On the stretch of I-20 between Abilene and Fort Worth, which I have traveled at least a thousand times, there are three landmarks that mean absolutely nothing to anyone else but are very important to me. The first is a sort of mini canyon; the second is a particular tree near a train track that you can see from an overpass; and the third is a set of ornamental gates at the entrance to someone’s property.
I can’t tell you when or why I first noticed those three things, but for as long as I can remember, I have been hypervigilant about spotting each of them during the drive. I made note of the exit signs before them, as a signal to start paying attention, and the exit signs after them, to catch myself if I somehow missed one. I’ve never actually had that happen, but if I did, I think I would have a hard time resisting the urge to turn around and go find it before I could continue my trip.
There is no logical explanation for why these places are significant to me. Nothing special happened at any of them. They don’t belong to anyone I know or care about. But the thought of making that drive and not checking off those three landmarks along the way makes my stomach churn, and I feel all fidgety. There’s this vague but urgent sense of dread, like something bad would happen to someone I love if I missed even one of them. I don’t usually tell people about this stuff, and if I do, I try to gloss over it as a quirky OCD tendency that is a thing for me but doesn’t get in my way too much.
I was talking to my therapist recently about a few things like this, and as good therapists do, she made me dig deeper. I know in my logical mind that taking a different route to work (which is another compulsion I deal with) isn’t going to set off some cosmic domino effect resulting in a catastrophe. I know that. But I still fidget behind the steering wheel every time Waze sends me down a different road. And a lot of times I just give into the compulsion and sit in traffic on my normal route rather than tempt fate.
I had kind of accepted that these things were simply part of how my brain works. Like I said, they don’t get in my way too much, and I recognize the anxious sense of doom is not the same as a real threat of danger. I can drive between Abilene and Fort Worth without seeing all three landmarks, even if the thought of it makes me uncomfortable. I can take a different route to work. I wasn’t overly concerned about it, and neither was my therapist, really. But she said it sounded to her like there might be more to it that I would do well to explore.
As we talked, she gently guided me to the realization that what lies right under the surface of my anxious dread is a desire for control. In some deep-seated place in my mind, I feel like following these arbitrary patterns of behavior somehow influences the things that happen to me and people I care about. Making sure I see those three landmarks or take the same route to work every day satisfies that place in my mind that believes I'm actively fending off disaster, and if anything bad happens it won’t be my fault. It feeds my sense of responsibility and protective nature--I’m taking it on myself to make sure everything is okay.
Hearing myself say that out loud made me wince because it seems so patently ridiculous. Why in the world would I think such a thing? To find the answer, my therapist told me to look as far back as I could into my childhood, before I gained full capacity for reason and understanding. She explained that children are wired to try to make sense of the world and stuff that happens to them and only have themselves--their thoughts and behaviors--as a reference point for cause and effect. In other words, if something upsetting happens to us at a certain stage of development, we believe it happened because of something we did, and nothing any adult can say--if they even get the chance to weigh in, since most of the time children come up with these explanations without ever discussing them with adults--nothing any adult can say will convince us otherwise (this book also describes the phenomenon). Those explanations lodge deep in our minds and continue to influence our thinking and behavior throughout our lives.
They become a cage for our souls.
So I looked back at my childhood.
Looking at just the first ten years of my life, I had to absorb the premature birth, uncertain survival, and profound disability of my baby brother; my dad lost his job and our family moved from Dallas to Abilene; a beloved uncle committed suicide; a beloved 25-year-old aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer and given a grim prognosis for survival (she died eight years later); my parents’ marriage collapsed and they got divorced; my mom got remarried and my dad got engaged. That’s a lot of change, uncertainty, and sadness to find explanations for, and if all my developing brain knew how to do was think that I caused all of that bad stuff to happen, that’s a recipe for some issues. No wonder I manufacture a bunch of artificial ways to feel like I have some control when reality has been so relentless in showing me I do not. Without knowing or ever intending to do so, the way I absorbed these events built a cage for my soul.
This scene from Good Will Hunting hits me in an entirely different way now. Thank God for loving, wise therapists.
(As I've been sorting through what all of this means for where I am now and where I want to go, the calendar rolled into Lent: the ritual period of removing our own stumbling blocks, taking the planks out of our own eyes. I'm also spending the next few months filling in as preacher for the college ministry I've supported for the past few years. Thus I have both internal and external motivation to dig deeper into this in the context of scripture, because of course. Of course the timing would line up that way. This post originated as a sermon, so please forgive what will seem like a pretty abrupt transition. It worked better when I was saying it out loud.)
Sunday's gospel for the first Sunday of Lent shows Jesus out in the wilderness, fasting and praying, getting ready to step up into his role as the leader of a paradigm shift.
Cue the devil showing up to offer Jesus a comfortable, convenient cage as an alternative. In the reading from Luke, the devil reaches into that human space that harbors an intense desire for control and tempts Jesus to set aside all uncertainty and need. He wants Jesus to secure power and possessions* and physical well-being for himself, and he reminds Jesus that he only has to say the word and everything--everything--will be his.
I would have a hard time resisting that. To have everything I want under my control resonates with the little kid so bruised by life, who longs for security and predictability and influence over outcomes. At the end of the day, the deepest desire so many of us struggle with is the desire to be like God in our own lives. To know what’s coming and to make sure it is only stuff that we want, that we find pleasant and desirable, that makes us comfortable. But the desire to become like God has been the downfall of humans ever since Adam and Eve and the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It’s what we want, and it is what we absolutely cannot have.
Jesus could have it, though. As God incarnate, Jesus could have taken control of all aspects of his life the same way he commanded storms to be still, demons to leave people’s bodies, or the dead to come back to life. He could have consolidated power, possessions, and physical well-being into an irresistible force. He could have made his existence on earth safe and predictable and dominating.
He could have.
But he didn’t.
Instead, he chose to resist temptation and give up control over what happened to him. He chose to turn away from assurances offered by power and possessions; he chose to accept mortality and uncertainty and struggle. Jesus chose to turn his back on the path of self determination and trusted God’s leading instead. What a deeply radical choice!
Yes, part of making that choice was about obedience. Jesus knew what God expected of him, and he turned to God’s word to reinforce his resistance. But I think Jesus also knew that if he chose control and power and all of those things, he would eventually become a slave to them. Maintaining control requires a hypervigilance that consumes time and energy and focus. Maintaining security means constantly looking for and eliminating all threats. If Jesus chose that path, he would spend every waking moment protecting his comfort, and there would be little room for anything else. The devil knew this, and he no doubt hoped it would distract from what Jesus really came to do.
Instead, by turning away from control and power, Jesus chose freedom. His life could be open, lived in a spirit of trust and grace, available to serve where and how God called him. He could spend more time bringing a new thing into the world instead of fiercely guarding his own power. It was risky, yes--there was nothing safe or comfortable about the life Jesus would live. But he was free, which is always better. And he showed us that we can choose to be free, too.
During this time of self-examination in Lent, ask yourself some questions. Where you would settle for comfort and predictability, ask yourself if you can let go of control and be open instead? Where you would prefer safety at the expense of struggle and growth, ask yourself if you can trust God to call you to something richer? Can you accept that a life of faith is NOT a safe, risk-free existence--it doesn’t come with a money-back guarantee? Do you believe that a life of faith can offer freedom from the cages we build for ourselves or that the world would build for us?
This Lent, I’m not giving up sweets or adding extra devotions to my morning prayers. Instead, I’m working hard to unpack a lot of the baggage from childhood, those unspoken beliefs and explanations I made up and then convinced myself were true for so long. I’m taking a break from constant vigilance and anxiety about stuff I never really controlled anyway. I want to be free from all of that and see where that freedom takes me.
This Lent, do the work to find freedom from some of your own cages, from those beliefs or habits that give you a fabricated sense of control or security. Go back to their roots and try to understand the role they play in your life. Learn to resist them by holding onto the truth of God’s goodness and love for you. Let God’s promises draw you into the freedom only He can give. Let go of control and choose freedom instead.
I push myself to take a new route to work almost every day now, and I gently laugh at myself when I get fidgety. The next time I make the drive from Abilene to Fort Worth, I’m going to intentionally look on the opposite side of the road when those landmarks come up; I want to see what I’ve missed all these years.
The cage is open, and I can choose to be free.
*inspired by this post from Living Compass
Mother, photographer, writer. Expert in making things up as she goes and figuring things out along the way.