The other day, I prepared myself to step up to the lectern for a couple of readings at a Mass during a retreat. I could feel my heart thumping. After all the times I have read and spoken in front of people, you would have thought the anxiety would be long gone. But I have learned that sometimes this is not the case, and I know I am not alone.
Although few of us like the feeling of being nervous, there are some hidden opportunities to consider when our blood pressure starts to rise. For starters, any anxiety that we experience provides an opportunity to do a kind of “examination of conscience”—an internal questioning about whether what I am about do is something I should really be engaging in or not. Some things may seem obvious—although even obvious situations might demand a little reflection—because the impending action corresponds to a virtue or a vice. Whereas anxiety before helping someone in need could simply be a byproduct of a charitable deed, nervousness prior to sending a scathing email or viewing a pornographic video might suggest an action to be avoided. Without anxiety, we might not have a clearly discernible sign that we are headed the wrong way, and just like what would occur if we didn’t have a reaction to touching a hot stove, we might get seriously burned. Other actions may not be so clear, and so anxiety provides us an opportunity to evaluate the circumstance as much as needed.
Yet even if anxiety precedes an action that is clearly good, or just neutral, the second opportunity that it provides is to help us clear and prepare our mind and body for the task ahead. Sitting there preparing to read, I found myself taking a few deep breaths and reminding myself that the anticipatory fear is usually the worst, and once I get into the task, it almost always gets better (which it did). But sometimes, I think that anxiety may be a mechanism to empower us to prepare more for future tasks ahead, and the life we are being asked to lead. For example, if I have a presentation coming up, and in the days that lead up to it, I am fraught with all kinds of fear that it will not go well, maybe my anxiety is suggesting that I should have done more to prepare. Next time, maybe I need to take it more seriously; thus, a worry now may be reminder for later.
If we go deeper, though, it appears that anxiety can be a commentary on our ego, and the fact that we are too focused on ourselves and how we appear, rather than the task at hand. I noticed that months prior when I was reading, I also began to feel the anxiety building. It was as if the Lord was saying that I was too focused on my delivery and not His eternal words that I was blessed to be reading. Whenever this happens, it only serves to lessen the experiential gifts I could be receiving. It’s like going to a huge party, and missing out on all the merriment because you are too worried about being judged on how you look and what you say. Too often, we miss the joy because we get in our own way.
All that being said, there is a final realization about anxiety. No matter how it guides us, what it teaches us, or how it humbles us, sometimes it just sticks around. And I might just have to accept that this is the case, no matter what I try to do quiet the unease. Like most, I would just love to always feel calm when I stand in front of others. But the reality is that the anxiety I feel may have a mysterious purpose that I may never come to fully understand or embrace. Whether it is to increase my dependence on God (and not myself), heighten my gratitude for opportunities at hand, or to engender in me a sense of humility or empathy that might be critical for His mission in my life, I may never know. Maybe it is because I am looking for linear answers in a quadrilateral world designed by our infinite Creator who far exceeds my ability to understand. For now, I guess the key is to know when to act, when to accept, and when to just be glad that my heart is still pumping and my nervous system is still firing in a way that my worries come once again.