“Remain here and keep watch with me.”[i]
I’m quite helpless. And I’m afraid.
This Lent, as I continue to examine my struggles and weaknesses in the light of Christ, I need to take a breath before sharing this particular part of my journey with you.
I’m a little afraid to admit to my fears.
Some of my fears are understandable. As a woman with a genetic, progressive motor neuron disease, I am severely physically disabled, breathe with compromised and fragile lungs, and am completely dependent upon other people for every act of survival. It’s natural, then, that I would fear something like, say, a rapidly spreading respiratory virus (more on that at the end) or, certainly, being left on my own for an entire day.
But some of my fears are irrational. I have a terrible phobia that causes me to excessively fear being alone for even just a minute. I’m horribly afraid of being in any situation where no one can hear my voice.
My voice, you see, is my physical strength, bringing other people to my aid. With my voice and caring people, I am not helpless. However, if nobody can hear me, then I feel utterly and completely alone, and the full, brutal weight of my physical helplessness collapses upon me like a ton of burning, searing bricks.
I totally freak.
If you’ve ever had a panic attack, then you know something of what I experience when I call out repeatedly and no one answers. My heart beats wildly, feeling like it’s going to explode, my breathing is strained, cold sweats and needles slice through me, and there’s stabbing and numbness in my extremities as well as a closing of my vision. All through my fracturing mind and suffering body is pure, unadulterated fear. Its major fight or flight, but there’s nothing to attack. And there is no way that I can run.
This irrational fear overtakes me when I’m not in any danger at all. One parent goes outside and the other one goes downstairs for a few minutes, both of them thinking that the other is listening for me. Result? Total meltdown until someone hears or comes back. The vacuum cleaner runs loudly for too long and I can’t keep the phobia down, so it strikes out and mauls me. It’s worse than physical pain.
I have developed ways to cope with my phobia (to avoid certain situations) and suck my parents into my phobic world. “Don’t go anywhere” or “listen for me” or “keep an eye on each other” or “keep the door open,” I will tell them throughout the day (as if they didn’t already know). They’ve learned not to run the blender or the hairdryer or the shower without my “permission,” and they plan their projects outside or downstairs around my phobia too.
I used to be more reasonable. I could be left inside the house for a couple of minutes or go outside on my own for even longer. Over the years, however, I’ve experienced falling forward in my chair and being unable to move, my voice not loud enough for immediate assistance. As these incidents accumulated, my legitimate fears and concerns grew into a true phobia. (I’m feeling shaky just writing this piece.)
You may still think that my phobia is understandable, but to help you clearly understand how bad this fear of mine truly is, let me share a thought that is often in my mind, a thought that troubles me deeply.
What if my dad was home alone with me and looked out the window to see a small child fall into our swimming pool? Would my phobia cause me to beg and plead with him not to go out and save the child? Could my demon really reduce me to being that horribly selfish?
I think so. Yes. I don’t believe that my father would listen to me, thankfully, and would mercifully choose saving the life of a stranger over sparing his child a panic attack. I don’t think I would think of him as merciful or heroic at the time, however. And I fear that, when he returned, he would find a psychologically broken daughter who would not fully recover.
A Deeper Look
This Lent, I’m wondering if this irrational and excessive terror of mine is related to sin. I’m not saying that I’m fully responsible for my actions when in a phobic state, because it is a mental disorder. What I’m asking is whether original sin has a role to play in terror itself.
The first human beings lived in a state of paradise, in perfect communion with God, their all-powerful and loving Creator. Intelligently recognizing their littleness and dependency, however, they didn’t like it. They didn’t want to be limited, they didn’t want to feel helpless without God. Worse, they didn’t trust God enough to believe that He would give them every possible gift for the true fulfillment of their joy. (Gee, that sounds familiar.)
The first human beings turned away from God. They abandoned God’s will and, as a result, felt truly helpless and afraid: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked.”[ii]
This is kind of what it feels like when I’m in a situation where no other human being can hear me. My eyes become opened to the enormity of my dependency and I see how pitifully helpless and vulnerable I am. And I’m afraid.
Then my demon takes it from there.
Jesus suffered the torment of temptations while He fasted and prayed for forty days in the desert, but He resisted, and the devil had no hold on Him. Christ was, and is, free of sin. He did not fall from grace, He did not stop trusting in God’s will, He did not succumb to His human emotions and fears.
But He did have emotions and fears.
From the Cross, at the worst point of His misery, tasting the bitterness of helplessness in this fallen world, God in the flesh cried out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”[iii]
Being fully divine, how could Jesus ever be abandoned or forsaken by God? He could not, and He was not. But, being fully human, He felt like He was. Jesus not only echoed the inspired words of the psalmist, but those words were His own. He voiced His feeling of desolation — that sense of helplessness that every human being will feel at some point in life — because He was fully human.
Without God’s love and divine assistance, we are truly helpless. Because our intellects are darkened and our wills are weakened by sin, we sometimes lose sight of God’s ever-present love and God’s ever-willing assistance in bringing us to where we need to be. Jesus Christ suffered no such darkness or weakness, because He was without sin, but — out of infinite love for us — He willingly suffered the effects of our sins. And that means that, for a moment, God Incarnate chose to close His eyes to divine reality in order to fully and intimately experience my own human sense of abandonment and fearful vulnerability.
With His eyes closed in anguish, He then willingly gave all of His humanity to His divine source. “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit.”[iv] That was Christ’s last act on Earth before He died: to abandon all of His human reality, experiences, and feelings to divine will.
Can I do the same?
I’m writing this reflection in the midst of a pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus. People are scared. Rational concerns are combining with some irrational fears to empty store shelves in a panic. Or are our fears irrational? I certainly have every legitimate reason to fear contracting Covid–19, because it’s extremely unlikely that I would survive the viral disease. But then again … should the thought of death have such a fearsome grip on me? Am I not a Christian, and so a true believer in eternal life, in life after death in heavenly bliss through Christ? (“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”[v])
The CDC recommendations will definitely save people’s lives, and, so, I hope and pray that people take them seriously. My family and I are taking all of the reasonable and strict precautions, and I take them very seriously as I also try to remember the words of Jesus: “Be not afraid.”
I try to work on trust.
I strive to keep Christ’s encouragement in mind as my family and I also work on ways to lessen the effects that my phobia has on me and the people whom I love. I try to trust and remember that, whatever the situation — quarantined, sheltering, or left unheard for a few moments — I am not alone.
With the love of God, who is always and everywhere, and through the sharing of God’s love in the kindness of others, we are never truly abandoned.
© 2020 Christina Chase
[i] Christ begged His friends to stay, He didn’t want to be alone. Matthew 26:38
[ii] Genesis 3:7
[iii] See Matthew 27:46
[iv] Luke 23:46
[v] 1 Corinthians 15:55
Although crippled by disease, I am fully alive in love. I write about the profound wonder and terrible beauty of life while living with physical disability and severe dependency. Unafraid to ask life's big questions, I was briefly an atheist and considered other religions before finding, in God's choice to intimately share our humanity, what it truly means to be fully human. A revert to the Catholic Faith, I blog weekly and have written a book called It's Good to Be Here.