Last summer my daughter, Grace, joined a running club that met three mornings a week. Eager to get in shape for the cross-country season, she laced up her shoes, filled her water bottle, and joined mostly high schoolers at a nearby trailhead. She says she loves the trails, the quiet hum of the woods, the adventure. When track season rolls around in the spring, she doesn’t have the same passion. She says it’s like a prison; the circle of the track just goes round and round and everyone can see her every step. As I watched her run away from my parked car that morning, fear plagued me. That’s it? I’m supposed to just leave her here in the woods? Does she know where she’s going? What if she gets separated from the group and lost or hurt? When I realized the other parents’ calm demeaner, I had to force myself to drive away. Grace was thirteen at the time and just when we thought we had figured out this parenting gig, we entered the wilderness of middle school. It’s a unique time. One filled with strong opinions and emotions . . . and that’s just us parents.
I’ve had a couple freak-outs, some overreactions, and a panic attack or three. I read a few parenting books and sought out my friends that have lived to tell their tale. And while it was nice to be able to vent a bit and not feel so alone, when I asked them for their advice, do you know what they all said? “Teenagers are hard and parenting them is messy. You will make mistakes and, worst of all, you will have to walk with them through their own.” It was not what I wanted to hear. I wanted a list. I wanted to know what I could say and do to ensure that Grace would always be safe and make good choices. I wanted control. They laughed. My fear of the unknown had made me a control-seeker. I found myself nagging her about every little thing. Her food choices, clothing, friends, skin care, bedroom, and homework. I was reading her texts and emails, watching her every move. If I could have gone to school with her, I probably would have. I found myself wishing I could crawl through a secret door, like in Being John Malkovich, and see EVERYTHING she saw. I was smothering her, and she was distancing herself—hiding, even. It was awful.
“Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be.”
—Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
In the face of the unknown, fear became my go-to posture, and instead of owning it, I covered it by micromanaging. This is a common human tactic, seeking order to alleviate our fears. Once I recognized what was happening, I began to see it all around me. Not just in parenting, but at work and even church. Why are we so uncomfortable with the unknown? Why do we try to rush the necessary and sometimes messy process for the answers? It seems like everything around us reinforces this rush. Don’t know something? Reach for a smart phone and find out immediately. I have become a “professional WebMDer” as my husband likes to call it, and while I have successfully been able to diagnose a handful of ailments and treat them with homemade remedies found on Pinterest, I have also occasionally had to relent and admit the fact that I just don’t know and can’t solve the problem myself. We are awash with information and have been convinced that this knowledge equals power. That knowledge makes us God-like. That knowing will protect us from hurting. We don’t want to feel our anxieties, do we?
I’ve come to realize that ignoring my anxieties doesn’t make them go away, but walking everyday has really helped. Being outside in the fresh air, slowing myself to a rhythmic pace, and focusing on one step at a time calms my nerves. Sometimes I listen to all the different birdsongs, other times to music. Thad Cockrell’s “To Be Loved” has soothed many a panic attack. But podcasts? Podcasts are my favorite. RadioLab, Revisionist History, the TED Radio Hour, and On Being have accompanied me on many walks. Kind of like when I was a little girl listening to stories before bed, podcasts have pacified me. Occasionally what I hear seems timely, like the On Being episode with David Steindl-Rast. Brother David is a Benedictine monk who gave a famous TED talk on the subject of gratefulness. In his interview with Krista Tippett, he spoke about how anxiety is a normal human emotion, not something that should make us feel shame.
Anxiety is not optional in life. It’s part of life. We come into life through anxiety. And we look at it, and remember it, and say to ourselves, we made it. We got through it. We made it. In fact, the worst anxieties and the worst tight spots in our life, often, years later, when you look back at them, reveal themselves as the beginning of something completely new, a completely new life.
So in an effort to face my anxieties head-on, I started seeing a spiritual director again.
I take an hour long (wifi-free) ferry ride to see her, and on the way, I’m supposed to journal and consider what I’d like to discuss and pray about. At first, it was really hard to take the time away from my busy life and, honestly, I felt guilty. Preoccupied with thoughts about dinner prep and rides to and from practices, it was difficult to focus. But halfway through the trip, I settled in and started to journal. Becce asked that I write about the spiritual milestones in my life. As I wrote, I felt a little lighter. When I finished, I read it over and realized very quickly that all the times I had grown spiritually or sensed God’s presence the strongest were the results of some trial or suffering.
Becce let me begin by listing all my anxieties (Grace being at the forefront), but I then mentioned the connection I had made on the ferry between trials and spiritual growth. She asked me to consider what God might be showing me while we sat in silence. I closed my eyes and took nice, long, deep breaths. Free from distractions, my thoughts took me to some of my closest friends and some of the sufferings they have endured. I love these women because there is a deep wisdom and humility to them. They’re good listeners, and when they open their mouths, grace and peace and love come out—no doubt because of the hardships they’ve weathered.
Then I prayed. “Lord, I know I can’t protect her from everything. I am not You. And I know that even if she makes all the ‘right’ choices, she will still go through trials because this world we live in is full of brokenness. But I also know that it’s the trials in life that teach us. And when I really think about it, I don’t want her to be good. I don’t want her to think that her perfection is what makes her worthy. I want her to break enough to be able to let You put her back together. I want her to be whole. I want her to know that we will love her no matter what. Please give us the strength to endure that process. Amen.” When I opened my eyes, Becce asked that I consider how God might be looking at me, His daughter, who is also in process. I thought for a minute. With tears in my eyes I responded, “with love and grace.”
“The only things we can keep are the things we freely give to God. What we try to keep for ourselves is just what we are sure to lose.”
—C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
On the ferry ride home, I noticed a peace had returned to me that I had not felt in quite a while. The persistent worries about Grace (and parenting) that had plagued me had dissipated in the “Amen.” With this sense of peace, a feeling of playfulness appeared too. A bubbling joy that I cannot quite explain except to say that I remembered what it was like to be a child. Full of wonder and awe. A feeling of freedom came from the relinquishing of control. Is that what Jesus meant when he urged the crowd to become like a child? To lay down their false sense of control, their anxieties? Perhaps.
As I’ve watched Grace stumble-step through these last two years I’ve witnessed her seek to find a pace that fits her stride. I am amazed at how this process has mirrored my own. I am still trying to understand who God made me to be and how I am to inhabit this world. I still have a lot of questions. But more and more I’m realizing it’s not always answers that I need. Mostly, it’s surrender and camaraderie. Answers may come in time, through putting one foot in front of the other, and all I can do is remember this as my daughter asks the world her questions.
Grace will be entering high school this fall. And she is back to spending almost every morning running in the woods. Although the track life might be easier for me to watch, a cross-country life is still what she wants. She wants to stumble, learn, and grow on her own and in her own way. Grace may get lost: she may trip on the rocks of this world, and she may even be tempted by those dark places. I will grow in the waiting and be stretched in the loving, and I will be there to smile and wave every time she emerges from this process of becoming. I will choose to bend towards trusting a God who is big enough to hold us both. Heart of my heart, flesh of my flesh, Grace will explore this world in her own way, just like I continue to do.
Anna Tesch has been married for nearly sixteen years, is the mother of three blue-eyed beings, a daughter to supportive parents, a sister, an aunt, and a friend. She works for an elementary school helping kids with reading and cuddles babies at her church.
Some of her favorite activities include cooking, singing along to her vinyl copy of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook, listening to poetry, writing, having conversations that spark great thoughts, researching her genealogy, visiting museums and bookstores, people-watching, hiking, and bringing books to bed. You can interact with Anna on Twitter.