I was on track to set out on my Rumspringa August 29, 2008 when my parents helped me move into the college dorm. I gave Disability Services the textbooks I needed months in advance, and after three weeks of guide dog training, Gilbert and I could expertly navigate the routes to the dining room and all of my classes. Mom offered to come to campus and just observe our walk to class the first day, just to make sure I had no trouble. It was a good thing she did because when Gilbert and I crossed the street from the dorm, we were greeted by construction trucks and jackhammers. No one told us they planned to start major construction the first day of school on a significant portion of the sidewalk Gilbert and I depended on, and we were both frightened by the noise of the jackhammers. My textbooks weren’t ready until several weeks into the semester either, so my parents had to come to campus every morning to help Gilbert and me navigate the construction, and then meet us after class to read textbook chapters to me so I wouldn’t fall behind. I lived exactly one week in the dorm before my parents and I decided the routine was exhausting and it would be much easier to live at home and commute to college. I kept the dorm room that first year as I think it was nonrefundable, and once the textbooks were ready, it was a nice place to rest and study between classes, and I would spend the occasional Saturday there if there was a weekend event I wanted to participate in. But for the most part, I lived at home, and sophomore year, we decided not to renew the dorm.
Neither Gilbert nor I actually liked dorm life all that much. Gilbert seemed depressed by the lack of space to run around. Since I had to share the bathroom with other girls, I had to carry all of my toiletries to the bathroom and back each morning, and while I might have gotten used to this routine if I had held on a little longer, I found it made me so inefficient and slow in the morning I barely made it to class on time. I also found the furniture at home to be way more comfortable, Mom’s home cooked food so much more delicious. My struggles were unique to my disability, but I remember my siblings sharing struggles of their own when they first lived on their own. But they stuck it out. With each passing year, I kick myself harder and harder for not sticking it out. I could have waved down someone to help Gilbert and me get around the construction that first day, and then called the trainer and ask him to come back as soon as possible to train us to navigate the construction site. (I also should have figured out the proper channels to write someone an angry letter for not bothering to tell us that the sidewalk we trained on almost every day for three weeks was going to be ripped up.) I could have marched my textbooks down to Disability Services and demanded they pay someone to read them to me until they got their act together. Instead I just gave up, despite having a motivating aid from fifth grade through high school who always encouraged me to “never, never, never give up!” And now I am paying the price with this dormant virus of depression and anger.
I recognize that I am blessed to have the parents I do, and to be able to live with my parents, a blessing brought into sharper focus by the pandemic. As I have mentioned before, during the pandemic, I witnessed so many friends and relatives who lived alone spiral into depression and anxiety. Right from Genesis when God looks upon Adam and said “it is not good for man to be alone,” the Bible is clear that humans need community, and I really do enjoy living in community with my parents. When we have lively dinner discussions about politics, or Mom and Dad tell me nostalgically about old TV shows, or when we hear a song from their youth on the radio and they laugh when the song makes me laugh (“Everybody loves a clown so why can’t you? Clowns have feelings too”) I feel warm inside, as I am well aware that if I lived on my own I would likely be eating and completing household chores in lonely silence much of the time. I also don’t take for granted that my parents cook delicious food that is beyond my cooking comfort zone. I make a really delicious batch of bean soup in the crock-pot each week that is my lunch, and I would like to expand my crock-pot repertoire to cook things like chicken stew or turkey breast in a healthy gravy for dinner. But I don’t feel comfortable cooking meat or vegetables over the open flame of a grill, and food prepared on the grill is so delicious! I don’t take for granted all of the tedious but essential chores my parents handle that would fall entirely to me if I lived on my own, such as sorting and washing my laundry so that all I have to do is put it away, filling up my pill box each week with the medications my medical conditions require, shoveling snow in the winter, cleaning the bathrooms, mopping the floors. I don’t take for granted the fact that my parents paid our undergraduate college tuition when many parents who are financially able to do this require their children to work and pay their own way. Thus, unlike so many of our peers, we won’t have to make student loan payments until we are practically senior citizens, thus setting my siblings and me up for a much less stressful life. There is no access to public transportation where I live, but my parents were happy to drive me to college and to work every day, as well as any social events I wanted to attend. Today, they drive me to choir, about a half hour drive, every Tuesday during the school year, without complaint, even in cold, nasty winter weather. My dad started getting massages at the gym and he thought they might help my headaches. I loved the idea, but didn’t want to pay for them out of my own money because it seemed too frivolous for me, but my parents are willing to pay for them, in addition to the monthly gym membership to go swimming. Given Celiac Disease, I have to avoid gluten, but I also choose to avoid dairy, red meat, and starchy complements (at dinner) for health reasons. But my parents patiently adapt meals for me, helping me find the riced cauliflower to substitute for mashed potatoes, or making a portion of a casserole without cheese. My parents model Christ in their unconditional love, and in showering me with blessings I do not deserve, exacerbating my flare-ups of depression and anger with a sickening layer of guilt. I know these feelings are irrational, not only because of how much my parents bless me, but also compared to the 99 percent of the world’s population who have real hardships to be depressed and angry about. But I don’t know how to “snap out of it.” Donald Trump’s spectacular display of narcissism which has played out on TV the past six years is painful to watch, but what is even more painful is the fear that I might be just like him at times.
My blindness was caused by a brain tumor that damaged my optic nerve when I was about seven months old. Because the brain tumor also caused paralysis and a loss of muscle tone on my right side, and because I had to be taught how to crawl and walk, skills that most children learn by watching others, I attended a special preschool program for blind children where I received intensive physical therapy. Mom told me that physical therapy was the only time I cried a little in preschool, and I especially hated crawling. But the physical therapist said that crawling is an essential developmental milestone that cannot be skipped. Perhaps the same could be said of the Rumspringa. I remember my siblings behaving much the same way I do today their final years of high school, begging my parents to trust them to stay home, fighting over the pettiest things. But the Rumspringa matured them, and now when they come to visit, it is an idyllic time to laugh, play games and catch up. Things they used to fight about are now a distant memory, or are in proper perspective, a source of light-hearted teasing instead. But because I skipped my Rumspringa, or more accurately, did not persevere through my Rumspringa long enough to allow it to refine me, I feel as though time froze at sixteen or seventeen years old even though I am now 32, and I all-too-often behave accordingly.
From what I have written so far, you might understandably think that my longing for my Rumspringa is based entirely on superficial and petty motives, just to get away from the family, to be unsupervised, out of reach, never pressured to take a trip ever again, but it’s really not that simple. It’s not about the trips. Sure, I can see myself opting out of a trip or two, especially if they are ten days long and I have just started a new internship or job. I could also see myself, for a trip or two at least, taking full advantage of being a separate entity from my parents and coming along on the trip, but on my own terms, booking my flight home from New York City Saturday afternoon rather than Sunday evening so that I have a day to rest, and allow my blood pressure to recover, before going back to work. The dread of prolonged time on-leash causes the most intense flare-ups, but other things cause twinges of depression or anxiety too. Every time I find out that one of my peers got married or is expecting their first child. Every time I go visit one of my siblings and they take the lead, showing us around their community. I am happy for them, but deep down, I long to know what it would be like to be the leader, to show my family around a community I just moved to instead of always being the handicapped, tag-along kid. Every time my parents discuss the reality that they are aging.
My parents said I always have a home with them (as do my siblings if they ever fell on hard times). But given the reality of the natural order, there will most likely come a day when my parents will no longer be with us, and a day could come years before that when they are alive but in a condition where they are no longer able to assist me. If I have never had to manage completely on my own, will I know how to manage when this day comes? My dad has alluded to my siblings looking after me, and if this means them calling every day to check in, I’m all for that. And these calls would be mutual, as we are all human and will need comfort and support from one another. But I don’t want to be the handicapped little sister who moves in with a sibling, especially if by that time, I am established in a community and a career. I feel like I ought to experience living on my own while my parents are still healthy and can guide me through the learning curves, just as they guided my older siblings.
When I expressed some of this anxiety as part of a discussion thread for the spiritual formation class last year, a wise student with more experience in ministry responded that God puts us exactly where we are for a purpose. God often brings this comment back to mind when I am feeling depressed or anxious, and it does make me feel a little better. When I was 18 years old, I didn’t fully understand my medical situation, especially the tendency for my electrolytes to get off-balance when I am sick. Nowadays, I am aware of the symptoms when my sodium is low or I am dehydrated, but I did not know this could happen to me the first time I passed out the day after my 20th birthday, or when I had a seizure due to low sodium in 2017. If I had been living on my own, I would not have known that I was in trouble, and might not have been found until it was too late. I don’t take for granted that perhaps God kept me at home with my parents to protect and preserve me. By keeping me at home, God also ensured that I would be able to perform to my fullest academic potential, graduating magna cum laude, an achievement that would not have been possible if I had to manage on my own at such a young age. Most importantly, while this purpose isn’t entirely pleasant, God’s work does involve pruning to ensure that the lives of his followers produce good fruit, and by keeping me with my parents, God forces me to confront my hypocrisy, teaching me that the character of a chaplain is first cultivated in the family.
It just so happens that my church is doing a series on the fruit of the spirit which Paul lists in Galatians 5:22. And in God’s perfect timing, the focus of last Sunday’s sermon was on peace. It was almost scary the degree to which God spoke to me through this sermon. The pastor even shared a story about something his own father said that caused him anxiety, a father whom he has a wonderful, loving relationship with, just as I have with my father. This sermon was convicting in a loving, compassionate way. The pastor explained that the definition of true peace is “confidence in God’s goodness and wise control over your life.” The opposite of peace, anxiety, occurs when we want to be in control of our lives, even though we often don’t know what we are doing, or what is best for us. We might attain a superficial definition of peace by trying to control our own lives, but this behavior will never lead to authentic, lasting peace, and will ultimately strain our relationships and rob us of the abundant life God intended for us. We can invite God, through prayer, to transform our anxiety into peace by helping us confront the brokenness of this world (which includes hurtful things said to us by people we love), confronting our own selfish desires, which the apostle Paul refers to as the desires of the flesh, which are completely contrary to, and incompatible with the desires of the spirit, and the devil’s schemes. Therefore, I am in a calmer frame of mind with this post than I was in writing Part 1. I definitely need to spend more time in prayer, when the virus flares up, but even when it is dormant because prayer is a discipline that does not come naturally in this fallen world, and because prayer isn’t second-nature for me, I don’t have the wherewithall to start praying when the virus flares up.
I know that in the past, I have committed to prayer and fasting on this blog, and then did not end up following through. In the case of fasting, my failure to follow through has been mostly the result of anxiety about feeling hungry, possibly not feeling well, and being cranky as a result, especially since I am prone to migraines, and on Fridays, the day I planned to start fasting, I often accompany my parents to the gym to swim laps while they attend a water exercise class. But another contributing factor is occasional comments like the one from my sister mentioned in Part 1. After such comments, in my flare-up of anger, I find myself thinking, “I ought to start fasting to prove to my family that food does not motivate me anymore,” clearly an impure motive. First of all, as Jesus teaches in Matthew 6, we are not to be like the Pharisees when it comes to disciplines like prayer and fasting, broadcasting our piety for all to see. We are to practice these disciplines secretly, only for an audience of one, God. I am not an expert theologian, and Scripture does not address my specific situation, but I think it is reasonable to assume from this teaching that I will have “received my reward in full” in this life by bragging to my family that I was capable of fasting (Matthew 6:17). (I am just realizing as I write this that writing a reflection on my first experience fasting, something I planned to do if I managed to follow through, might also deem me a modern-day pharisee. As such, if I ever do actually get my life together and let God transform me, I will definitely write about this, but not the specifics of my spiritual disciplines.) We also discussed in my Spiritual Formation class how the purpose of fasting is not to engage in asceticism for its own sake, as this can lead to self-righteousness and pride. The purpose of fasting is to draw closer to God. But now that I am realizing that anxiety is at the root of both my fear of fasting, and my depression and anger toward family, I am hoping that if I can let God transform my anxiety to peace, fasting may be a natural outgrowth of this in the near future.
Last week’s sermon has been an incredible source of peace for me this week. I did not have a single flare-up, and yesterday I even read about the house where we will be staying in Hilton Head, progress since even casual mention of things we should pack for the trip when my brother came to visit a few weeks ago filled me with dread.
Incidentally, the next fruit of the spirit in Paul’s list, and thus the sermon for tomorrow, will be on patience, and I have no doubt this sermon will also be convicting, as I think impatience undergirds my anxiety. Even though I have seen God at work when I was patient, I still have difficulty trusting God to unfold my life one day at a time and not worry about the future, not give into fear that I will never feel like a full-fledged adult, that I skipped a critical rite of passage, and that this will thwart my ability to fully thrive in life.
I have made progress in that as I finished Part 1 last week, I had angry/desperate visions of returning from Hilton Head and proceeding full-speed ahead in arranging for my Rumspringa by Summer 2023, neither soliciting nor accepting input from anyone. Without doing any research or visiting campus housing to assess the vibes, I planned to live on-campus at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois to complete the courses for the Chaplaincy degree which are not offered online. (In June, I applied for a remote call center position with a company whose mission is employing blind people, so accessibility would be built in. This job is authorized for residents of Wisconsin, Illinois or Minnesota, so the job could move to Trinity with me and allow me to finance my Rumspringa. But I have yet to hear back from them.) Now, while I cannot say I have ruled out Trinity, I am willing to listen to God’s whisper. The spector of a looming recession is dominating the news cycle now, so it is possible the remote job may not work out after all, perhaps a whisper from God. I am open to the idea of chaplaincy programs available online, or at a university closer to home. I might even enlist the help of a pastor to pray with me, make sure I am making decisions with a clear head, not based solely on my selfish desire for independence, and related to that, perhaps offer objective agenda-free advice on where God may be calling me, and what kind of education would be best suited for this calling.
But it is too soon to know if I am truly at peace, ready to surrender to God’s will, or if the virus is just dormant this week, no comments or situations that caused my anxiety to flare up. Today, I wouldn’t say my desire for a sort of Rumspringa is quelled, but it has cooled from a volcano of anger and desperation to a mellow curiosity over what it would be like to experience, in the words of one of my favorite songs from the Dixie Chicks, “wide open spaces, room to make a big mistake, new faces.” But as thrilling as this concept seems, I also “know the high stakes” especially given my medical situation. So while I cannot quite say I have totally surrendered to God’s will, I may be making progress toward trusting that God knows what he is doing, knows what is best for me, even if it is completely at odds with the “desires of my flesh.” Please pray that I can continue to make progress in this area, and that I might have the wherewithall to pray for God’s peace when the nasty virus of depression and anxiety flares up again.