When I was 20 years old, I experienced my first panic attack. I was alone, driving. My stomach clenched, my chest tightened, my fingers went numb and my arms shook. I was terrified and thought I was dying.
As it turns out, though, I wasn’t dying. After the panic attack subsided, I wanted to simply forget the whole experience. Shortly after panic attack number one, however, panic attack number two struck and I realized this wasn’t something I could ignore. At the advice of my mom, I began seeing a therapist.
When I sat down with the therapist, he asked why I thought I was having panic attacks. I told him I had no idea. He asked how my life had been growing up. I said that I thought it had been pretty normal. He then asked me to recount the last five years. So, I told him….
When I was 15, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. About seven months later, my parents told me my dad was moving out. About a year later, a friend committed suicide. Six months later, I was diagnosed with a case of rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that has no known cure, just ways to manage it. I then went back into depression for about four months. When I came out of it, I discovered that I had dropped out of most of my classes in community college and had no job. I moved back in with my mom. Shortly thereafter, my grandma, the safest adult I had ever known, passed away. And a month later, I had that panic attack.
I described the last five years of my life, looked at the therapist, and asked, earnestly, “So, am I crazy?” He looked at me, baffled, and then chuckled. “No, you’re not crazy. In fact, a panic attack makes a lot of sense. And, let me be clear — your adolescence was in no way ‘normal.’”
In a panic attack, your body tries to control the situation. Your body tries to either run from, or fight against, whatever danger it has perceived. Your brain sends the signal to shoot adrenaline throughout your body and the adrenaline takes over. In a normal situation, adrenaline is necessary for the survival of ourselves or of those whom we want to protect. Stories have been recounted of mothers getting adrenaline boosts and having the strength to lift cars in order to save their children.
In a panic attack, however, there is no physical danger – only emotional pain. So, the adrenaline has no physical outlet. You have no giant to tackle or Usain Bolt to outrun. So the adrenalin rushes through you internally, producing a racing heart, quick breaths, numbness. Yes, signs of a panic attack.
For over a century, evangelical Christianity has been living in a constant panic attack. Evangelicals have been taught to be afraid of so many groups — gays, environmentalists, liberals, secular humanists, atheists, evolutionists, terrorists, Muslims, Jews — even other evangelicals. Evangelicals have been subtly taught that these groups and the ideas they represent somehow pose a threat to our way of life, even our very existence, and that they have to be proven wrong. And, if we can’t prove them wrong, then we have to withdraw from them. So, we end up running to the suburbs, creating church communities that allow us to feel in control.
So often in the United States, Christianity is presented as a means of control — a way of managing life and corralling the people around us. When I approach Jesus, though, I feel completely out of control. And it’s because Christians aren’t ever called to be in control of anything. Instead, we are called to reveal the God who is in control. And, in reality, people who disagree with us pose no danger, but instead an opportunity.
Our mission is not to control society. Our mission is to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection and to let people know that God is actually in control. And those who disagree with us are free to disagree with us. At times we will, inevitably, find the decisions of others abhorrent. We can and should express disagreement. But while doing so, we can’t lose sight of the fact that our primary job is to let people know the amazing truth that Jesus was raised — and in the same way Jesus was raised, we will be raised. Theological, ideological and political disagreement should never result in the severing of relationship. After all, it’s difficult to tell someone about Jesus when you’ve severed your relationship with him or her.
Furthermore, when we recognize that this is our calling, then we recognize that people who have been demonized by Christians are not our enemy, and there is no reason ever to be afraid of them. In fact, those with whom we disagree represent opportunities for genuine friendship, honest dialogue, and, most importantly, an opportunity to witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The most memorable panic attack I experienced happened in June of 2009, during game four of the NBA Finals. The Lakers were playing the Orlando Magic and had taken a 2-1 series lead. I was working at Forest Home Christian Conference Center in Southern California. Knowing that there were a few of us committed (read: obsessed) Laker fans on staff, the president of Forest Home graciously recorded the games and let us watch them at his house after our work was done.
The game was incredibly close. With little time left, the Lakers found themselves down three points. I became so drawn into the intensity of the game that I forgot my surroundings. I was pacing around the room, breathing heavily, and I felt my hands start to go numb. Then, Lakers point guard Derek Fisher hit a last second three-pointer to tie the game and send it into overtime. Without knowing it, he had also sent me into a full-blown panic attack.
There, in front of the president of Forest Home and about 20 co-workers, I found myself believing that I was about to die. I went outside as fast as I could and began repeating the exercises my therapist had taught me. I took a deep breath and began repeating, “I am not going to die today … I am not going to die today … ” As I was doing this, though, I glanced back inside at the TV, and realized that overtime was about to get going. It was the Lakers. In the NBA finals. Overtime.
Mid-panic attack, I walked back into the living room. I informed everyone that I was in the middle of a panic attack, but that I would be OK. I let them know that I would be performing some exercises that my therapist had taught me and that they shouldn’t be alarmed. As we all watched the game, I repeated my exercises, breathing in deeply, holding it, exhaling, saying to myself, “I am not going to die today.”
The Lakers won the game. And the championship. And game four has proven to be one of the most ridiculous scenes of my life. But, I realized just how ridiculous panic attacks are. A silly basketball game, with no direct relevance to my life whatsoever, set one off. What once was terrifying has become a funny story, a story I am comfortable writing about and sharing with strangers.
I believe that a younger generation of evangelical Christians is accepting at a broad level what I have learned to accept in my own life. The threats we perceive are not always the threats that exist. And, regardless, we aren’t called to live our lives in fear of any threats, potential or real. Loss will come, as will grief. But we worship the God who overcame loss, the God who overcame grief and the God who passionately loves those with whom we disagree and isn’t threatened by them at all. So neither should we be.
JONATHAN SAUR is a candidate for ministry in Los Ranchos Presbytery and a M.Div. student at Fuller Seminary. He lives in San Juan Capistrano, California.