Recently, while I was enjoying a quiet summer evening on my back patio, I became aware of a low but persistent thrumming inside me, like a cicada’s relentless buzzing in the background of an otherwise still night. It was anxiety, I realized – not a paralyzing anxiety, but anxiety nonetheless.
I was unnerved, not so much by the anxiety itself, but rather, by the sudden awareness that this anxiety I felt is nearly always there, simmering just under the surface.
For most of us, the temptation when we come face-to-face with something unfamiliar or disconcerting or downright uncomfortable about ourselves or our circumstances is to move on as quickly as possible. After all, who wants to sit with anxiety? Who wants to sit in the presence of grief or regret, disappointment or anger? This is precisely why we stuff our days full with work and social activities, errands, to-do lists and Facebook. This is why many of us numb ourselves with alcohol or peanut M&Ms, with shopping or Netflix. We stay busy, distracted and numb. We avoid quiet and stillness. We don’t want to see – or feel – what’s underneath.
Recognizing that anxiety is constantly eddying below my surface was hard and uncomfortable for me. Honestly, the moment that fact made itself known, I wanted nothing more than to bolt from the patio, grab a sponge and a bottle of Formula 409 and start scrubbing kitchen counters or the bathroom sink.
Instead, I stayed where I was. I sat with the anxiety. I resisted self-judgement. I resisted solutions and strategies.
“Arrive at the ground at your feet and learn to be at home,” suggests author Wendell Berry. It sounds lovely, doesn’t it? But the truth is, being present is not always an easy or a lovely practice. For many of us, the practice of being present to our own selves can lead us into surprising or disconcerting terrain – anxiety, grief, fear, anger, disappointment, bitterness, regret. And yet, arriving at the ground at our feet and planting ourselves there is, ironically, one of the most important steps we can take on the journey toward uncovering our true selves.
When I first moved to Nebraska from New England 18 years ago, almost everything was unfamiliar. The wide-open landscape and vast sky felt strangely oppressive. The searing heat of summer and the bone-jarring cold of winter were disarmingly extreme. The pace of everyday life felt too slow and the people seemed far too enraptured with the local university’s football team. Even the food was unfamiliar. People drank their Bud Lite mixed with tomato juice and ate a strange meat-and-cabbage concoction called a Runza.
Slowly, though, we carved out a life and a home for ourselves here. We made good friends. We painted the dining room walls, hung our kids’ drawings on the fridge, and grew a garden. We learned to appreciate the seas of bluestem, the trilling Meadowlarks, the big sky, the ever-present wind. We found satisfying work. We wore red Cornhusker t-shirts on game days.
In short, we planted ourselves in this place and we stayed. Over time, this place – once so foreign and even, at times, uncomfortable — became familiar. Over time, we learned to be at home in Nebraska.
Benedictine monks and nuns make a vow of hospitality upon entering the order. The Benedictines believe that all guests who present themselves at the monastery are to be welcomed as Christ. According to St. Benedict, “Our encounter with strangers – the unknown, the unexpected, foreign elements that spark our fear – are precisely the place where we are most likely to encounter God,” explains Christine Valters Paintner.
In her book The Artist’s Rule, Paintner suggests that we take St. Benedict’s vow of hospitality and turn it inward toward ourselves. “Inner hospitality is to open our inner selves to everything we fear and reject in ourselves,” she writes. “We extend a welcome to the stranger who dwells inside us.”
Discovering anxiety simmering below my surface was unnerving and uncomfortable. There is work to be done there, to be sure. But none of that work, no matter how important, can happen without first arriving and then staying in that uncomfortable place. We extend hospitality to ourselves – even to the parts of ourselves that unnerve us, the parts of ourselves we don’t much like.
Just like learning to be at home in Nebraska was born out of the long, slow work of arriving and then staying in an unfamiliar, uncomfortable place, finding and learning to be at home in ourselves comes from the long, slow work of arriving and then staying in the sometimes-uncomfortable places in our own selves.
We arrive at the ground at our feet. We stay. And we learn to be at home.