I don’t know if you’ve ever had a freight train barrelling down on you and all you can do is wait for it to hit before. You’re waiting for the power to be turned off. The doctor to give the terrible diagnosis. For the court date to come, the judgment to be rendered, the relationship to irreparably break. Where you’ve just stood and watched the cracks form as the world starts to fall out from under your feet. Even if you’ve experienced it all before, waiting for the freight train to hit can leave you struggling to breathe from one moment to the next and make each day a long, arduous endeavor to get from morning to night without breaking anything or anyone.
I think a lot of people are in that place – or realizing that they may be headed towards that place right now. Unemployment claims in the US are expected to jump from 250,000 to over 2.5 million this week. Elderly people and those with preexisting health conditions are living in fear. People with no health insurance are thinking through what will be their sign that they have no choice but to seek medical treatment if they get sick. Everywhere there are people making choices between income and protecting their health. Being isolated or risking the health of those they care about. Right now there are people watching the cracks forming under their feet and contemplating whether they even have what it takes to survive the world falling out from under them.
This time 5 years ago, that was me. I was living in a state of constant dread. My husband hadn’t gotten a paycheck in over 6 months and the last bit of consulting work he could drum up had been completed a couple of months back. We hadn’t paid the rent for March and there was little to no hope of being able to cover it in April either. Our one working car was in such dire need of repairs that we didn’t dare even use it for one of us to get a job working for low wages lest it finally breakdown and require a repair bill too large to be covered by a low wage job and thus make it impossible for my husband to get to job interviews much less to his first paycheck large enough to cover the repairs. We had no plan for the inevitable eviction we were facing – no place to go, few people to turn to when the day came that we were forced to load the family into our janky truck and leave. The only positive was that the utility companies were prohibited by the laws of the Northern Tundra from turning off the gas and electricity until Mid-May.
The kind of dread that comes from waiting helplessly for the freight train to hit is like a great suffocating blanket. When the freight train actually hits it creates problems that demand action. The adrenaline hits and you physically have to move. There are plans to execute, solutions to find, calls to make. When the train hits and there’s carnage all over the tracks, you call in help, you move to stop the bleeding, you put aside thoughts for tomorrow while dealing with what’s right in front of you. But when the train’s barreling down on you and the ground under your feet starts to rumble and there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do but wait, there’s just that paralyzing dread.
Back in 2015 when I was walking through long days of dread, I was reminded one day of the sparrow whose fall Jesus says God takes note of. And it hit me that in my mind, the entirety of that bird’s existence was defined by the moment it fell and yet that wasn’t so at all. Prior to the moment it fell, there had been a great many more moments of not falling. Of flying, socializing, singing, eating, resting and just living its bird life. Out of all the moments that the bird existed, the moment of fall was actually the smallest one. I don’t know what it was about this idea that grabbed me that day, but it came to me that if that freight train was going to hit, it made no more sense for me to suffer in advance over it than it would have for the bird to allow the fact of its inevitable fall to steal all enjoyment from the other moments of it existence.
I felt God telling me, “you think constantly about what has happened or what will happen and hardly even notice that right this moment, you are fine. You can breath, you’re not far removed from a meal, you can get something to drink when you need it, you have shelter from the weather and covering for your body. No one is harming your body in this moment and there’s something beautiful closeby for you to see. Right in this very moment, you’re OK.”
After that, when the dread would start to overtake me, I’d stop and repeat to myself, “right now, I have everything I need. I am safe, I am fed and watered, I am sheltered and I have something beautiful to look at. In this moment right now, I am fine.” It sounds trite, but I’d actually think of the last meal I had eaten, take a sip of the cup of tea, coffee or water I had sitting nearby. I would let myself physically feel the creature comforts I was surrounded by. I’d take a moment to look at and appreciate something beautiful and the dread would pass. In its place came almost a sense of awe at my good fortune. There was still a freight train approaching, but until it hit, I was living in a level of luxury and security that many of the humans who have ever existed rarely had. It made no sense not to savor every moment of it for as long as I could.
Over the next couple of months I would regularly discipline myself to engage in this little mental practice whenever my sense of dread would crop up. Simple and trite though it sounds, it transformed the entire way I experience life. After a while, I started to feel unreasonably spoiled. Yeah, all the furniture might wind up on the front lawn come May, but have you felt how soft this couch is? (Don’t look at the stains!) And how many people in history ever got to enjoy both coffee and tea with just the right amount of sweetener and cream on the same day?!? Have you seen the view through the living room window or looked closely at this picture on the wall? And smell the lentil curry cooking on the stove! I live on the great Northern Tundra of the United States of America and there’s a freight train barrelling down on me and yet somehow I have coconut milk and rich spices from the other side of the world! It’s all quite amazing if you really think about it. I mean – lots of people have had the earth open up under their feet, but how many in human history have birthed 5 children who were all in good health and spirits and had never really been hungry?
The hard reality is that life doesn’t owe us anything and when we enter into human form here on planet earth, there are no promises. Anything can happen. We might get hit by a freight train. In due time, each of us inevitably falls just like that bird. But for most of us the moments of disaster are wildly outnumbered by all the moments in which we are fine. Isn’t it enough to deal with the moments of disaster and the arduous work of recovering from them without also handing all of our moments when we’re actually fine over as well?
If you are one of the many, many people who are suddenly living under the shadow of dread, I would strongly encourage you to start disciplining yourself to stop and be in the moment you are actually in rather than fixating on the train that’s barreling down the track towards you. If the train hits, it’s going to suck – there’s no two ways about it. But there’s no point in suffering in advance. Let the moment you are in – the one in which you are fed and clothed and sitting at a computer or on your phone reading these words nourish you so that in the moment that train does hit, you won’t have already worn yourself out with worry and sacrificed all your moments of fine leading up to disaster to it.
And you never know what’s going to happen anyway. I’ve certainly had freight trains hit me and leave a mess behind but that freight train barreling down on me five years ago? It never did hit. My husband got a good job with the best company he’s ever worked for right in the nick of time. The repair guy we took the car to when the first paycheck came did the most critical repair on the cheap and then arranged to replace our ready to blow tires for less than half price. The bills were eventually paid down and there was even a trip to a resort in Mexico on the company dime the following February. I really am spoiled. And even if you have a freight train barreling down on you, you probably are too. You just have to stop and let yourself feel it for as long as you can.