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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

What to do when you're anxious

I’ve collected all the miscellaneous blankets in the house to wash and fold them. I’m on my third load now. Every time I take a load from the dryer, the world is fragrant. Every time I fold another blanket, taking great care that the ends meet, the world is well-ordered. That small tower of blankets gives me a sense of control in the world. And it’s the illusion of control that stays the anxiety. The blankets are a shore for my spilling ocean of responsibility.

School started just a couple of weeks ago, which means I started back, in earnest, to meeting my deadlines. I knew that the fall would be busy. I’m leading a large project at church, which is lots of fun if also lots of work. The mid-week meetings and phone calls are a welcome break from the reclusive work of writing, and the challenge of leading others, rather than simply leading myself, is an important point of personal growth. (As I’m learning, doing the work is hardly the same thing as leading others to get it done.) The project, which involves both the publication of a magazine as well as the coordination of a large event, taps into all the things I really love to do: connect people to each other and to a larger contribution they can make; think creatively about the work of witness; write and research; vision and execute. The project, inspired by the book, Slow Church (C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison), is meant as a community outreach and marks an important event in the life of our church: the renovation of the 1878 historic Old St. Andrew’s, which will be our church’s new home. I’m excited about everything I’m doing, convinced that the vision truly was God-given—and simultaneously unraveled by the amount of work. On the outside, I may seem unflappable. On the inside, I am crushed under the weight of to-dos and timelines.

In addition to this church project, I’m trying to make headway on Book #3. It hardly seems possible that I’ve just launched Keeping Place in May and have already begun work on another book, but that is the joy (grief?) of signing a two-book deal. Quite honestly, book writing is getting harder for me in many ways, at least in terms of the discipline required. When I landed my first book contract for Teach Us to Want, my professional life was leaner. I wasn’t traveling to speak (and having to deal with the administrative aspects of travel). I wasn’t writing as widely as I do now on the web (and having to field emails from readers). Writing the first book was like being pregnant the first time: I had all the capacity for doting. But now that I’m the mother of two, Baby #3 isn’t getting all the attention she needs. (Which reminds me of a comment my friend made about my real baby #3, Camille. “Do you even feel like you know her?” she asked when Camille turned one. In one sense, the question was entirely fair. I had three children, three and under. How much real attention could I pay to any of them individually? And in another sense, Camille was the one I carried the most, whose weight and frame were most familiar. She was nearer than the other two had ever been.) I’m carrying book #3 close, writing in the margins of days. But even though I’m saying no to additional assignments, I worry the attention won’t be enough.

Then there are the matters of everyday family life. I walked into the house this morning after dropping the kids off at school and realized that Andrew had left his swimming bag at home. I got back into the car, headed to school for a second time, and circled home. The new year has brought new routines, and none of us is familiar with them yet. Additionally, Ryan has been traveling this month for work, leaving me to manage the chauffeuring alone. (Tonight, I’ll rely on my older son, Nathan, to walk his brothers to and from their piano lessons so that I can get to school for the parents’ meeting.) With the school year underway, there are forms to fill out, checks to write, permission slips to sign. And have I mentioned that we’ve moving? Settling a long-term anxiety about permanence, we’ve bought a house in Toronto—approximately one-third the size of our current rental house. This has meant a feverish sorting of our house and trips to the Salvation Army with the back of the minivan full of things we’ll no longer have room for. It’s a wonderful practice: we can live with far less than we do. But it’s all work: pressing, urgent, heavy.

Which is why I’m washing the blankets. It’s the one job I can start and finish today, one discrete task that convinces me of my agency. Washing the blankets is probably the least urgent task of the day, but I do it urgently nonetheless because inwardly I am restless, fearful that I’ve set the plates in motion only to let them shatter at my feet.

This morning, it’s anxiety that takes me back to Matthew 6, a well-worn passage about the worries we bear for the tomorrows we cannot control. I go there because I feel I need the reprimand of Jesus: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life.” I read and re-read the words, as if by their power, I can extinguish the smoldering wick of fear in my chest. I will myself to put out the fire of worry. I will myself to think only of today.

But impossibly, I’m still under it: under tomorrow, under the emails to send and the chapter to write and the calls to make and the appointments to schedule. What to do when anxiety, like a rabid dog, just won’t be called off?

I begin noticing that there is more here, in Matthew 6, then the reprimand of Jesus—the don’t of worry. There’s also this glorious do: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Perhaps, I begin to think, I don’t simply need to try and tamp out worry and anxiety. Instead, I need to light a better fire: the urgent fire for doing all that pleases God (cf. John 8:29). And what do I know about God’s kingdom? It’s going to be built, and the gates of hell won’t prevail against it. God doesn’t need my efficiency, my strategic planning, my time management. In fact, he wants so much more for me than this cramped sense of responsibility, which lays the world’s spinning at my feet.

I do what pleases him. I seek his kingdom. And I only do this when I lay down the anxiety, which ultimately betrays how central I feel to every task I’m given, how little I depend on God for the provisions of the everyday. Look at the birds, Jesus says. Take notice of their inactivity: “They neither sow nor reap nor father into barns.” Look at the flowers, Jesus says. Observe their effortless beauty: “They neither toil, nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” This isn’t to say that we don’t work. Surely God’s kingdom involves emails and appointments, meetings and deadlines. But we work differently than as if we assumed it were entirely up to us.

I’ll pull the final load of blankets from the dryer soon. And because it’s Monday (one of two laundry days at my house), I’ll continue on with the clothes. The hampers will empty, filling me temporarily with a sense of relief. But I’ve got to do more today than get things done: I’ve got to find my way toward a life of greater surrender, the life of the birds and the lilies, the abundant life in the way of Jesus.

Whose yoke is easy and burden light.