“Sometimes when we are called to obey, the fear does not subside and we are expected to move against the fear. One must choose to do it afraid”-Elizabeth Eliot
A few days ago, I moved into my apartment at school for the last time. This year, I realized, will be a series of last times. It’s exciting. It’s terrifying. It’s had me thinking about my first time, when another person who looked a lot like me parked her dad’s tan Taurus on this college campus, took several deep breaths, and exited the comfortable life of homeschooling into the frightening and uncertain territory of college.
Sometimes I have to plug up my thoughts. With headphones playing Phil Wickham in my ears, I stood in a bathroom stall trying to steady my breathing. Cold condensation from my water bottle chilled my hands. Anxiety seems to thrive in warmer climates, or so I’ve experienced, and the ice kept me cool.
My professors were waiting for me in the convocation center for orientation, but I was doubting if I could join them. It’s difficult to describe exactly what I was afraid of. When I’m anxious, sometimes people will point out that I’m safe. There’s a hospital nearby. Planes rarely fall out of the sky. You don’t have cancer. If you’ve ever had anxiety, you know this rarely helps. Because the problem isn’t always the circumstances. The problem is you. There’s literally a chemical in your body telling you to run away from the very thing you want or know you should do, no matter how safe it is. And you know that, if you do run, you’re still stuck with yourself. I knew I wanted to go to college. I wanted to learn and get a degree. That was honestly all I expected from school. Everything else–my friends, my eventual move from commuting to residency, my growth as a person–was a surprise. I wanted this, but I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to do it. I would miss too many classes and fail. I wouldn’t make friends. I might even starve to death.
I eventually left the stall and sat with them, the music and my obsessive worries still buzzing in my ear. I knew I looked weird, and I’m sure I was sitting very still and silent. My dad, a professor at the university, was there as my support. I knew the other professors were all really nice people, but I didn’t say much to them because it would have interrupted my breathing pattern. I honestly was trying to ignore the food on their plates. Food and anxiety don’t mix, and I was already shaky from an empty stomach.
And then my school chaplain started to speak. He was dancing all over the stage, his voice hitting sopranic pitches as he hoisted himself on tiptoe with a thrust of his arms. And this man was the mouthpiece of God. He talked about monsters. He talked about fears. He talked about faith. I was tearing up, and I don’t think it was until we prayed, my hand popping the headphone from my ear just briefly, my dad squeezing my other hand, that I finally blinked the tears out and let myself cry. And then the prayer was over, and I had dried my tears. I told my dad later that I had felt like God was speaking to me through that sermon. It was like it was just for me. And my dad told me it wasn’t. He said that the chaplain had chosen his sermon specifically because he knew that all of the freshmen were afraid. I wasn’t special in my fear. It was a message for everyone. I wasn’t alone, and God was using our chaplain to encourage all of us.
When I have a panic attack, I can get stuck. If I’m listening to music, it stays on. If I’m walking, I want to keep walking. If I’m curled up in a chair, I’m not going anywhere. Later that day, I drove myself to a service project my freshman group was doing at a church–and I got stuck. I circled that building in the Taurus at least five times before I finally called my dad and said I didn’t think I could do it. I couldn’t stop driving. So my dad told me that I didn’t have to stay the whole time. All I had to do was get out of the car, say hi to the group, and then leave. The pressure was off, and, while I was incredibly embarrassed, that’s what I did. It was just a small step, but it was enough to make me feel like I hadn’t failed completely.
Journal entry from August 29: “This past week has been really hard but miraculous. Orientation left me up and down. There were successes and ‘failures’. Of course, I’ve learned that, by trying, I never fail.”
My first classes were equally difficult. My mom drove me to school every morning. I had to request to wear headphones in class. But every day got better. The fears gradually subsided, but only after I faced them. I had to get unstuck from an easy life. I had to do what I wanted without running away.
I didn’t do this alone.
Sometimes when I pray I wish that God could take hold of my hand and speak to me. Those first few days at school made me realize that, while God doesn’t offer us His own physical presence, He does hold our hand and speak to us through other people. Friends, family, and professors were praying for me. My English professor walked me around campus, taking on a motherly role as she led me through registration. This was not part of her job. She was God’s gentle presence and steadying hand. The president of the university gave me a personal escort to my car at the end of a freshmen event because it was raining. He was God’s protection over me. The chaplain was His voice. My freshmen leader–His encouragement. My parents–His love and guidance. I even made a new friend, my best friend today, who was His compassion.
I was not walking alone, dragging my feet on the ground one step a time. God was holding my hand and leading me on. That semester was difficult. I dealt with depression, obsessive compulsive thinking, and anxiety. But I’ve done more than just survive college. I’ve loved it. And in the end God was saying, “Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” (John 11:40).
Now that I’ve been through this process of leaning on God and witnessing His love through His people, I have become convinced of the importance of every encounter we make. We never know when we might be the face of God to someone.
I still have fears. Even when I trust God, anxiety can cause my body to tremble, telling it to run, convincing my mind that things are bleaker than they are. Maybe you understand this feeling. Don’t let fear have the last word. Because sometimes the fear does not subside.
Sometimes, as Elizabeth Eliot wrote, you must do it afraid.
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