed myself not to reach for the chocolate chips in the baking cabinet, my mind rambled through all the things that people do to dull emotional pain: drink, take drugs, cut themselves, gamble… Then the thought, “There is nothing to do,” lit up my mind like a neon sign. I was realizing, in a way that I had not realized before, how doomed to failure these avoidance techniques are. But the idea that there is nothing to do in the face of sadness left me even more depressed.
“But you can pray.” A second neon sign lit up, offering me a lifeline. As someone who teaches theology and writes weekly for a blog about keeping the faith, it is a bit embarrassing for me to admit that it took this moment of inertia on the kitchen floor to realize that prayer is something we can do when life overwhelms us. A line from the children’s sermon I had heard that morning took on new meaning: “God is with us in the good moments and in the bad.” God had already been there with me on the kitchen floor. By praying, I could acknowledge God’s presence.
So I prayed. I told God about how worried I get about getting everything done; I regaled God with the woes of how tired I was; and I cried a bit as I caught God up on what was going on with my friend. Praying did not take away the anxiety, fatigue, or sadness. But it did enable me to get up off the floor and keep going, feeling just a little bit lighter knowing that God was going to help me shoulder the burden.
When in your life have you felt really sad? What do you do in the face of the sadness? How healthy are the things you do to deal with your sadness?
When have you felt God’s presence in the bad times?