The past two years and counting have brought quite a few personal challenges for the Spiegels as a collective and for each of us individually. Jim’s termination, the loss of friends and pets, various health issues, moving, and new jobs and schools make up just the highlight reel. One of these circumstances is enough to inspire stress and anxiety, but experiencing them simultaneously is enough to bring you to your knees. While all living through the these major life events, it was fascinating to see how the same circumstances have acted as “opportunities for growth” for all us but in sometimes entirely different ways. Change brings previously undiscovered weaknesses (and strengths) to the surface the same way that traveling to a foreign country can highlight aspects of your own culture and personality that you weren’t aware of before.
I learned a lot about myself through all these changes. But I was also given the chance to change myself, or rather choose to allow the Holy Spirit to bring about change. And the end of 2022 brought a scenario which allowed me to put some of these changes to the test.
As many of you know, Bailey and Andrew, our oldest and youngest sons, traveled to Bolivia in July–Bailey to teach art at Highlands International School in La Paz and Andrew to spend the semester as a student at that school. This wasn’t our first time sending off kids to international destinations and I was so happy for the both of them that while I missed them, I was thrilled to send them on their way. With Sam and Maggie off at school, it gave Jim and I a taste of empty-nesting which we quite enjoyed. Of course, waiting was made easier because we knew the boys would be returning at Christmas, Andrew for good and Bailey for a visit. Or so we thought. In a hotel in Miami, with dreams of being reunited with the kids still dancing in my head, I got a phone call. I had driven down a week before to drop Maggie and Sam off at the airport. They flew down for a visit with their brothers and then I was to drive them home for the holidays. The phone call was Bailey saying that Maggie and Sam had made their flight but that Bolivian officials were refusing to allow Andrew to leave the country. He was missing an important piece of documentation and to make matters worse, it was the Friday before Christmas. Offices would soon be closing for the weekend and not re-opening until later the next week. After a frantic day of driving from one office to the next, I was able to get the necessary papers on a flight to Bolivia but had to leave the airport two kids short. The sadness of not having them with us for Christmas was compounded by the fact that Andrew was set to start a new school a few days after New Year’s. I won’t bore you with the details of the roller coaster ride that was the next two weeks but ultimately Andrew arrived back in Indiana, after what he says were the best two weeks of his trip (!!), though sadly Bailey didn’t have enough time left of his break to come home. This situation taught me many things, one of which was never to make complicated travel plans around the holidays. But it also clarified my thinking regarding stress and anxiety.
I would like to issue the disclaimer that I understand that anxiety takes many forms and comes from many places. The type of anxiety I wish to address is the type we volunteer for rather than the type that creeps unbidden into our minds without our giving permission. I have several family members who struggle with anxiety and I know this struggle is real. But there is a garden variety anxiety over which we have much more control.
I discovered this distinction before Andrew was “held hostage” over Christmas. As I mentioned, Andrew was starting a new school upon his return. That’s because we were moving…again. This time to Michigan in order for Jim to take a position as a Templeton Fellow at Hillsdale College. The timing of this move was tricky and with several months of Jim’s contract in Bloomington left, we agonized over when to put our house on the market, not wanting to sell it out from under ourselves. Instead of finding ourselves homeless, we found ourselves with too many houses, the one we owned in Indiana and the one we wanted to own in Michigan. When describing our situation to friends and family, I would find myself feeling obligated to say “I am really anxious about selling the house” or “It’s so stressful that it isn’t selling.” One day I realized that neither of those things was true. I wasn’t anxious or stressed. So why did I feel compelled to say I was? Even when our holidays were ambushed by a hurricane of bureaucratic mishaps, I wasn’t really stressed or anxious. Despite it all, there was this eye-of-the-storm calm at the center of my mind. I knew that this was not just a product of me being laid back, which I am decidedly not, nor was it a lack of concern. I very much wanted to sell our house and very much wanted the boys home. Instead, it was putting into practice the lessons I had learned through all the hardships that were now in the rear window.
Looking back I could see how God had provided and trust that He would do so moving forward. I realized that stress and anxiety are a choice. I can choose to pick them and pretend that by doing so I am actually accomplishing something. I could see all the misspent hours of worry and planning that did nothing but rob me of the joys of the present. So I chose to do the only things I can: trust. Okay, I will admit to obsessing over the tidiness of our house each morning with the confidence that today’s showing would bring someone who was on the fence about the house and then see how neatly the bed was made and declare “This is the one!” And I drove around Miami like a mad woman gathering official stamps and signatures. But then you just have to lay all that work down and wait and trust and wait some more. We are still waiting. Thank goodness not for Andrew who is thriving in his new school and still regaling us with stories of South America. But our house still hasn’t sold and I am still not stressed about it. I’m in the waiting room and any moment they are going to call our name and it’s going to be our turn. And who knows, maybe it will be our turn for more “bad” news, more challenges and “growth opportunities.” But if that’s the case, I hope I have the faith to look over my shoulder at all the mountains we have climbed and face the next one without the extra luggage of anxiety regarding the destination. I advise you to do the same; keep your eyes on the Guide and He will lead you safely home.