Three steps to living one day at a time

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)

I’ve spent a lot of my life worrying. Here’s how it works. My mind, unbidden, invents a number of possible futures. I figure out how to respond to each one: “If this happens, then ….” At some hidden level I’m convinced that if I imagine and prepare for enough scenarios, I won’t be surprised by whatever comes. I’ll be ready. Better than that, I’ll hold hardship at bay. Because how can the worst happen if you anticipate it? How can it happen if you prepare for it?

It sounds ridiculous when you put it into words. The future comes whether you anticipate it or not. If I imagine a hundred possible futures, at least 99 of them won’t come to pass. More likely, none of them will come to pass. Something else will happen, something quite unexpected. In the meantime, I will have wasted hours of mental energy (do you measure mental energy in hours?) trying to prepare for all kinds of events that never happen. Even prayer becomes a cover for playing over them in my mind, and working up enough strength to face them.

Three years ago I found out where this kind of mental activity will take you. Thought patterns are like exercise: perform a certain sequence of motions often enough, and your body grows accustomed to them until they become natural. In the same way, your mind gets better and better at thinking in a certain way, until it’s like a well-worn groove that your thoughts travel down.

So during a particularly stressful year, when our son was in the fourth year of his chronic illness and we still had no answers, I could no longer hold things together. Irrational fears flooded my thoughts. In some small and secret corner of my mind, I knew they were fabrications; but with the rest of my mind, I believed them absolutely. I lived on edge, at the point of panic, convinced that in the very next moment, my fears would knock on the door and walk straight in. It was one of the hardest years of my life, just behind the year my husband got cancer. Anyone who lives with high levels of anxiety will know how that’s possible.

The turning point came when I learned to stop listening to my fears (that sounds simple, but of course it wasn’t). I learned not to argue with my thoughts; not to chase down all the possibilities; not to try to come up with answers. I learned to say, “Yep, that’s interesting, another anxious thought. Another fear. But I choose not to listen. I choose not to engage.” I learned to give my fears to God rather than to steel myself to face them. I had to grit my teeth and do this over many months, but the fears gradually subsided. They still nudge at me when I am under stress. But I no longer pay attention, and these days they disappear relatively quickly.

That was the first step towards living one day at a time: learning not to listen to my fears. Here was the second step:

My husband got cancer. He nearly died. He had surgery, he had chemotherapy, and we entered the years-long waiting period we’re in now. You’d think this would be a time of fear. A time of monitoring every physical sign, anticipating the cancer’s return. And yes, there are moments like that, when my husband is unwell, and I wonder if this is it. But there was a moment, after months heavy with grief, when I sat on the steps leading down from our back veranda and pleaded with God, “Take this away. I am sick of feeling so awful. Please take these feelings away and give me some relief.” He heard my prayer.

I realised that I have a choice. I can live these months and years with my husband anticipating and fearing the worst; or I can live these months and years enjoying what we have right now. There’s no great moral superiority in choosing the second option. In some ways it’s not a choice at all; it’s a psychological necessity. More than that, it’s an answer to prayer. God and circumstances have taught me to leave the future in the future, and enjoy and thank him for the blessings of right now.

Ordinary life has become very precious to me. The many hours I spend in the car driving children back and forth, for example, that used to annoy me so much? Well, I won’t deny that they still exhaust me, but now they seem like a privilege. They are a privilege. This ordinary life, with these ordinary duties and these ordinary people in this ordinary house: this is a precious gift. It’s a pity it took my husband getting cancer to see it. But after facing the very real possibility of his death, just to live this life, with its repeated duties, seems to me to be an endlessly repeated blessing.

That was the second step towards living one day at a time: learning to be thankful for the blessings of each day. Here was the third:

I recently started a job as the part-time women’s worker at our church. It’s ministry I love, and with Steve’s health so precarious, I need to work in case I have to provide for our children one day. I’ve had busy school terms before – most of our terms are busy – but this term has been stuffed to bursting. Family responsibilities, home duties, hospital visits, a new job, challenging tasks that stretch me to the limit, one after another after another: the moment I let my mind slip into the future I feel overwhelmed by the coming demands, and the little time I have to prepare for them.

Most days there’s more than I can easily handle. I’m not strong enough for the duties of each day. I’m learning what it means to live each day in God’s enabling, with the grace he gives for the next task, the next hour, the next moment. Not to think about tomorrow (except if preparation and planning happens to be one of the duties of today), not to wonder how I am going to face it, but to trust that God will give me strength to do the tasks he gives me today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, not now, not in advance, but as I come to each day.

That was the third step to learning to live one day at a time: learning to trust in God’s enabling for each day.

The other morning, weary after a night of little sleep, I parked the car on my way to work and sat for a few minutes under some peppercorn trees. These verses popped into my mind, a little jumbled and out of context, but speaking straight to my need:

Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? … But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us … Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day … He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me … For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 11:29; 4:7, 16; 12:9-10)

I am not strong enough to face today, let alone the next week, or the next month, or the next year. I am aware of that to my aching bones. But God is strong. He promises to give me what I need to keep trusting and serving him, moment by moment, day by day, whatever our circumstances. That’s how I face the future: not anticipating and preparing for every eventuality, but enjoying God’s gifts for today, and trusting him that, whatever he has in store, he will provide what I need to face it.

We live one day at a time, in God’s enabling.

Image: Dafne Cholet (flickr)

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