By Anne Maxwell
Author of: Grace in Ordinary Time
I am a worrier.
When I was 5, my biggest fear was that our farmhouse would be destroyed in a tornado. (Thank you, Wizard of Oz). The mere hint of a cloud bank boiling on the Kansas horizon had me planning a direct route to the underground cellar on our old farmstead.
At 8, my concern focused on the health of my Dad - who was a smoker at the time. Convinced the unhealthy vice cause cancer, I dropped subtle - and not so subtle - hints about the dangers in his pack of Salems. I remember quoting statistics from information I’d learned at school and trying unsuccessfully to hide a carton of his cigarettes.
Worries that our house would burn down fanned the flames of fears at age 11. I had been asked to relocate to a newly remodeled downstairs basement to make room for a new sibling. I had agreed, but refused to sleep one story down until Dad installed a fire alarm.
Thankfully, none of those horrible scenarios came to pass when I was growing up. The child in me would probably have rubbed a couple of rabbit feet and told you my worry kept all those big bag things at bay. But the adult in me realizes unproductive anxiety only wasted time, depleted energy, and stole some joy along the way.
Decades later, however, I wonder if my ability to keep anxiety in check when it comes to things I can’t control has truly improved through the years. To be fair, 2020 isn’t exactly the best moment to take stock in the question or whether or not I’ve kicked worry to the curb.
Or, is it?
On a recent evening, after a long day of this strange existence of life in the time of COVID, I had a little time on my hands. Too much time. My brain started to roll over a lot of difference scenarios and the worries began to mount. I began voicing my various concerns to my husband in an effort to stop the vicious cycle my brain had begun.
I ticked off a list of worries to him - all sentences that started, “I worry about …”
And then, I stopped.
Doug gave me a questioning look -- as he’s not accustomed to me taking a breath in the middle of a worry montage much less a pause -- and prompted me, “You worry about …”
I shook my head.
“This has got to stop,” I replied. “I can’t keep saying the same thing over and over and expecting anything to change.”
It made me think about St. Padre Pio. Now, for those of you who don’t know, St. Padre Pio was an Italian priest “known for his adoration, charity and love for the people around him” according to one website dedicated to sharing the story of his life that was dedicated to God’s work. Like countless others, I’ve been drawn to him and ask for his intercession because of the simple and beautiful advice he offered: Pray, hope, and don’t worry.
As my own worry mounted on that anxious evening, I thought it was time to quit admiring his words and actually take his direction to heart. For the next few days, anytime I felt like saying, “I worry,” I substituted one of Padre Pio’s recommendations. It went like this: Instead of, “I worry about Abbie” (my daughter who is among the frontline healthcare workers caring for COVID patients) I said, “I pray for Abbie.”
Instead of saying, “I worry it will be a long time until I am able to visit my parents and my siblings and their families,” I said, “I hope the day when we can all be together again will come very soon.”
And when uncertainty creeps in and those old tendencies give rise to new anxieties, I do my best to shut them down with the two-word mantra: “Don’t worry.”
I realize you can’t simply say words and expect a miracle. But you can use your mind to guide your heart in the right direction. Prayer and hope aren’t passive, they are two of the most powerful actions you can take. While difficulties don’t disappear when you embrace these measures, prayer and hope do provide you with the means to move forward through uncertainty. They embolden your faith and arm you with the strength to focus on the challenges of today instead of the improbabilities of tomorrow.
I wish I could go back and tell that anxious 5-year-old that so many of those things she so feared would never come to pass during her childhood.
But even more than that, I wish I could tell her that even if any of those scenarios would have played out, she would have found her way through it. I would tell her to have some faith and trust that she would have the strength to hold on.
Or, as Padre Pio would tell her: Pray, hope, and don’t worry.
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