Ways of Seeing, Johanna Nichols: Facing fear, anxiety are part of life’s journey
I am a person who likes to plan for all contingencies. It supports my illusion that I am in control. My daughters know this about me. They know the anxiety that has been passed down the generations like family china. That’s why they chose for me a gift of a silver necklace with natural stones.
My grandfather Carl was the only one of four children who lived to his seventies. His brother Alfred died of a debilitating muscular disease. An infant died in a flu or smallpox epidemic. Sister Selma drowned with her fiancée on a Sunday school picnic at Lake Dunmore when Carl was nine years old. Having never learned to swim, he almost drowned in the flood of 1927 when he fell out of a rowboat while rescuing others.
There is anxiety that prevents us from living our lives as fully as possible. When I was three, my mother experienced severe anxiety that manifested in panic attacks. My earliest memory is of my father standing at the phone in the front hallway calling my grandmother to come. My mother is crying. When my grandmother arrives, my parents drive off to the family doctor’s office.
There is anxiety that is “the price of a ticket on the journey of life.” As author James Hollis puts it: “we are impelled to face what we cannot face, bear what we cannot bear, name the unnamable that haunts us.” A Jungian analyst, he urges us never to deride ourselves for such anxiety, but to make our fears our agenda. When we take on that agenda, we know we are living in good faith with ourselves. (Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places 1996)
A string of stones — labradorite, white jade, onyx, tourmilated quartz, white jade, onyx, quartz — are set in silver. My daughters chose this design for its metaphysical aspects, wishing me “strength for those things that tire you, focus for those that nurture your soul.”
In my thirties, already a parent of these two, I discovered that the less power and control I had (or perceived I had), the more anxious I felt. I learned to ground myself by focusing on what was closest to home — my family. Then, I could move out into expanding circles of community, state, nation and globe. At that time, we did not own a computer nor had we conceived of the Internet or cell phones. Still, the world found its way into my life in disturbing ways.
In the early 1980’s, I was president of Parents, Teachers and Students for Social Responsibility. PTSSR was founded, in response to the ongoing threat of the nuclear arms race, to empower parents and teachers with the knowledge and strategies to become active in working for peace on behalf of all the worlds’ children. In support of this work, we created and distributed over one half million copies of the booklet “What About the Children?” which was translated into six languages and distributed worldwide.
World news now comes at us from 24-hour broadcasting and a proliferation of Internet programs. I am committed to make sense of what is unfolding and evolving around the world while reminding myself that I am not the general manager of the universe.
I have spent most of a lifetime striving to become more compassionate and to create more fairness and equality in the world, often feeling powerless to create the change I can envision. I wish I could do more about so many issues. Yet, it lessens my anxiety when I contribute in small ways, mostly close to home, but also through some national and global organizations.
It is better to let go of some family heirlooms and not to pass them down to the next generation. Before I brought my daughters into the world, I learned to face my fears, living life as fully as possible. It is rewarding, even exhilarating, to accomplish what I can without letting my fears stop me.
I will face challenges as long as I continue on the journey of life. They seem to come even faster with age; some may be embedded in my DNA. May I have the strength, focus, and spiritual awareness to live in good faith with myself and others.
Johanna Nichols is a grandmother, writer, and Unitarian Universalist minister emerita. She welcomes responses to these columns at [email protected]
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