This past Sunday was the beginning of what is known as the second week in Advent in my faith. Advent is a season in my church where believers prepare for the birth of Christ. So while the rest of the world is celebrating the Christmas season, technically, our Christmas season does not start until Christmas Day. This is not to say that I don’t decorate or shop or sing Christmas tunes until the 25th—I do all that like most Americans. However, I do need to remember it is a time of waiting and anticipation. This, of course, is difficult to impart on my children, as we are all wrapped up in the tinsel and glitter of the season. I am just as guilty as the next person of worrying so much about choosing the “right” Christmas cards and wondering if I should I replace our ratty old pre-lit Christmas tree that leans a little too much leaving my angel in a precarious position.
I had a bit of an epiphany at the 9:00 A.M. mass this week. Father Jason, our new priest, posed a question in the middle of his homily: What would Jesus want from us for Christmas? Without thinking, I asked my nine-year-old, and he said, “A bicycle?” We both laughed softly trying not to disturb the more serious church-goers. I pictured Jesus in his robes riding up the Mount to deliver his sermon. (I digress.)
My very next thought was, “I wonder how the kids would answer that question in earnest? What present would Jesus want from them?” I envisioned a thoughtful conversation over dinner that night. “It would be good for the kids to give this serious thought. They need to think beyond packages, bows and bicycles.” Then something strange happened. The whole church went unnaturally quiet—at least to me. My heart raced a bit, the way it does when I feel guilty about something I can’t exactly place. It felt as if God whispered in my ear, “Hey, Cara, I’m asking you. What do you think Jesus wants from you?”
This was not a question just for children to ponder. Humbled, I thought about this question throughout the mass and most of the week. It gnawed at me like a puppy with a nice leather shoe, tugging and chewing and not letting go. After trying to ignore it, shoving to the back of my mind, burying it on my To-Do List, I surrendered. “Fine. I will give it some serious thought,” I said to God.
At first, my answer was “a more personal relationship.” That’s what God wants. He wants me to connect with him every day, not just when I am in crisis or sitting in mass. That was a good answer, or so I thought. Sounded good. Then, why did the gnawing continue?
I took inventory of my crazy life, and realized that, yes, God always wants me to beef up my relationship with Him, but this step could not be possible until I did one important and almost Herculean task: Trust.
I think Jesus wants my unwavering trust in Him. I have struggled with this for many years now. I think it is because I have discovered that underneath my big smile and quick wit I present to the world, I am really not as laid back as I would have people believe. In truth, I am a control freak.
I shouldn’t say freak. I think the better expression would be I suffer from a case of CNFC—Compulsive Need for Control. This is a little different from a need for perfection. With CNFC, I deep down believe that I have to take the reigns with every project and event so that I can own its outcome. Don’t get me wrong. This CNFC has served me well in my lifetime. I was able to accomplish a lot in my earlier career. It drove me to be “super teacher” working almost around the clock on lesson plans and grading. It allowed me to found a literary/art magazine at two high schools and win scholastic journalism awards. It propelled me to get a doctorate, and then as an assistant professor revamp an entire Department of Education at a university. Of course, a psychologist would probably say that there were other factors like a wacked out sense of perfectionism and need to prove myself. (I don’t deny any of that.)
All those years of extreme hard work, all those years of successes built in me a false sense of self, a foundation made of sand. I began to believe that if I worked hard enough, studied long enough, researched deep enough, that I could control the direction of my life. In a way I was no different from those crazy Old Testament folks building the Tower of Babel, trying to reach God, trying to be like God.
Well, my tower came crashing down when I had children. Ever so busy changing three sets of diapers, I never noticed the cracks in my tower, my world view. I should have spent more time in prayer after having my children—more than the typical “thank you for these blessings” kind of prayer—because I really could have benefitted from a more personal relationship with Christ. I could have gained an understanding that my tactics for controlling the outcomes in my life were a simply an illusion, a mere hologram that could fade with a push of a button.
My first clue should have been when I tried to placate a severely colicky baby. If anyone knows anything about colic—and not one expert has the definitive answer to it—then one knows this is nothing a mother can control. The baby is simply out-of-sorts, crying often, sleeping poorly, etc. Do you know how hard I tried to control that to no avail? My daughter’s body and nervous system just needed to work itself out, and no amount of gas relief drops or swaddling, or rocking was going to make it go away. When her body was ready, she experienced relief. But, I was delusional. I thought I could control this.
Of course, I could not, and it just made me a bit resentful. I would say to myself, “Motherhood is not supposed to be this hard. Where are the images of the happy baby sitting in the sink giggling all the time? I am going to sue Johnson & Johnson for false advertising.”
The more I tried to control my children, the more life kept throwing obstacles in my path. First, it was colic, then ADHD, then dyslexia, then a sleeping disorder, then defiance, and now it is puberty. I could not control any of these things.
And, I worried all the time, making myself very sick in so many ways. I wondered, “How can I help my children? How will the get through school if they have difficulties reading? Why are they still not sleeping well? What will their futures look like? What am I doing wrong?”
I finally became profoundly sick in mind, body, and spirit. I reached a very low place, where I could not help myself and no one had the power to help me either. I could not even call on God because I was so mad at Him. My crazy thinking: “Why me? Haven’t I always been your quasi-faithful servant? Didn’t I do what was expected, the right things? Then, why—oh why—did You give me problems I could not fix?” It wasn’t the problems. Everyone has problems. It was that I couldn’t fix them. Hubris. Anger and self-pity are a dangerous combination, and so I wallowed in this mire for a while getting sicker and sadder.
One night close to Christmas a few years ago, I had a disturbing thought: “If I ran away and lived under a bridge, I would be free. I could do whatever I wanted with no expectations from anyone. I could just walk away. No guilt. Nor worries.” I guess that’s the way delusional control freaks think, and it was frightening. Here I was sitting in a warm house with crazy but happy children, cooking dinner for a husband who would walk on hot coals for me, and I wanted relief so bad I considered running away and living under a bridge.
Needless to say, I sought some help after that. It took me a while, but I learned (or I am still learning) that I can only do the best I can mothering these beautiful kids, and then I have to entrust them to God. I have to trust that God’s plans for my children are bigger and more beautiful than anything I could ever imagine.
Unfortunately, trust is not something you acquire and then you just simply own it and bask in its delights. Trust, like faith and crazy thoughts, comes and goes. At times, I slip back in a compulsive need for control, which leads to worry, which leads to a host of other unhealthy and ungodly things. But, when I trust and feel it in my bones, I am at peace because I know that God’s plan for me and my family may not be my plan, but it is the best plan.
So, now I am working on trust—garnering and gathering so I can gift this present to the Baby Jesus for His Birthday. As I do this, I experience grace because the ironic thing about giving a gift to Jesus is that it He re-gifts it back tenfold.