For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. 2 Timothy 1:7 (NIV)
Years ago, I worked as dental assistant. I handed instruments and materials to the dentist while he worked, took x-rays and impressions, and suctioned a lifetime of other people’s spit, but the bulk of my work was cleaning; scrubbing blood and saliva off of instruments, bagging and sterilizing them and disinfecting all surfaces in the dental operatory between patients. I find cleaning grueling and so avoid it, certain that I don’t want to spend my diddly allotment of time here elbows deep in a pail of bubbles and that regret over a spattered mirror won’t haunt me on my deathbed. Consequently, this job was not a good fit for me. Over time, and I lasted almost six years before taking maternity leave, I descended into dread. Every day I had to work, I woke up with it sticking to me like sweaty sheets. There was a brief reprieve on the weekend, but its sour stench returned promptly on Sunday evening whenever I had to work Monday morning.
Dread is a composite of apprehension, worry, unease, and fear. It arises when there’s something we’re reluctant to do, something that might cause us discomfort, physical or otherwise, something where the outcome is unclear. If we don’t like doing it or we’re not competent at it, or we can’t imagine a positive result, we’re apt to dread it. We dread chores, workouts, small talk, public speaking, taking our unpredictable preschoolers on errands, interactions with people we find abrasive or controlling, blind dating, Christmas parties, family holiday celebrations, surgeries and recovery periods, papers and exams, job hunting, long hours of clock watching at work, overflowing in-boxes, meetings, project kick-offs and deadlines, and going out in inclement weather.
Dread isn’t good for us. It collapses faces into frowns, ties muscles in achy, impenetrable knots, and stirs up stomachs and intestines with repulsive consequences. Its persistence makes us jumpy and irritable and robs us of sleep. It can needle us like a pesky mosquito or flatten us like the unforgiving weight of a steel girder. Practicing dread has made me good at dreading and nothing else. Those awful feelings create a convoluted loop of unhelpful thoughts and I grab on to those like a rabid, slobbery dog sinking its teeth into a deflated ball and shaking it to exhaustion. I worry about what has happened, what hasn’t happened, but could happen and what may come of all the happenings. It’s paralyzing.
My guess is we’ve all experienced dread as part of our school days. In college, I was a good test taker, but papers were my nemesis. This irony is not lost on me, but I found stringing other people’s words together to argue a point confining and exhausting. I was tempted to hand in a book on the subject with a note attached reading, “I concur”. The second I saw a paper on the syllabus, the dread fest began. I had a classmate, a smart, young man, who saw that same assignment and started the paper that very day. While he was working away, I was dreading. While I was working long into the night on the night before the paper was due, nesting uncomfortably in a messy pile of papers and books, sucking back the Wake-Ups and junk food, writing furiously while simultaneously watching the quality of my writing diminish with every word, he was sleeping. If only I had been self-aware enough to see what dread was doing to me. Rather than dealing with the assignment, I dreaded it. Dread is a precursor to procrastination. Taking time to dread lengthens the time the dreaded thing actually takes. I worried about how hard and painful the process was going to be rather than outlining, researching, and carefully writing the paper. Dread did me no favors, but a disservice. Dread is not a friend.
My dread grew to unmanageable proportions upon entering University. I was in my first year of the Dental Hygiene program. In the first six months, we were taught the basics of scaling, or scraping tartar, hard calcified deposits of plaque, from the teeth. My hands did not easily adapt to this skill. I felt clumsy and spent many hours alone in the lab rocking my scalers back and forth against false teeth. I was amazed that I passed the clinical exam. Really? You’re going to unleash me on a live human being?
Oh, the dread of having to work on a patient! Even though I prepared myself to the minutest detail, I couldn’t shake the sick, overwhelming feeling that accompanied this task. My judgement was skewed and my attitude deformed, looking through the puke green of dread-colored glasses. There was no room left for curiosity, joy, or gratitude. Even with the upload of information from the clinics, lectures, and textbooks, I felt clueless and inadequate. I was wary, unable to fully enter in and learn something. I’m not good with angles and so would elongate or shorten the teeth on x-rays, I struggled to position my patient for optimal lighting, my eyes and brain failed to translate the increments on a probe with any accuracy (a probe is an instrument used to measure where the gum tissue attaches to the teeth), and the idea that I, a relaxed, carefree person, would need to place a sharp instrument, with precision, next to the soft, pink tissues in some unsuspecting person’s mouth scared the spit out of me. I prayed that my patients would cancel. I dreamed of breaking my arm, so I’d have to drop out. In the end, the dread beat me. I withdrew at the beginning of my second year, and, in an effort to redeem that time, went on to train as a Dental Assistant.
I love New Year’s Day. I know it’s just another day, but for me it’s enchanted breathing space, a day marked for reflection and resolution. I do look back at what was and forward to what can be. I make resolutions every year, even if my success rate is less than stellar. A resolution is a start, if nothing else. This year I resolved to give up dread. I’m ashamed to say I’ve allowed it to rule in so many circumstances where Christ should have been my authority. I’ve pledged myself to him and then pushed him away in distrust at the first whiff of difficulty. He tells me in his word not to fear and I disobey him and disobeying him never leads to abundant life.
My giving up dread is not a one-time thing. I’ll have to give it up every time it comes up for the rest of my life. Here’s what I’m learning:
• I try to pause before I let dread escalate and turn me into a big freak. I look closely at the situation. Am I over-reacting? We all do it and need to regain perspective. So much of what I dread is silly and when I meet that which I dread, I often find my dread was unnecessary. I wasted my time, time that seems to be going faster with the change of seasons, every Christmas and birthday, every loved one coming in and going out. I wasted my time fretting, but, God help me, no more.
• When feelings of dread threaten to swallow me, I’ll have a drink or a snack or take a nap. Wrapping yourself in a blanket is like getting a hug and who doesn’t need more of those? It works for babies. Exercise helps, too. Walking outside in the green and blue is proven to lift your mood.
• If I have mindless work to do, like folding the laundry or making a meal, where my brain will be free to painfully ruminate, I listen to happy music or TED Talks or sermons to keep my mind focused on something positive.
• If I dread doing something, but it needs to get done, I run toward it and do it as fast as I can. Chores that I abhor must be completed first thing in the morning, when I’m fresh. I become less willing to take on unpleasantries as the day goes by. Projects, chunked up and worked on every day for a set, reasonable amount of time become less dreadful as progress becomes more evident.
• For the big dreadful stuff, more drastic measures may need to be taken. I stayed in the dental field for almost nine years, but this was a mistake. I was the walking depressed and walking away from dental assisting, the good money and the training, was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I chose a new field, re-educated myself, and changed jobs and this caused a huge spike on my happiness meter. If you’re really unhappy in your work, you should look for another way to make a living. Life is too short to do work you don’t enjoy.
• I pray about the people I dread. There was a woman I worked with, a very negative person who wore a permanent scowl. She wasn’t without merit, no one is, but sometimes we have to look harder to see it. She was an avid complainer, but she was also knowledgeable, competent, and hardworking. I prayed that I wouldn’t be infected by her DRA (dirty rotten attitude) and that God would enable me to show her love and grace. In the end, I learned a lot from her and as I got to know her, a softer side of her emerged. (We’re all so wounded deep down, if we could only remember that.) She even gave me a small gift on one occasion. I was able to get past her brusque exterior and appreciate her for what she had to offer and the dread dissolved.
• I go to Jesus. I remember him at Gethsemane, how his friends snored while he nuzzled the dirt, sweaty, disturbed, and heart-sore. Think about what he was staring down. He was watching his next couple of days play out like a gruesome horror movie. He prayed the prayer, not once, but three times.
“Father, if there’s any other way…”.
He was looking for a way out. He was asking for a way out. He didn’t want to work the plan and who would? The difference between he and I is that he didn’t have a tantrum and proceed to do what he wanted, or run away, or quit, or check out by eating a jumbo chocolate bar and an entire bag of chips. He stayed and did the hard thing. I give him my dread. I can’t handle it, but he can. When, in my neuroses, I fear that I will break apart, I remember Colossians 1:17 that says, “in him all things hold together.” When that crippling circuit in my mind threatens to play on repeat, I tell it, “No. I’ve given that to God”, sometimes audibly, sometimes over and over, sometimes I say the name of Jesus in response, but I’ve found, if I persevere, those thoughts and feelings submit and stop pestering me.
• I enlist others to pray. I routinely go on Facebook asking for prayer. I don’t always share the particulars and my friends don’t mind. The last time I did this I had 59 people praying for me. Do you know what happens when 59 people go to the throne of grace with your name on their lips? Do you? You get peace and clarity and rest and, sometimes, deliverance or a solution for your problem. But, only if you ask. You have to be vulnerable. I’d rather have people knowing I’m needy than miss out on being enveloped in prayer. God is powerful and prayer is the key. Turn the key!
Dread is cowardly. It’s for hiders, not seekers. It’s a non-approach to life. I want to explore and engage this incredible, exciting, beautiful world God has made. I’m giving up dread. People who are fully alive don’t have room for it.
Complete the experience. Listen to Jason Gray’s Sparrows.