I was 21 when Panic arrived on my doorstep with an overnight bag packed for a stay of some duration.
Panic came unexpectedly. I had just finished four wonderful years at a small liberal arts women’s college where I was a leader, where I had good friends, healthy hobbies, and felt, like many young adults, ready to take on the world. I shunned the rungs of the corporate career ladder that many of my classmates were stepping onto (back then, outfits like Merrill Lynch and City Bank would come and interview students right on campus for entry-level positions) and, instead, I looked into social service agency jobs or graduate school in the field of my major- psychology. But I didn’t want to work in a methadone clinic on the North Shore of Boston for just above minimum wage, I didn’t get the job that I really wanted as a counselor at a teen shelter, and I wasn’t ready to commit to a PhD. My parents decided to move to England, and so I fell back on what I knew and loved- returning to my home state of CT to work for a friend in his restaurant. Within five months, I was the head chef of a very popular downtown restaurant. An article in the city newspaper featured the story of our all-female kitchen crew. It was a heady time. Food was just beginning to get notice outside of restaurants boasting Michelin stars, and we took pride in our local ingredients, clean tastes and classic preparations. I loved the creativity of the industry, the excitement of the buzz of the kitchen on a Saturday night, the haggling with the purveyors, shopping in the regional market at dawn, hanging out until the wee hours of the morning decompressing after the rush of feeding a hundred people, and the endless pots of coffee during service that were later balanced after-hours with tumblers of scotch and multiple Marlboros.
Panic moved in a few months into burning the candle at both ends.
I drove a VW fastback that was on blocks in the garage, more often than not.
I lived with a house-full of young adults and dogs in a town 25 miles away from the city where I worked.
I worked double shifts, often arriving home just in time to take a shower and change my clothes for the next shift.
Panic stepped in, took off his coat, and poured himself a cup of coffee. He took my breath, my confidence, my concentration, my ability to leave the house for anything other than work, and he took my sleep. He gave me heart palpitations, a tight chest, shaky hands and nausea. If you have ever had a panic attack or lived with an anxiety disorder, you know what I mean. I refused to go anywhere without a small folded paper bag in my back jeans’ pocket to blow into if I hyperventilated, I sipped water obsessively from a plastic water bottle thinking that it would soothe me, I quit drinking, and I threw myself into my work. I was anxious. I had a hard time breathing. I took a job at a country inn that I thought would be more relaxing. The inn was 40 miles from my house, my car continued to fail, and I was running the “American” side of an “American/Chinese” kitchen that the owner thought was his novel answer to attracting business to his inn in a part of the state where country inns were a dime a dozen. It was novel, all right, but Panic came along for the ride and sat on a stool in the corner, over near the old male Chinese chef who really didn’t want a then-22-year-old girl as his partner.
Panic stayed for that long summer and through the fall. I stole a library book titled How to Master Anxiety (I had no library card and I was desperate), and on bus rides to visit my boyfriend in Boston, I would press my clammy forehead against the cold window, close my eyes and repeat, over and over again, the mantra of the three words that the book recommended for self-soothing: “Calm. Ocean. Home.”
Just as the frost was setting up and signaling a dark winter, I went to talk with a family friend who was a doctor. We sat on his patio watching the sun set and he pulled out his prescription pad and recommended Valium. I declined. I moved to a new apartment, junked the car and kicked Panic out. I changed the locks. Panic hasn’t come back since. (I know that I am lucky.)
Early this morning on Facebook, I asked friends to recommend a topic on which I should blog for this month’s entry. (I find that blogging just once a month is harder in the “deciding-on a-topic-department” than blogging every week.). My friend wrote: “The Theology of Panic.” (He is a new friend who doesn’t know about this chapter of my life in which Panic and I were roommates.)
I took the post down immediately, his answer supplying my need.
But I’m not sure I have a Theology of Panic.
I have a faith in God.
I have experience with panic.
And today, driving to State College and back (4 hours) I had time to think about it.
I thought about the places in Scripture where panic ensues. The three stories that came to mind first were the Drowning of Pharaoh’s Army from Exodus 14:21-29:
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. 22 The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23 The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24 At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25 He clogged] their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”
26 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” 27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29 But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
I thought about the Stilling of the Storm (Matthew 8: 23-37, Mark 4: 35-41, Luke 8: 22-25)
22 One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” So they put out, 23 and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. 24 They went to him and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. 25 He said to them, “Where is your faith?” They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” (Luke’s version)
And I thought about the disciples’ fleeing from Jesus in his hour of need (Matthew 26: 56, Mark 14:50)
47 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49 At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. 50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. 51 Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” 55 At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. 56 But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled. (Matthew’s version)
The panic in these stories- the army thrown into panic with the sea closing over them, the panic of the disciples in the face of a storm, and the panic of the disciples at Jesus’ arrest (resulting in fleeing)- have similarities:
- Panic ensues when a force stronger than we are comes up against us: the wall of water in the Red Sea, the storm on the sea, the contingent of Roman soldiers with spears.
- Panic leads us to move impulsively or in a disorderly fashion.
- Panic makes us act in a way that is self-focused, and not outwardly focused- on others or on God.
We know the physiology of panic: the sympathetic nervous system responds to a trigger that is threatening, tripping our “fight or flight” response and releasing the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline into our system. Our blood flow to our heart increases, blood recedes from our skin, fingers and toes causing clamminess and tingling, (this is a preventative measure in case we are cut in the fight and will have less blood to bleed out), blood is re-directed to our thighs and biceps to prepare us for action, we breathe faster to increase the oxygen needed to fight, and the oxygen to our brains actually decreases slightly lending to our dizziness, and confusion. We sweat, an adaptive response making our skin slippery and it harder for our predator to grab us, our muscles tense and twitch, resulting in achiness, and we are geared up, physically, to fight for our lives.
It is a basic, instinctual, animal-level response to what we perceive as threatening. (Social scientists and psychologists believe that the sources of panic attacks that trigger this fight-flight response are unresolved traumatic events that represent threat, stress to the body that serves as a threat to well-being, exhaustion and major life changes.)
But we are higher than animals. We have dominion over them. (Gen 1:26)
So why don’t we employ our faith when we are up against it to the point of panic?
We are in beginning of an international public health situation- the Corona virus- that is causing disruption, fear, and panic across the world.
Much of the response to the threat of a pandemic with a death rate of 3.4% (as of March 5, 2020 www.sciencealert.com) has been lodged in common sense and practicality. It is good to wash our hands, avoid contact with others who may be sick, quarantine those who have been sick or exposed, and re-examine the import of our daily activities of living that call for us to gather in large groups.
It is good that the House of Bishops has the means by which to gather electronically next week and not put more than 100 bishops from more than 100 different geographic areas on airplanes, and through crowded airports to gather together in a closed conference room for a week of meetings. That makes sense to me.
But I fear that panic may overtake us. Panic that leads to impulsive, disorderly behavior, and that focuses on our own selves and not our neighbors- or God.
God has blessed us with “memory, reason and skill.” (BCP pg. 370) We are called to use our gifts to come up against this frightening illness.
God is our strength and our salvation (Psalm 188:14), our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. (Psalm 46:1)
I wish that I had remembered that when I was worn down by panic in my young adulthood.
I was raised in the Episcopal Church. Confirmed at 12, more than an occasional church-goer through college, I didn’t use my God-gut with any intention to pull myself out of my mess. (In hindsight, maybe it was God who flipped the switch of strength in me that came from “nowhere” to heal me… but it wasn’t an intentional act of devotion- or even consideration- on my part.)
It’s like this:
We are gifted, smart people who can reason our way out of many sticky situations without panic.
And we are children of God, those of us believers, who, in times of trouble would be well suited to face our fears and threats wearing the armor of God.
That’s my Theology of Panic.