I visited a patient recently, who I’d been told was extremely anxious by his daughter. But when I got there, what seemed clear to me was that the most anxious person in the house was her. How angry she was when something wasn’t perfect, how upset when even minor things didn’t seem to go right, how impatient she was with others, how high her expectations, how frustrated that she couldn’t fix her dad’s anxiety. What a weight she was carrying.
It was all very familiar because that was me a few years ago as my own dad’s health declined.
I recognised that bossiness, that anger, those desperate attempts to bring even the minutest detail under control. It’s a hard shell of logic and good intentions grown over to protect the fear of a vulnerable little girl who is losing her daddy and can do nothing to stop that.
I wanted to reach out, take this fellow daughter by both hands, look her close in the eye and say,
“I’ve been there and I can tell you that it’s OK to let go. It’s OK to trust other people to do some of the caring for your dad. You don’t have to be here every minute. You don’t have to carry the whole family on your own. You don’t have to be the strong one all the time.”
I wanted to put my arms around her and tell her,
“Stop for a minute. Breathe. Cry. Let someone look after you for a bit.”
Of course, in these pandemic-regulated times, I can’t do that.
I tried encouraging her not to see anxiety in everything her dad says or does, to accept and listen to his feelings rather than try to fix them, to realise they are normal in this situation. I gently repeated that if she could do something daily to look after herself that would also benefit him.
But I don’t think she could hear me. That shell she has built up to help herself endure the tragedy of her father’s decline and approaching death is too thick at the moment.
Perhaps, like mine, as she tries to make this short term coping mechanism work long term, it will eventually become so brittle that it breaks and then, like me, she will have to face all that fear underneath. But she is too afraid to let go right now. Probably because she fears all the things her father does – fear of letting others down, fear of being a burden, fear of lost worth and purpose.
Endurance is a funny thing. I used to think it was all about becoming hardened to adversity – and the origin of the English word from the Latin is ‘to make hard’.
The word ‘endure’ appears in the Bible multiple times but there we find clues to a more subtle meaning. The Greek and Hebrew words have literal translations of ‘bearing something from underneath’. We can all relate to that idea of being weighed down, of feeling the whole world on our shoulders, just like Atlas.
But the origin of these words points to something different. There’s a link to being covered over, sheltered, a thatched roof. So the idea is that we can bear our suffering because we are shielded.
It’s not our job to carry the weight of the whole world, even the whole world of our family. That’s God’s job. If we let go of trying to control what we can’t and leave that in God’s hands, we will find endurance much easier.
1 Corinthians 13, that famous chapter on love, says:
‘Love endures [bears] all things’
But it can only do this, we can only do this, if we take shelter under God’s protection and provision, where He gives us a break from the storm and prevents us from trying to hold up the whole sky.