My perception of reality and my way of living are often out of sync with the wider society. Sometimes my unconventional perceptions and choices are driven by my communion with God and my attempts to live faithfully. Sometimes they are driven by my struggles with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Both of these driving forces are real. Neither one invalidates the other.
At the 2013 Quaker Spring gathering in Deerfield, Massachusetts, I invited others interested in discussing the connections between mental illness, healing, and the life of the Spirit to join me for conversation. I was afraid that no one would come. Instead, we ended up with such a large group that some people didn’t have a chance to speak, and we decided to set up another session on the following day. Many of us were working on similar questions: How can we distinguish depression from the dark night of the soul or “the gift of tears” that springs from compassion? How can we discern the difference between the uncomfortable promptings of an awakened conscience and the crippling guilt that can accompany obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)? In a culture that defines hearing voices as a sign of delusion, how do we determine whether we are hearing the voice of God or the voice of our own desires and fears?
Upon returning from the gathering, I kept mulling over those questions. Thinking of my own experience, I saw some differences between the experience of being led and the experience of being stuck in irrational fear. I also saw more similarities than I had expected. My leading began with a painful concern that could have turned toward sickness. My struggle with mental illness has left me shaken, but also clearer, stronger, and more able to reach out. Some basic practices foster both right nurturance of leadings and right confrontation of irrational patterns.
As far back as I can remember, I have had experiences of the presence of God: I have known that I was not separate from God, and that in God none of us creatures was separate from another. I knew that the people I admired most weren’t fundamentally different from me, that I could live with love and courage like theirs. I knew that my care and faithfulness might help people whom I couldn’t reach at the visible level, since we were all one in the root. That knowledge was deeply comforting. I also knew that the people who did things that I abhorred weren’t fundamentally different from me, that I could live and act as dishonestly or destructively as they had. I knew that my selfishness or falsehood might hinder other people in ways that were not apparent on the surface. That knowledge was hard but salutary.
This sense of unity led to concerns for peacemaking and earthcare. As a teenager, I envisioned myself writing, speaking, and organizing for these concerns, and I shaped my homeschooling in preparation for that. This included studying economics. In the course of that study, I realized that we were one and affected each other in hidden ways economically as well as spiritually. I learned about the people who made the clothes I wore and grew the food I ate and lived where the wastes from my consumption were dumped. I realized that my daily life required other people to work and live in unacceptable conditions.
I was dismayed. I couldn’t think of an adequate response. I talked to people at my church (I was not a Quaker then) and at the college where my father taught. I was told: “It’s really not normal or appropriate to worry about such things at your age. Lighten up, spend more time with your peers and learn to do and enjoy what they do.” Or, “You young people always think you can change the world, but once you’re really an adult you’ll learn to adapt. That’s what growing up is: learning to fit smoothly into the world as it is, not as you want it to be.”
I stopped going to church. I became clearer about not going to college. As I studied and prayed alone, I was increasingly burdened with a sense that I lacked integrity, and with vivid mental images of my participation in doing harm. I began to wonder if my concerns really were not only abnormal, but unhealthy—if I was crazy, or headed that way. I don’t know how I would have coped with this anxiety if my mother hadn’t kept encouraging me to look steadily at the truth without ducking or exaggerating and to take time for activities that refreshed my spirit.
Way began to open for me when I read John Woolman’s Journal and realized that he had been led to live in a way that did not require the mistreatment of workers, had changed his own life in response to that leading, and had begun a transformation in the wider society. I began attending Quaker meeting for worship along with my mother and brother. Being among so many others who were listening to God’s voice, I felt better able to see my concern clearly and deal with it constructively. In Friendly reading and discussion, I didn’t find answers to my specific question, but I did find affirmation of the underlying concern. This reassurance brought me to a place of inward clearness that freed up my mind to research possible ways of living more justly and sustainably.
My distress gradually resolved itself into a clear leading that brought me to a Catholic Worker farm in upstate New York along with my mother and brother. We’ve now been here for 13 years. I can work with my hands to produce much of what I need directly, and I share food and skills with neighbors. Physical work and community building have helped me to develop competence and joy. There are still contradictions in my life, but they are shrinking. I am growing into greater integrity, solidarity, and faithfulness.
I have also grown away from Friends in some ways. We’re now geographically distant from Friends meetings. Some Friends express concerns about my choosing a way of life that doesn’t involve a college degree, a salary, or a romantic partnership. When I have tried to discuss these concerns with the Friends who raised them, I have gotten very little response; this is a disappointment. I hear from other Friends that my way of living is so different that there seems to be little basis for relationship. I grieve that separation. I miss the support, accountability, and discernment that a larger body can offer, and I think I have something to offer the larger body. But I am grateful that Friends were there for me at a critical juncture in my life.
I don’t remember the beginning of my struggle with anxiety any more than I remember the beginning of my experiences of God. As far back as I can remember, I’ve had periods of shame, disorientation, and fear of not being good enough. These feelings weren’t tied to being put down by someone else. Too often I responded by trying to make myself appear better than I was and trying to avoid acknowledging my problematic words and actions. This form of deceit naturally led to greater guilt and worry.
I came to St. Francis Farm in Orwell, New York, wanting to help people. At times, I felt overwhelmed by the needs I encountered. Some people needed more time, money, patience, or wisdom than we were able to offer. Some wanted things that didn’t seem healthy or helpful. I had to say no often, and I felt excessively guilty when I said it. Sometimes I got weepy and desperate in response to mild criticism. My mother expressed concern. I said I was fine.
A few years ago, in my mid 20s, my fears took on more specific and irrational shapes. I’d wash and re-wash my hands, worrying that I hadn’t really gotten the germs off them and that when I went back to the kitchen or the garden, I’d be contaminating the food that we were giving to people, and they would get sick and maybe they would die and it would be my fault. I’d come to a stop sign and realize that I had been driving on autopilot, and I’d wonder if I had hit somebody without noticing. I knew others who suffered from mental illness. I knew what my own symptoms were. I didn’t want to know. I feared that admitting my obsessive-compulsive tendencies would mean that my countercultural choices—farming, voluntary poverty, celibacy, pacifism—were signs of a diseased mind, a failure to make a healthy adjustment to social norms, which would mean that I had wasted my life.
Eventually, I realized that fear and denial were wasting my life. I talked about my anxiety with my mother, who listened well and helped me to think about where I could get help. I talked with a friend who had trained as a clinical social worker and who told me about different strategies which people sometimes found helpful for dealing with OCD. Her suggestions helped me; so did her calm and compassionate listening and her assurance that it was possible to have obsessive-compulsive tendencies and also have a meaningful life. I visited websites run by affiliates of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), checked out their forums for people with anxiety issues and found some helpful reading suggestions. I read some books on self-directed cognitive behavioral therapy (Jeffrey Schwartz’s Brain Lock and David Mellinger and Steven Jay Lynch’s The Monster in the Cave) and began applying their lessons to interrupt the cycle of anxious thoughts before they spun out of control. I didn’t stop being afraid, but I stopped letting my fear run my life, and over the course of several months, the most obvious and unreasonable fears receded. This was a great relief.
I began to see deeper spiritual issues linked with my neurological problems. Sometimes I used unreasonable petty fears to distract myself from larger issues that really troubled me. Sometimes my carelessness, my tendency to distraction, and my wish to appear better than I was led naturally to heightened anxiety. Dealing with anxiety has required me to be more honest and attentive. I also saw that my obviously neurotic thought patterns and some more subtle ones that I’d carried for a long time had a common underlying story: If I don’t do things just right, people I care about will be harmed. This story has an implied converse: If I do things just right, people I care about will not be harmed. This is putting myself in God’s place. Confronting this illusion has deepened my clarity and trust.
I also find myself better able to reach out to others who struggle with irrational fears. In my own wrestling with anxiety, I would often wish that someone who had had problems similar to mine and had worked through them constructively would talk with me about that process. I’ve sometimes been able to do this for other people. I would not have chosen this way of being opened up, but I am grateful.
The practices of discernment, honesty, and widening my focus allow me to respond constructively to both leading and irrational anxiety. Discerning the difference between the two can be difficult, since both may lead me in countercultural directions and both may be accompanied by great discomfort.
Discernment begins with asking whether my concerns are obviously unreasonable. My conviction around economics and ethics began experientially, not intellectually, but it made sense; the connections between overconsumption, globalization, wealth inequality, and environmental destruction were clear and demonstrable, and my response could be rationally explained. My fears of germs and forgotten accidents were clearly unreasonable. Even at the time, I would have thought them absurd if anyone else had expressed them, and I strongly suspected that they weren’t founded in reality—but I didn’t feel quite sure, and I was afraid. My precautionary measures were even more obviously irrational, which I sometimes realized even as I carried them out.
Some of my fear-driven thoughts and behaviors are less blatantly unreasonable. Discernment also requires me to consider whether my instinct is to investigate the concern thoroughly and discuss it openly or to hide and forget it. Then I need to ask whether the concern is centered on preserving an image of my own goodness or on actually doing good and refraining from doing harm. And, in the case of concerns and behaviors which have been with me for some time, I need to consider whether they have helped me to love and to work more effectively. After discernment, honesty is essential in dealing with both leading and irrational anxiety. Suppressing an uncomfortable or unpopular leading makes me increasingly anxious, discouraged, and sick-minded. Looking honestly at an irrational fear can help me to unmask illusions and grow deeper into God.
Widening my focus is another key practice for dealing with leadings and unreasoning fears. The word for anxiety is related to the Latin word angustia, meaning narrowness. Insight and compassion arise from observing my own irrational anxieties while remembering that the people I love, the people I fear, and the people I mean to help all struggle with fears of their own. Spirit-led concern can be warped into something sick by a narrow focus on proving my own goodness. The distinction between focusing on my own goodness and taking personal responsibility for living into God’s kingdom is subtle but essential. The best way to keep a wide focus and a clear vision is to stay centered in prayer.
While I am responsible for practicing discernment, honesty, and centering in my own life, I have been greatly helped by others who were willing to listen to me and offer accompaniment, support, and accountability. Accompaniment requires a lot of emotional energy. I try to remember this when I ask for it and also when I offer it: to ask in a way that makes it clear that no is a perfectly good answer, to offer with a clear sense of what my limits are and when and how I can be available.
Accompaniment requires me to listen deeply before responding, stay centered in prayer, and speak boldly and humbly. Questioning another person’s concerns and refraining from questioning can both be done for the wrong reasons. It is wrong to cast doubts on someone else’s concern because it runs counter to my opinions, because I wish to distance myself from the other person, or because the legitimacy of the concern might require me to change my life. It is also wrong to avoid hard questions out of a wish to be liked, an aversion to conflict, or a fear of having my own assumptions questioned. Avoiding these pitfalls requires honesty, humility, and centeredness. This discipline of accompaniment is demanding, but it can help the accompanying individual, clearness committee, or meeting to grow in truth and faithfulness.