Lay Down Your Weary Tune
In the past few days, I’ve sat in classrooms filled with sobbing students. I’ve seen Catholic pacifists advocating buying guns on Facebook. I’ve come to think of Twitter as Shit Your Pants. I’ve walked around the normally boisterous campus shared with forty thousand people and it’s as if someone pressed mute on a remote. I’ve stayed up all night texting with queer friends in red states and considered how many refugees we might fit in the garage.
Despair is catching, friends. But it’s really been here all along.
Worry is the enemy I carry in my blood. My people don’t get cancer, don’t have rare genetic disorders, don’t Flannery O’Connor their way out of this mess in their 30s. But they worry. In some of us, it manifests as bipolar or suicidal ideations: that great grandfather shotgunning his brains all over the family barn, oh yes, remember that? But more often it is subtle. That other grandfather crying in front of us because his driveway was blocked and he was afraid he couldn’t get the car out what if something happened.
My litany is what if something happened.
This whole year has been what if something happened.
And then, it did.
Psychology calls it a “generalized anxiety disorder” which means nothing, really, and means everything. I fear everything, and I fear nothing. My fear is generalized. This is now my country’s fear as well.
The body cannot live on anxiety for more than a few hours before it exhausts itself. Muscles held in tension start to cramp and twist, lungs that breathe too fast begin to starve.
Somehow, we keep getting up every day. Somehow, we keep talking to one another.
In the religion I subscribe to by genetics and circumstance, the Messiah likes to remind us to chill the fuck out. “Therefore,” he says, “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has trouble enough of its own.” But that’s the treacle of a modern translation, with its felt banners and frequent hugs from bosomy, concerned looking strangers at church. Sometimes I wish we’d revert to the King James version just for the drama: “Sufficient to the day,” says Renaissance Jesus, “is the evil thereof.”
Christ drove seven demons out of Mary Magdelene, but how many of them were the worries of a woman whose knew her reputation would be smeared for millennia the moment she walked toward that empty tomb? Maybe she just wanted to go home, pet a cat, do the laundry, stop taking care of everyone all of the time. To live with anxiety in a steady thrum is to live with evil. This past summer, I walked up to an Anglican priest who looked like Gandalf and asked him to pray for my anxiety, because I was hyperventilating throughout this particular prayer service, thinking November November November and when he took my large hands they were slick with sweat. The ointment he palmed into them slid right off. It might as well have smeared all those ballots we filled out into oblivion.
The Messiah liked to be alone sometimes. The better class of contemplatives go on retreats, spend days in silence, spend weeks sitting with God. But work is what gives us value and this work of staying alive in troubled times is not about our stupid, fallible bodies, but about our nimble, ever-racing minds. Perhaps this is the time we stopped trying to quiet them.
Anxiety just might be my muse. Now it is my nation’s muse. I need fuel, because I burn hard. Perhaps I swallowed a comet in my mother’s milk like my great grandfather swallowed that rifle’s nozzle, and perhaps, I will become a flame.
“I have come to send fire on the earth,” Christ told the disciples, “and what will I, if it be already kindled?”
Sometimes at the end of a day when I have given what I can and there are still demands, when I’ve tended to a dying friend and tended to sobbing students and tended to this hysterical nation, this is what I imagine: that God lit a fire in me but did it a little too well, poured on the gasoline and forgot she was pouring it. That someday, my unfinished business will simply become smoke.
I wait for a Messiah who brings water I will never drink. I need anxiety to live, and it kills a bit of me every day. Take heed, America: in this anxiety, and in what it will take for us to survive it, you will kill a bit of yourselves every day.
But we have been kindled. Now, how will we keep moving as we burn?
Kaya Oakes is the author of The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Seekers, Believers, and Those In-Between (Orbis, 2015), the memoir Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church (Counterpoint Press, 2012), and a social-science based exploration of independent art and culture, Slanted and Enchanted (Henry Holt, 2009). She teaches creative nonfiction, narrative journalism, expository and research writing at the University of California, Berkeley.