[Note: This is the prepared text for a speech given to the Portland UCG Spokesmen’s Club on April 19, 2015. It received the award for most effective speech.]
Preparing for this speech gave me a fair bit of anxiety, as the subject of speaking about my heart is not an easy one. There is, after all, no subject involving my heart that I can speak on that does not include some unpleasant topic or another. The more I thought about the subject, the more I decided that it would be highly appropriate in sharing at least some aspects of my complicated heart by speaking of the subject of anxiety. As Psalm 139:23, reads: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties.” To be sure, even ten minutes of time is only sufficient to scratch the surface of the anxieties of my life, but it is enough time to sketch several representative vignettes of the many faces of my anxious heart, which I wish to do as time permits.
Two of the three mental illnesses I have been diagnosed with in my life have been directly related with anxiety. At the age of four, I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as the result of a particularly savage early childhood. Among the characteristic responses of anxiety include hypervigilance, the tendency to look around easily, as well as a pronounced startle reflex when people touch me unexpectedly, especially from behind, and also the tendency to have a vivid and alarming dream life. When I was twenty-five, shortly after the death of my father, I was diagnosed as well with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, as I met all of the qualifications for it, without exception. As long as I have been alive, anxiety has been a major aspect of my mental and emotional life.
Anxiety has played a profound role in my education, in odd ways. The textbook of my first engineering course as a freshman in college was called “Sons Of Martha,” and it was published by the American Society of Civil Engineers, and named after a poem by the same name from Rudyard Kipling about engineers, namely those whose careful and anxious nature makes the world go around while others sleep blissfully and unaware and untroubled by the world’s horrors. In a paradoxical way, some aspects of my anxiety have made me a particularly conscientious student, while also one also deeply exhausted and plagued by difficulties in getting up and getting ready in the morning, and difficulties being calm and relaxed and restful on any kind of regular basis. I am not sure what the net result has been, whether the anxiety has helped or hurt me on balance.
My health has certainly greatly been affected by my high ambient anxiety. At twenty-five, when I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I was at the doctor’s with my first gout attack, and my anxiety level was so high that I had an episode of what is informally termed white coat hypertension, with a blood pressure of 120/110. As I was near stroke levels, for the next month I had to monitor my blood pressure twice daily to demonstrate that my blood pressure was not high normally, it being about 100/60 on a normal basis. At other times my anxiety has shown itself in a consistent set of low-grade health issues I have struggled with all my life, such as recurrent nosebleeds, headaches, digestive troubles, and insomnia, all of which occur on at least an intermittent basis in my life even now, and some of which occur with regularity.
In some ways, the high levels of anxiety have made certain aspects of my life easier. While most people with my cautious and timid disposition would likely be far too shy to seek out public speaking or performance, I am anxious enough on a regular basis that I could hardly be more anxious than normal in speaking or performing in public. Given the continual and often debilitating level of anxiety I suffer on a regular basis about the normal business of life, there is no room to be more anxious about speaking in public, singing in public, or playing the viola in public. And so, being the sort of stubborn person who refuses to be prevented from my goals and ambitions by such burdens as I face, I have been naturally drawn to perform, where at least I am no more anxious than others in the same positions, and have the advantage of knowing how to deal with nerves and anxiety from constant experience.
The subject of anxiety has given a certain shade to my own Bible study and my own writing. I have long intensely read and reflected on the psalms, and poured out my heart as David and others did in my own prayers and my own poetry and my own personal essays. Surely, God knows the anxieties of my own heart, like he knew those of David in Psalm 139. Surely, God knows the terrors of the night that have long enveloped me, and the torments that have resulted from the unkindness and abuse of others. Surely, my own anxieties, and my own knowledge of what results from unkindness and abuse have certainly been a strong encouragement to being understanding and gentle with the anxieties and concerns of others, but they have not lowered my own continual state of anxiety.
I hope I have not carried on too long about the anxieties of my heart, nor is it my wish to speak too much about other people. I do not doubt that God knows every anxiety of my heart, even those that are not readily apparent to observant people around me. For all of the days I have lived, anxiety has been a constant and frequently unwelcome companion in an often lonesome life. Someday, God willing, in either this life or in the world to come, the habits of concern for others and reflection on God’s ways, my quietly and persistently stubborn will, and my pervasive conscientiousness will remain in my life while the animating and underlying anxiety will be gone. I wonder what my heart will be like in that day, when the burdens I have born from my youth are lifted from my shoulders, and I am free at least from the weight and pressure. I suppose we will have to wait and see.