The Sunday after New Years I sat motionless in a chair by the kitchen window, staring desperately into the night. I had just finished cleaning up from dinner, and the others were scattered throughout the house. In the living room. Upstairs. Their strains of sound seemed everywhere, yet distant. Despair was covering me like a wet blanket. It gripped me like an anchor, pulling me down against my will to the bottom. I felt like I was drowning. Trapped by fate, knowing that in only 14.5 hours I’d be back at the helm, back in my cube, in the cockpit, fighting to not get taken down by an onslaught of emails and phone calls.
I needed to get out of the house. Anywhere. Preferably somewhere quiet. I couldn’t think straight. I wasn’t ready for any more questions from anybody. No more problems. I needed to be alone.
I explained my situation to Rachel, and within minutes, I was out the door, into the cold night. Bag in one hand, keys in the other. I knew just the place. I let the car warm up for a minute, then was off. I couldn’t listen to anything. I didn’t want to. Just silence. I drove, letting my mind wander into swirls of nothingness.
I crossed the bridge into Philly, paid my dues, then took first exit at 5th street. Left on Race, right on 2nd, right on Market. It wasn’t hard to find parking on a Sunday night. I purchased my slip from the kiosk, put it on the dash, and walked back to the corner of 2nd and Market to Book Trader.
* * *
I open the door, and bells jingled, announcing my entrance to the only other two patrons in the store, and the shopkeeper behind the register with the plastic rimmed glasses, bald head and hoodie, thumbing through a thick volume.
Book shelves run the length of the open floor, stacked top to bottom. At the foot of each lies postal bins and cardboard boxes, full of books to overflowing, flooding into the aisles. Finding my footing is difficult in this sea of words.
The shelves are so high I can barely reach the top with one of those wheel-y library step stools, that works when it wants to. That slightly musty smell of aged, crisp, yellowing pages, of books born well before me, instantly take me back to hours spent studying in my college library, or browsing my dad’s book collection as a child, or sitting in my room, reading till my eyes fell shut. All the warmth of authors turned friends, of ideas permeating my mind, of words put together in ways I could’ve never imagined or expected. The tingling magic of it all puts my arm hairs on end, and I begin to relax.
I peruse the theology section first, as I usually do. It’s just the right size to be able to read every title in under an hour, head crooked to the right, getting hot in my oversized coat, alternating between glasses on, glasses off, as I strain to see titles on top, then at eye level again. I start filling my bag with some familiar titles, and some not so familiar, but authors I’m willing to take a risk on.
At one point I’m awkwardly asked by the shopkeeper whether that bag of books in front of me is mine, and I say yes. He tells me that it’s a bit suspicious that I have a bag of books in a bookstore. I’m confused, then realize he thinks I brought these in from the outside, so I tell him I’m buying them. Which, it seems, puts him at ease, too.
I don’t bother to check any of the prices, because frankly, I can’t read them. Whoever it is that scribbles this old chicken scratch in the top right of the first page has me beat. He could charge me $9.95 or $4.95 and I wouldn’t know which was right.
I pick up a short read by Alan Watts, called The Wisdom of Insecurity. I’ve never heard of him, but the subtitle strikes me: A Message for an Age of Anxiety. I also pick up The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis, Paul Tillich’s The Courage To Be, The Wisdom of China and India, a compilation of sacred texts from each, edited by Lin Yutang, Ulysses by James Joyce, and a few others.
* * *
I’ve lately been drawn to some of these synergistic east/west writers like Alan Watts, Eckhart Tolle, and Joel Goldsmith. I think they are missing something crucial and essential, particularly a satisfying philosophy of guilt and condemnation, but to me they shed light on some of the basic wisdom of Jesus on anxiety, money and possessions, the future, life and death.
What I sense they lack, though, seems to be dealt with by Tillich in The Courage to Be. This book is a bit dense and tightly packed, but I’m gleaning bits and pieces. He’s primarily talking about the idea of Non-Being and it’s relation to anxiety. Non-Being is not just nothingness, or emptiness, but the threat of complete, non-existence and the fear and anxiety this causes in us.
I’ve always thought of fear and anxiety as being similar, or even one in the same, but Tillich makes a helpful distinction between them, saying fear “has a definite object…, which can be faced, analyzed, attacked, endured,” while “anxiety has no object, or rather, in a paradoxical phrase, its object is the negation of every object. Therefore participation, struggle, and love with respect to it are impossible.” (36)
Then, in a phrase that strikes a very deep chord in me, he says, “It is the anxiety of not being able to preserve one’s own being which underlies every fear and is the frightening element in it…. It is impossible for a finite being to stand naked anxiety for more than a flash of time.” (38, 39)
Hence, my incessant desire to busy myself with tasks, with production, whether creatively or out of necessity. I don’t like to be still. To feel unproductive.
I’m still processing all this, and I haven’t finished the book yet to understand his solution to this problem. But I know it is a problem for me. I like to feel I’m validating and perpetuating my existence through productivity. I feel a need to be doing something. It is, as Alan Watts says, the misnomer of Descartes, “I think, therefore I am.” Thinking and productivity don’t constitute my existence.
The two areas where this tendency towards anxiety is most predominant are at work and in the home. (Likely because my time is split between these two places.) I think it manifests itself differently in each.
For example, at work, my struggle is to leave work behind when I come home. Not literally, but mentally. To not carry the weight of all I didn’t accomplish, and all that awaits my attention the next morning.
At home, it’s somewhat the opposite. It can feel busy, but it’s tangible work. It’s cooking and cleaning. It’s helping our children, answering their questions, or getting them ready for bed. It’s the things I try to squeeze in around children, work and sleep, which I think tend to cause me anxiety. The myriad of projects I can think up. The books I want to read. The ideas I want to flesh out in words.
These past two weeks at work have been much better, though. I’ve been actively trying to put aside anxious thoughts. To be present in each moment. To realize I can’t do more than one thing at a time. What has also helped is the basic reality that unfinished work is not ultimately my responsibility. The buck doesn’t stop with me. I can leave things behind because I don’t own the business.
At home, however, I act functionally like I’m the CEO. Every decision stops with me. (In reality, Rache does a fair share of this, too. But this is just the way I tend to think.) A child comes to me saying, “My finger hurts,” or “Can we have chocolate?” or “Can we watch a movie before bed?” or “He/She’s not sharing that with me!” Two of them start a tussle which soon turns to an all out screaming match. They are gridlocked. Daddy to the rescue? And the list goes on. They bring their problems to me – their questions – looking for solutions and answers I don’t have.
I think, in reality, I take too much upon myself, both at work and at home. I don’t mind feeling inadequate or insufficient at work, but I hate to feel it at home, because I think I’m responsible for everything. I’m believing that if something bad happens on my watch, then ultimately, I’m responsible. To compound the problem, the anxiety carries into the future, worrying about what could potentially go wrong – such as, not showing them enough love and affection as children so they resent me when their older – to the point where I try to cover all possible contingencies.
But I know that I can’t control everything. My circumstances are showing me this more clearly every day. I know I need to let go. I’m afraid to, but I must. Lord, help me.