Chase away ‘monsters’ of anxiety with light of Christ

March 8, 2013 | Life Lines

My current Life Lines column from Catholic New York:

What is it about the darkness that makes normal things seem a little scarier and scary things seem downright unbearable? Maybe it has something to do with childhood memories of things that go bump in the night, of partially open closet doors that hide all sorts of imaginary monsters just waiting to catch us unaware. Maybe it has to do with the deep connection we make between darkness and evil in our faith and in our world. Whatever it is, I found myself lying awake one night recently, the creaks of our older house drowned out by the much louder and demanding “monsters” in my head.

Just hours earlier all the worries flooding my brain had been just the opposite—exciting opportunities just waiting to be embraced, adventure, newness, a chance to pen a new chapter. But there in the quiet darkness, opportunity quickly turned to dread, adventure to fear, and newness to outright insanity. And yet nothing but the lighting had changed.

I thought about how Chiara, only 7, still likes a nightlight on in her room and her door cracked a bit so she can fall asleep with the hallway clearly in view and the family ever so slightly within earshot. There’s something soothing about a little slant of light and the murmur of voices just down the stairs. Maybe we adults need to remember that when insomnia and anxiety get the best of us on a figuratively dark and stormy night.

The same things that comfort a child can comfort us, but in grown-up form. Maybe a nightlight won’t wipe away the fears of a new job or a cross-country move or a health scare, but by shining an interior light on the matter through prayer, we take away some of fear’s power. By listening for the murmur of the Spirit amid the din of those worried voices in our head, we push out dread and welcome in joy in all things, even slightly scary things.

As I turned all these thoughts over in my mind in the bright and comforting light of morning, my eyes fell on my new camera and I thought about how I can completely change a scene by changing a setting. If I turn off the flash and try to take a photo inside, the dimness makes all the edges blur and the shadows become more prominent than faces or objects. If I leave the flash on and try to take a photo of a flower in bright sunlight, everything washes out and all the beauty is lost. Too little or too much and everything is thrown off, but with just the right balance the camera can focus.

So it is in our lives. We need balance. There will always be darkness, whether it comes in the form of illness or unemployment or family fights or personal demons. And often we seek comfort in the too-bright habits of mindless television, constant social media, too much food or drink, and all sorts of busyness that distracts us from our worries until darkness falls and we’re forced to confront them all over again.

Meanwhile the light of truth and faith is always on, always available, if only we’d just put away all the emotional and spiritual clutter and clear a space for God. When we sit down in silence to pray, to listen for the still small voice of the Spirit, God shines a light into the heart of our darkness and everything begins to come into focus. It might not happen in a day or a week or even a month, but little by little when we return to prayer again and again the slant of light in the hallway of our mind grows bigger and brighter until there’s no place left for fear and anxiety to hide.

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