Roller Coster Mama

(The photo isn’t me on a coaster, but I already used that one on my earlier “move your . . . but . . . ” post. The Tower of Terror ride behind us is thrilling, though!)

Somewhere between the floor falling away and my body spinning in 360 degree loops as if I were a towel in a clothes dryer, I heard God saying, “This is like your life, isn’t it?” I had to agree. My father’s death from Alzheimer’s, followed in rapid succession by my aunt dying of the same disease, my mother’s unexpected cancer surgery, and our sudden move across the country – yes, my life was a roller coaster. My thoughts flashed back 30 years to the night my husband and I were riding the “Wild Mouse,” a short, fast, jarring little roller coaster, at a local amusement park. The ride operator, a friend of my husband, kept sending us around the ride again and again.

Then it was funny. “But, God, that is like my life now,” I acknowledged, “and now it’s not funny.”
Instantly I realized it wasn’t these major problems that were keeping me in a constant state of turmoil; it was my reaction to the smaller, daily stresses in my life. Can anyone else identify? Take a typical day:

It’s 7:40, and I need to drive Ethan to school by 7:50, then get 45 miles across town to take my mother grocery shopping, run errands along the way to make it worth the time and gas involved, start home before 2:30 so I can use the carpool lane on the freeway, make dinner, and get to Bible study that evening with a dessert to share. But this is the day the garage door opener won’t open. No panic yet. Between the two of us, Ethan and I manage to shove it open. Mental note: drive back home to call garage door company before hitting the freeway. Pray with son and kiss him goodbye. Drive back home, make phone call, and leave a message for Chip to let him know what’s going on. Remember to stop by store I don’t usually frequent to get almond butter and rice milk that Mom can’t get on the west side of town. Hit the freeway. Make it intact to Mom’s, to learn that her medical monitor just arrived and she can’t understand the directions. Help her put on the monitor, run test recording, call the monitoring company, re-write directions for Mom so she can do this on her own, take her to lunch, as it’s now noon, take her to store. Realize it’s next to impossible to start home by 2:30, so kiss carpool lane goodbye, gird my loins for battle, and kiss Mom goodbye. Drive to discount store for errand, find what I need, discover they only have two checkout lanes open and lines a mile long. Look at watch and remember that son did not take house key, so he can’t get into the house if he gets home before I do. Madly put everything back (what would Jesus do?) and dash out of store, into the freeway frenzy, to hopefully get home before son does.

And so on . . . . Have you been on that ride lately?

Meanwhile, careening through the “heartline rolls” on the real roller coaster, I cringed in double conviction, knowing that for a Christian, how I handle stress impacts my discipleship and my witness as well as my body. I took a deep breath as we plunged toward the ground on the aptly-named “Mind Eraser.” Hope filled my mind as breath filled my lungs. I already knew how to manage the stress of riding real roller coasters. Could these same skills apply, as God’s question to me seemed to suggest, to coping with stress in everyday life?

Learning to handle thrill rides was essential for me because our younger son Ethan wanted to become a roller coaster designer – and he was serious about it. That meant we rode a lot of roller coasters. The problem, though, was that age, neck problems, and – I admit it – fear displaced my joy in riding roller coasters long before Ethan was born. I sincerely want to participate in what means so much to my child, so I have been forced to look for personal “survival skills” to help me endure these stresses with peace instead of panic.

Five principles that help me manage my stress on roller coasters have proved to be effective with stress in everyday life, too, and I firmly believe they can reduce the negative impact stress has on our minds, relationships, and bodies, as well as on the reflection of our faith. In the interests of blog space, I’ll quickly summarize what I usually speak for an hour on, hoping you’ll see the connections without lengthy explanation:

• Secure yourself in the restraints

God designed restraints to keep us safe and secure through the stresses and curves of life. Like the ride designers, God has built simplicity into his safety systems.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. Mark 12: 30-31

Did you ever think of this command as a two-point safety system to protect your life and your relationships? Think for a minute about what your life would look like if you just “buckled up” with these two do’s: love God and love others. Living outside of love in resentment, anger, judgment and bitterness is just like ignoring the seat belt and standing up on a thrill ride: it sets us up for accidents when stress loops our lives. Lives and relationships could be saved from injury or destruction if we keep our words and actions inside the vehicle of a loving attitude at all times, even when we’re stressed.

• Brace your feet or cross your ankles

When I said, “My foot is slipping,” your love, O Lord, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul. Psalm 94: 18-19

Part of either the fun or fear (depending on your outlook) on a roller coaster comes from experiencing negative G’s and the feelings of instability and insecurity that send adrenaline coursing through your brain and body. The heart-in-your-throat first drop of “Superman – Ride of Steel” is 221feet (67.4 meters) that seems to plunge more than vertically down. On drops like this, I press my feet into the floor. It doesn’t make the ride safer or shorter, but it helps me feel more stable and keeps me in the seat!

If I’m riding a suspended roller coaster where there is no floor to begin with (ah, the Mind Eraser), or if the floor will at some point drop away beneath me (oy, the Medusa), I cross my ankles so my legs don’t whip around uncomfortably on the loops and snap turns. Have you noticed how frequently your foot ends up “in your mouth” when you’re stressed, or how often your bad attitude “kicks” the person next to you? Pressing into solid support gives us accountability and stability that strengthen self-control, peace, and patience within us. Ideally, family members support each other in stressful times, but sometimes family members cause the corkscrews! I know I’ve created stress for the people I love. Christians have the supporting “floor” of God’s Spirit, but we also need a network of people who will love us enough to push back with truth, with kind correction, with encouragement when we need it, and with practical help, too.

•Center your focus

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. James 1:17

Focus is one way my approach to thrill rides differs radically from that of my husband and son, who ride coasters with analytical minds and cast-iron stomachs. They enjoy keeping their eyes open to anticipate the next snap, loop or dive. For me, anticipation produces anxiety, and my eyes looping all over everywhere set my head spinning. To keep my stomach from churning, I focus on one spot directly in front of me, the way a skater focuses when doing spins – even if that spot is my white knuckles gripping the safety bar, or on the tip of my nose if my eyes are closed. Looking steadily into the distance towards the horizon in the direction in which you are moving – looking toward an unchanging spot – helps to reconcile the confusing signals, re-orient your perception and restore your sense of balance.

“God is good. God is good . . .” is the spot I center on again and again when my life starts spinning. God’s goodness is unchanging, no matter how confusing the signals we’re receiving seem to us.

•Be mindful of the truth

Much of the stress I feel in any given situation comes from what I’m thinking about. To reduce my stress level on roller coasters, I tell myself positive truths when I ride. “Thrill ride designers do factor in gravity, material strength, and limitations of human anatomy when they design rides. The theme park owners do not want me to be injured or die. They work to prevent this. The biggest drop on this coaster only lasts 2.8 seconds. I can be at peace for 2.8 seconds.” Somewhere back in the far corners of my brain I do understand this, but that knowledge has a hard time influencing my emotions and my stomach unless I choose to think about it. I have to remind myself of the positive truth.

When I’m stressed, most facts that immediately come to mind are negative, but there are always at least one or two points of positive truth I can think about. I may be powerless to control my circumstances, but I always have power to direct my thoughts.

To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31-32

• Choose your rides carefully

I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength . Philippians 4:13

I ride what I think I can reasonably handle. I try to discern when to ride, when not to ride, and how to say “no” without guilt. Sometimes you have no choice. Sickness or disaster or job loss or someone else’s bad choice drops you onto a thrill ride you weren’t standing in line for, but I don’t have to create thrill rides for myself or my family by trying to reason with a tired two-year-old, proving to my husband that I’m right, walking in the store just to check what’s on sale when our budget is tight, or accomplishing one more thing in the five minutes I have before I need to leave for an appointment.

A ” . . . but . . . ” to pray:

Jesus , your limitless love and power give me contentment and strength for every ride, so Lord, let me be a roller coaster mama! I’m sure this week life will take me on a thrill ride, BUT with your help I won’t panic, hyperventilate, or scream. I’ll buckle into love for you and others – even the ones who put me on the roller coasters. I’ll press into a supporting floor and brace my feet at the foot of the cross. I’ll choose positive truth and center my focus on you. When it is within my power to choose what I get involved in, I will be wise about my choices. When it isn’t within my power to choose, I’ll trust in Jesus’ limitless power to strengthen me, and by faith I believe I’ll even enjoy the ride!

Your own ” . . . but . . . ” to move:

God, I’m stressed today over ___________________, BUT I know you __________________________________. As I press into you, help me enjoy the ride!