Dear Donagh, I had a wonderful fiancee and we intend to marry. However I was overcome with crippling anxiety and we postponed it. We are still together and as always we get on great, herself, myself and her son. I have an abundance of love respect and admiration for her. She is truly a dear person. However because of all my anxiety I question do I really love her enough and I am so confused as to the right path to take. Will my confusion pass? Should I
turn the problem to God? Richard
Thanks for your letter, and for putting your uncertainty ‘out there’ - which must be a help in itself. The uncertainty is very clear, even in the first line! You seem unsure whether you are talking about the past or the present: “I had,” you said, then “we intend.”
Of course no one can tell you what to do. It would be wrong for anyone to do so, because then it would not be your own decision, and you would still not have faced your indecision. But we can encourage you, we can tell you that we all feel a bit like that when we have important decisions to make; we can even be very clear in the annoying way that outsiders can be clear about matters of the heart!
Your anxiety is making things difficult for you. Anxiety is a form of fear. Fear is normally quite focused: I'm afraid of heights, or of speed, or of that particular person…. But anxiety is unfocused fear; it’s a fear not only of what is but also of what could be. This means that no matter how many things I check out I cannot put it to rest. When there’s no real object to be afraid of, anxiety creates an object. It leaves no room for any other consideration. For this reason it’s a bad counsellor. St John said that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). We could also turn it around and say: perfect fear casts out love. How so? In fear I divide myself. Part of me wants to take the step, another part holds back, and so I remain rooted to the spot. The civil war within me absorbs all my attention and energy, and there is none left for this great self-giving that is love.
In a strange way anxiety makes me idealise the other person. Because I am always putting her just beyond my reach she will soon begin to have a kind of aura about her. Within a few years she will be on the way to becoming a goddess, and I her unworthy devotee. This may look like deep spiritual intimacy, but it is only my anxiety pushing her away into a safe niche.
I'm talking quite freely, Richard, and little or none of this may be relevant to your own situation. You’ll have to be patient!
The future is a perfect arena for anxiety - because it includes everything that lies ahead, and none of it can be checked! But look at it this way: if we knew the future it would no longer be the future; it would be a kind of past. That would be some kind of nightmare! There would never be anything new or surprising in one’s life. In a while we would feel nothing, or we would feel dead. Nothing looks so sure of itself as a stone; that's because it’s not a living being like you or me.
I would, suggest that the way through this is to look at the anxiety itself. Watch it, study it, see it coming, learn to recognise it, notice what triggers it, be aware of what it does in the body, and be aware of how it controls what you do and what you don’t do. Watch how it puts a drop of poison even into the best moments you have with your fiancée. Even while you are enjoying her company the anxiety is spoiling something. It’s a spoiler; that is its speciality. “Will my confusion pass?” you ask. Not while you continue to create it. It’s the product of anxiety, and for as long as anxiety controls you the confusion will continue and will even grow.
“Should I turn the problem to God?” you ask. It’s always a good thing to turn our problems to God, but check whether you are seeking in a subtle way to avoid the decision you have to make. God won't decide for you, because you already have the wonderful God-given capacity to make decisions. St Thomas Aquinas said that our human gifts are our participation in God's providence. God's providence doesn’t overrule us or set our efforts aside; God takes us into the decision-making process, in the way that parents will take their eldest child. The eldest often becomes a sort of third parent. That is how God respects us and waits for us.
Sometimes a good remedy for fear of the future is to think of the distant future! Imagine yourself as an old man looking back on your life. What kind of life would you like to have lived? I think we would all like to be able to say: I lived intensely, and even if I made mistakes it was with a good heart, and that must undo much of the damage.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
It was impossible not to think of Frost’s Road not Taken! I can think of no better remedy for anxiety than his laid-back wisdom. Why not make it your theme-song!
God bless, Richard.