I had a lot to think about in the MRI scanner. It was just a precautionary test, but alone in my thoughts, I had to consider the worst. As the knocking sound pulsed around my motionless body, I wondered what the operator was seeing. Was it like an old episode of House, where senior doctors were being called in for consult about an unknown anomaly or dangerous growth?
My faith, my assumptions about my life and family, my priorities, my memories – all of them were packed along with me into a small cylinder. I had some crazy thoughts running through my mind. “Well, God, this test could change everything. Am I ready?” “What will my little boys remember about me?” “At least I have life insurance.” “That knocking sound is a lot louder than I expected.” “I wonder if this is taking so long because they found something.” “I bet they won’t tell me anything today.”
People around me had no idea I was going in for this test, no idea that I was facing questions and feelings of this magnitude. And yet, there I was. (Thankfully, I was given the all-clear a few days later.)
I’m assuming that many of life’s stresses are like that – inside, you could be dealing with burdens so heavy and questions so vexing that you can hardly think about anything else, but outside, people think you’re having a normal day. That woman next to you in the checkout line just found out her teen daughter is pregnant. That man who ran the stoplight in front of you is late to his job; the job his boss said might get downsized next month. The kid bouncing a ball on the sidewalk is wondering why his dad hasn’t visited him lately. That elderly woman sitting on the park bench just reached the one year anniversary of her husband’s death.
The stresses we feel put pressure on every area of our lives: relationships, job performance, sleep, parenting – everything. Over time, emotional stress fractures develop. They start as tiny, near imperceptible breaks in our inner selves, breaks that, remaining under pressure, will grow to become damaging. An argument with our spouse, angry discipline of our kids, a short temper with a co-worker, a spending binge to cope with pressure; these responses are the beginnings of bigger breaks, bigger fractures of our character, our peace, and our health.
How many marriages have fallen apart because of stress fractures – cracks in confidence, in joy, in stability, in patience? How many fights have erupted over “small things” that represent accumulated frustrations? Getting home late. An argument about the kids. A strained visit with in-laws. Broken promises. A harsh word. A lack of passion. A roll of the eyes. A sarcastic whisper. Then, one day: “Should we even be together anymore?”
PREPARING FOR STRESSFUL EVENTS
You know trouble is coming. So do I. One day there will be a diagnosis that makes our heart sink, or a phone call we’ll wish we could have left unanswered. There will be tragedy, heartache, disagreements, fearful situations, money problems, and more. There will be days when we’ll be too busy to think, and others when we’ll wish we had something to do so we wouldn’t have to think.
We can’t control things that happen to us, but we can control how we prepare for them.
The first and most important way to prepare for difficulty is by strengthening your relationship with God. He’s the one that can see you through any situation. He’s the one with the power to heal, encourage, protect, and love you through whatever tragedies are around the corner.
Second, prepare for difficulty by loving your family, regardless of their faults. You’ll discover that in times of need or heartbreak, your family members are the people who will matter most to you. Extend forgiveness, overlook faults, practice kindness, and say, “I love you.” Don’t let days go by without making peace wherever you can, especially if the tragedy involves a family member. You’ll have no regrets. Swallow your pride and make things right. That alone will reduce your stress significantly!
Third, prepare for difficulty by thinking through practical needs. If you’re concerned about not having money for the future, do some research on the best ways to prepare. If you’re wondering what to do if you lose your job, cut your spending and save some peace-of-mind emergency cash. If you’re worried sick about still-secret health problems, see your doctor and get on a fitness program. If you’re stressed about disorganization, ask an organized person for help setting up a new system. Many of life’s stressors come from not doing things we have known all along that we should be doing.
PREPARE FOR DIFFICULTY BY DEVELOPING REAL FRIENDSHIPS.
Fourth, prepare for difficulty by developing real friendships. That’s right. Not just acquaintances from work. Not just Facebook friends from college. Something real – the kind of friendships where you share life’s journey together, laugh around the table playing games, talk about your ideas and your troubles, go on vacation together, sit in a small group Bible study while your kids play downstairs – these are the kind of people you love to be with and who recharge you emotionally. When life’s push comes to shove, you’ll have a network of people who care about you. There’s nothing more comforting than knowing that you’re not alone, that someone is praying for you, that there are people who would jump at the chance to help you through difficulty. Friendships at this level don’t happen by accident; they happen as a result of your choice to make them a priority.
Finally, prepare for difficulty by filling your life with joy. Fill your thoughts with prayer and truth from the Bible. Fill your calendar with healthy and helpful activities that get you outdoors, involved with people and engaged with life. Volunteer to serve. Plan exciting things for the future. “But I can’t because…” Stress makes us think we should disengage and sit at home. It distracts us from dreaming big or taking adventures. It holds us back from connecting with people. It stops us from doing the things that God created us to do! Grab your calendar and look at the next sixty days. What’s written down that you’re excited about? What’s written down that helps accomplish your purpose for life? What’s written down that you’ve never done before? What will make you a better person, enriching your life spiritually or physically? Any meals you’re sharing with another family? Any parties you’ve got coming up? (If you’re like me, things like this have to be on the calendar or they just don’t happen.) “Dan, that sounds great, but I’m just too stressed right now to get into any of that.” Exactly my point.
STRENGTH FOR THE STRESS
As a kid I was taught that milk helped me grow strong bones, and I guess that’s true. (What I never quite understood was why, upon drinking much milk, I’d get in trouble. “Daniel, did you drink the last of our milk?” “We went through a whole gallon, and it must have been you!” I’ve since grown up and now I hear the same thing from my wife, in nearly the same tone. What am I missing here?) Anyway, healthy bones can handle more pressure, and the same is true for our emotional strength.
If we want to avoid stress fractures of the soul, we need “milk” to keep ourselves strong, no matter what difficulties lay ahead. The Apostle Peter mentions this in a letter he wrote to Christians who were enduring tremendous persecution for their faith. He said, “Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment, now that you have had a taste of the Lord’s kindness.” I believe this milk comes to us from God’s Word, the Bible. If we stay nourished spiritually, we’ll have the strength to endure the storms we know are coming. Rather than fractured pain and compounding worries, the stressors of life can lead us to a deeper trust in God and a richer relationship with those we love.