Months ago, not long after my job ended, reality set in with a vengeance at about 4:00 a.m. one morning. Or what frequently likes to pose as reality: anxiety.
It’s not unusual for me to wake up around that time. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing. My first year away at college, my roommate and I occasionally joked that we had our best conversations at that hour. (Remember, Carol?)
These days, early morning wakefulness is more likely to be motivated by a call of nature rather than a call to unburden my soul (or counsel someone else who is unburdening theirs). But that wasn’t the case on the morning I’m thinking of. No, what I remember is the two hours of voices coming like poisoned arrows from seemingly every direction. I don’t recall the exact words, but the gist of their message was clear:
You’re an idiot.
For thinking that you can launch a midlife freelance business . . . from your bedroom. For thinking you have what it takes. You’re not smart enough or talented enough. You don’t know anything about the business end of running your own business and can barely do math.
Since, as I mentioned, this went on for two hours, I’m pretty sure there was a lot more, but time has mercifully blotted out most of it. Essentially it all boiled down to six little words: Who do you think you are?
* * *
Well, I can give you part of the answer: I’m a person who tends to anxiety. A charter member, if you will, of the 4:00 a.m. Worry Club.
Heck, I was given my first tranquilizer prescription (Librium) at age eleven, or possibly twelve. I think they helped somewhat. A couple of years later I was given a couple more prescriptions, for Haldol and then Stelazine II. The former, at least, has a long list of possible side effects, most of which I believe I experienced on the two occasions I took it. The latter I don’t recall feeling any effect from whatsoever, so I secretly increased the dosage at least a few times as a result.
Perhaps it was by the grace of God that I still didn’t experience any effects, especially of the unfortunate variety, because I later learned both drugs were “high-potency anti-psychotics.” Just the thing you want to be prescribing for a fourteen-to-fifteen-year old after spending literally five minutes with her, asking questions such as, “How did you feel when your daddy died?”
Will you blame me if I say that I do not, as an adult, consider this doctor’s death some years ago as a loss to his profession?
But that is water under the bridge, and my purpose in this post is not to vilify Dr. M., alive or dead, nor is it to debate the merits vs. dangers of such medications. Dr. M.’s prescription of Prozac, fifteen years later, may well have saved my life at one point. In spite of that, I’ve happily been off all such medications for four years.
“Be anxious for nothing,” the Bible says.
Hey, I’ve tried! Really. And a lot of the time I do succeed.
But I can’t deny that 4:00 a.m. is a weak spot.
* * *
If I’d been sensible, I would have quit trying to go back to sleep that morning, because it was an entirely futile exercise. I would not have lain there and listened to those poison arrow thoughts. But I’m stubborn, so I stubbornly insisted on trying to go back to sleep instead of listening to music, reading a book, even cleaning the bathroom, for pete’s sake. In another hour, I could have gotten up and taken a walk like a good member of the 5:00 a.m. club, a sub-set of my 30 Days of Hustle Facebook group. As you might guess, they believe in Getting Up and Doing Things at 5:00 a.m. (Being a chronic night owl, I didn’t last too long in this group, although part of me continues to aspire to membership.)
I’m no expert on handling anxiety. I prefer not to have to handle it. In fact, for the past four months, I’ve been quite happy to have relatively little of it.
That changed somewhat when I discovered, through some miscalculation on my part (did I mention that I’m lousy at math?), that my unemployment compensation was running out about a month earlier than I’d thought it would.
It didn’t matter that I was still in good financial shape. It didn’t matter that I was not unconscious of my many blessings. (Like most people, I just have to be reminded of them on occasion.) It didn’t matter that I could sign up with an employment agency, or even multiple employment agencies, at the drop of a hat.
Nope. I still felt those old twinges.
But this time I decided to handle it a bit differently. This time I decided to do the next thing.
That’s it, folks. That is the next thing. Just DO the next thing.
You thought I had some kind of 30-second formula, didn’t you?
Well, I don’t. What I do have are those four words from author/missionary Elisabeth Elliott that I read long ago and have never forgotten, ’cause they made so much damn sense:
“When I went back to my jungle station after the death of my first husband, Jim Elliot, I was faced with many confusions and uncertainties. I had a good many new roles, besides that of being a single parent and a widow. I was alone on a jungle station that Jim and I had manned together. I had to learn to do all kinds of things, which I was not trained or prepared in any way to do. It was a great help to me simply to do the next thing.
“. . . I go back over and over again to an old Saxon legend, which I’m told is carved in an old English parson somewhere by the sea. I don’t know where this is. But this is a poem which was written about that legend. The legend is ‘Do the next thing.’ “
And so, when those old thoughts of, “Will the money run out before I find enough customers? Will I have enough money in my savings – or a job – when I need to buy a new car? Will a part-time job be enough while I try out this new venture? Will I be good enough? Can I learn enough? What if I don’t have the knack?” arise, whether at 4:00 a.m. or any other time, I’ve decided to just do the next thing.
The thing that’s right in front of me. Washing the dishes, cleaning the bathroom, taking my daily walk, typing up a new blog post, going to the grocery store, or studying my new craft: One thing I’ve learned is that fear hates activity.
Author/blogger Jon Acuff helped cement that lesson for me last July:
“. . . I developed a very simple iPhone (or Android) trick to beat fear. It’s the simplest thing on the planet, I promise. Here’s what you do:
1. Open the clock on your smartphone.
2. Choose timer.
3. Pick one hour.
4. Hit start.
5. Do your thing until the timer sounds.
That’s it. Sound too simple to work? Try it first. Part of our fear is that we think we have to do everything all at once. . . . I can’t write an entire book in one afternoon. But I can do just about anything for 60 minutes. That’s not too scary. I can handle that. And what often happens is that by the time the alarm goes off I’m in the flow and have a little momentum. I can steal another 30 minutes from fear. How have I written five books in five years? In 60-minute segments. That’s how.”
Sometimes I feel a little overwhelmed, thinking of how I’m going to finish this article and do this homework and read this lesson and write that blog post and keep up with this group and encourage that group and make that appointment and cancel that appointment and do that grocery shopping and start that laundry and, oh, yes, get back to that abandoned novel and abandoned writing course from a whole two years ago . . .
When others deal with so much more every day.
But “comparisons are odious,” as one of my favorite novelists said through the mouth of one of my favorite characters. So I try not to give in to them, choosing instead, tomorrow and the day after, to Do The Next Thing, even if just for an hour at a time.
Even if that hour strikes at 4:00 a.m.
* * *
Now I want to hear from YOU. How do you handle anxiety? Are you a charter member of the 4:00 a.m. club as well? What’s your next thing? Write me and let me know.