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Anxiety, Fulton Sheen and my six-pound soldier

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A mighty fist sprung from a freshly birthed wonder and wrapped tightly around my finger. After years of therapy, anti-anxiolytics, and every other hapless attempt, the roaring beast of my anxiety met its match in the unassuming power of these six pounds. With the birth of Molly, time and me were finally affixed. I was in this holy moment of now and nowhere else.

Like many Americans, I have suffered from clinical anxiety disorder since my childhood. Battling agitation, obsessive introspection, tics and compulsions has become part of my daily norm. What my daughter unwittingly offered me was the opportunity to sanctify the moment, a practice Venerable Fulton Sheen teaches in his book, Lift up your Heart: a Guide to Spiritual Peace.

He opens with a prescient analysis of Americans, “Millions of men and women today lead what has been called ‘lives of quiet desperation.’ They are panicky, worried, neurotic, fearful, and above all, frustrated souls.” Never has that been more true. Anxiety in the United States could be considered epidemic.

Research reveals that anxiety disorders affect one in five adults making it the most common mental illness. Is it increased technology use, obsession with social media, or a lack of purpose? Sheen’s theory here resonates the most with me. He attributes anxiety to the fact that humans are time-conscious creatures.

“All unhappiness (when there is no immediate cause for sorrow) comes from excessive concentration on the past or from extreme preoccupation with the future… Such a person’s mind is caught within the pincers of a past he regrets or resents and a future he is afraid he cannot control.”

Anxiety is complicated, and philosophy isn’t the cure we often hope it will be. But I do think it’s important to understand where anxiety comes from, and this seems to be a start. While “time” wasn’t in my direct consciousness when I would suffer panic attacks, in retrospect I would realize that perhaps a brief glance at a deadline or an unhappy memory in my Facebook newsfeed may have set me off. In the months leading up to my baby’s birth I felt heightened anxiety to achieve as much as possible with the little time I had before becoming “mom.” Drastic life changes are fodder for anxiety.

But Molly offered me reprieve. She forced me into the present moment in a visceral way. I hadn’t the luxury to devote hours to fretful introspection. Every scrap of energy was poured into keeping this little being alive. My sleepless nights were transformed into collapsed, drool-filled thanksgivings. And the squawking of a hungry newborn rudely interrupted any anxious daydreams.

Through painful recovery and fatigue I was married to the hours, minutes and seconds of these days. In my newfound capacity for love, my spirit laid down for this all-consuming service. Ironically, what should have been the most anxious time of my life became the most free, as every minute of my time demanded a specific action from me.  

 “Each minute of life has its peculiar duty.” Sheen explains, “Every moment brings us more treasures than we can gather. The great value of the Now, spiritually viewed, is that it carries a message God has directed personally to us.”

Those moments where we fail to be present – in body, mind and soul – matter. Waiting in line at the DMV, your commute, the 15th diaper change of the day, these are the unglamorous, mysterious gifts God deemed for us in that moment. So we can avoid these moments by restlessly multitasking, or we can dive deep into the mystery, “resign” ourselves to the moment and sanctify it.

One of the greatest lies anxiety projects is that you are alone in the struggle. You feel that because you fail to keep Christ in your mind when battling repetitious thoughts he must be elsewhere. Because if God was there wouldn’t you be in a holy union with Him in that moment? But Christ is as present to me through my daily meanderings, in my agitation, as Molly is. In my intention to sanctify a moment to God he is there, and in my fumbling anxiety and failure to do so he is there.

As Sheen explains, “Our Lord is pleased to receive from us in return the thousands of unimportant actions and trifling details that make up our lives – provided that we see, even in our sorrows, ‘the shade of his hand outstretched caressingly.’”

The more I can divert my attention to this intense love and service, the better equipped I am to battle anxiety. I don’t believe I am cured of it forever. Even as Molly turns just three months old I can feel those old “shoulda’ woulda’ coulda’s” knocking on the door. But I will battle with a new soldier, a fierce little one named Molly Joan.

Casey McCorry is a digital associate for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a documentary filmmaker, wife and mother.

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