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“When Christians say ‘I was,’ we’re acknowledging more than where we’ve been; we’re remembering what God has done for us and in us through Christ.”
Investigators use several indicators to track and identify the point of origin of a fire, and to me one of the most interesting is pine needles. In the aftermath of a fire, one might find the pine needles of a tree pointing in a given direction, and as it turns out this is the opposite direction from the fire’s origin. When the blaze moved past the tree, its heat and wind push the pine needles back, straight back, and thus provide investigators with a clue. Though the needles point at the future, the source of the trauma lies in the past.
Two years ago I was surrounded by trees charred by anxiety. I didn’t know when or where the fire started, but I didn’t want to live amid its collateral damage anymore. My wife Annie was pregnant with our second daughter, I was thinking a lot about the significance of my 20s coming to a close, and it was getting more and more difficult to breathe.
All the pine needles in my life were pointing forward toward an uncertain future, and in fact that’s all I could focus on. Thank God for Annie and others in my life who were wise enough to suggest that the origin of the fire lay in the opposite direction of the pine needles — the past.
Something in the early chapters of my story was unwilling to stay buried.
When I finally traced my steps all the way to what I concluded to be the spot where the fire started, I found some insight into why as an adult I might experience anxiety on the precipice of significant transitions. My parents divorced when I was five, which set off a time in my young life in which change was the only constant.
First we sold our family home and my parents each found new places to live. Then my sister and I began spending five nights a week with one parent and two nights a week with the other. Did I mention we changed schools? I ended up attending six elementary schools, which amounts to a whole lot of starting over, a whole lot of uncertainty, a whole lot of worrying about the future.
Fast forward a couple of decades and you had a grown man whose stomach still clenched whenever the ground under his feet began to shift. No wonder I was in knots at that transitional time in my life. But now, having done the work of looking backward, I know where the fire originated.
The power of narrative starts with the beauty of the words “I was.”
Those words signify that we have a past (as we all do) and that we’ve come to terms with it (as only some of us do). Those words signify that we have a story to tell, and as we know, stories involve conflict. When we say, “I was . . .” (and then tell the truth) we’re acknowledging that we’ve experienced things we’d rather not have experienced and that we’ve been people we’d rather not have been.
Maybe you’d say, “I was a fatherless kid who had a tendency to turn his inward self-loathing outward onto others.” Maybe you’d say, “I was so prideful and narcissistic that I threw away my career with a single mistake.” Maybe you’d say you were abandoned, deceived, hurt, imprisoned, robbed, or bullied. Maybe you’d say you were an addict, an abuser, a people-pleaser, a liar, a thief, an adulterer, or any number of other things. Whatever your particular backstory—whatever the depth or origin of your hardships—can you own it? Can you name it? Can you organize it and articulate it? And finally, have you been delivered from it? That’s not to say you’re perfect, but to borrow Kurt Vonnegut’s phrasing, you’re not stuck at the bottom of the “hole” anymore.
When Christians say “I was,” we’re acknowledging more than where we’ve been; we’re remembering what God has done for us and in us through Christ.
I don’t mean to imply that I’ve conquered anxiety — I haven’t. I don’t mean to imply I’ve plumbed the depths of my story and have sussed out all its meaning. But I have been able to draw a line from present struggles to past experiences, and that’s the beginning of a future in which I’m more at peace with who God has made me and, better yet, who he is making me.
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Image Credit: Moody Collective