I don't generally make big penitential plans for myself during Lent. It seems the Lord likes to introduce His own program for me, and for my part I try to enter that. Right now it seems a big theme is to examine why I interact with people the way I do. This post is not a report; it is a dive. I'm going to dive into it and see where I end up.
Recently I heard a news report about the rising percentage of kids who show up in college and have significant difficulty dealing with stresses. Everything just seems to be "too much" and they don't have the coping skills to handle things and they come unglued.
Since my son has entered high school, I have thought to myself repeatedly how stress and anxiety became my motivators. When I didn't understand Algebra-Trig, it actually kept me awake at night with worry. I remember getting tears in my eyes with anxiety over my first physics test. It was enough to energize me to struggle and try hard, and it also taught me the joy of doing classwork that came easy to me and allowed me to express myself, like literature and writing. Anxiety would push me over the hump of Impossible to at least fall on my face on the other side.
Academic work was not the origin of my anxiety. I was a good student and for the most part got good grades without putting in much effort (which is a seperate problem). My anxiety was more a response to my sense that my world had gotten ripped to shreds through my parents' divorce and the alcoholism and mental illness in my family. Talking these things through was not yet fashionable when I was young, so in a terrible anti-Marian sense I kept all these sadnesses and pondered them in my heart. And I quickly learned that one of the less destructive ways I could deal with anxiety was to go about trying to solve all the problems I saw, especially the ones that weren't mine. I would take on more and more responsibility for things as a way of keeping chaos at bay.
This made me popular with employers, because when I finished my work, I would go looking for other unfinished work to help with. I would use spare time brainstorming contributions to others' projects. As a child, I would clean the house instead of worrying that the visitor my mom was expecting would have to see it as it was. When I wasn't sure she would be home on time to take me to my school concert, I would throw myself into a flurry of activity to make the time go faster.
(The interesting thing is that even though doctors pointed out to me that I was extremely tense and didn't seem to know what "relax this muscle" meant, it wasn't until I started cantoring for Masses that I realized I had any issues with anxiety. That's how natural it was to me.)
So, back to the kids in schools. Lots of them have Gen X parents. Lots of Gen Xers have stories like mine: lives ripped apart, coping skills often had to be on steroids. What is the natural expression of "love" in this environment? Here, let me do that for you. I'll take care of it.
Guilt says that kind of stuff. One feels at fault, so one tries to make amends -- for everything. And the offspring of such over-carers remain infantile, unable to cope with stressors.
Recently I found myself with a pain I didn't expect. I've been struggling with one of my kid's morning rising patterns, but have set a deadline by which time a goal has to be reached for a desired outcome to be possible for him. And to work towards it, I recently announced I would only issue at maximum one wake up call to him, and then if he was late to his classes, it would be on his head. My first day of working with this, I suddenly saw that even though I hate repeatedly nagging him, pledging to stop filled me with great anxiety. Somehow, my personal sense of safety and peace was shaken when I just left his responsibility to him and let him bear the weight of it.
But you know what? He did it. I had to sweat for awhile, but he hasn't been late yet. Oh, it's only been two days, but, you know...
Facing this in myself does not make me happy, that's for sure.
I've been thinking about all the references all over Paul's letters where he talks about Christians' need to grow up, to stop being mere babies, to go on to maturity. And for me, yeah, I'm down with that. I want to be super-Christian. Sure. But I realize that no one is ever super-Christian off in their own private world. Not even a hermit. By penance and by teaching and by interacting with people, Christians are to exhort others to grow up and stop being babies. And you know what? That provokes tantrums and hurt and accusations and bad feelings, and just a whole lot of loud complaints that growing up just is too much to ask. Provoking that is about as much fun as a room of noisy, crying toddlers. The good thing about toddlers is that you know in 20 years they'll be chronological adults. We have no such guarantee about Christians.
Love does not mean swallowing up all hurt so that other people can be indulged. I could swallow until I burst and it would never please or satisfy another person, and I'm left with an aching, hurting belly. Love means speaking the truth and letting Jesus fill both of us, even if it hurts both of us.
Well, I guess all that Scripture is the next thing I need to dive into.