We all know – and have probably told (at least once, or more, if I’m honest) – one of those classic missionary horror stories about traffic cop corruption or bugs or snakes or exotic parasites or nauseating food. People almost seem to expect that. Well, at least they do some of the time.
But so do I. At the very least I’ll often find myself leaning that way whether or not I end up acting on those leanings…
It’s easier because I mostly came to terms with those critters and the bizarre-ness and frustrating irritating-ness of missionary life and just having to deal with it nearly forever ago …or at least it seems that way.
But it is much easier to share those stories than it is to talk about the really nasty critters – the ones that thread into your thoughts, grab hold of your heart and infiltrate your imaginations when you wonder about the future or relive the past, mulling over what you could have done differently or done better. Shel Silverstein, definitely among my favorite authors for children, penned a poem that still echoes around in my mind, ever since a first reading many years ago. It has stuck, even though it isn’t one of my favorites – probably because it strikes a little too close to home.
WhatifLast night, while I lay thinking here, some Whatifs crawled inside my ear and pranced and partied all night long and sang their same old Whatif song: Whatif I’m dumb in school? Whatif they’ve closed the swimming pool? Whatif I get beat up? Whatif there’s poison in my cup? Whatif I start to cry? Whatif I get sick and die? Whatif I flunk that test? Whatif green hair grows on my chest? Whatif nobody likes me? Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me? Whatif I don’t grow taller? Whatif my head starts getting smaller? Whatif the fish won’t bite? Whatif the wind tears up my kite? Whatif they start a war? Whatif my parents get divorced? Whatif the bus is late? Whatif my teeth don’t grow in straight? Whatif I tear my pants? Whatif I never learn to dance? Everything seems well, and then the nighttime Whatifs strike again.
My own, personalized version of the poem might look a little bit like this: Whatif I’m dumb in language school? Whatif I look like a cultural fool? Whatif I’m not spiritual enough? Whatif it’s bad news at the next check up? Whatif the kids get malaria again? Whatif I give in to that sin? Whatif one of us gets sick and die? Whatif we’re targeted by terrorist tough guys? Whatif our mission just up and collapses? Whatif a far away loved one again relapses? Whatif the bridge falls down today? What if all giving fades away? What if nobody likes me? Whatif a hippos charges me?…
It might be my personality, or perhaps because I’ve lived in West Africa. Maybe I just don’t have enough trust and faith in God, or maybe I have too much faith and trust in myself. Then again, I DO have a lot of kids and live day to day with so many things that can go wrong. Maybe I just think too much and don’t spend enough time in God’s Word. Then again, I might just be a control monger and need to make it a more consistent habit to, as the cliché goes, “Let go and let God.”
Whatever the reason(s), I’ve certainly experienced seasons of merciless plaguing by those nighttime whatifs. They pester and attack, often viciously and particularly, at night:
- when I’m alone with my thoughts,
- when I’m unable to sleep,
- when I’m up – already weak and weary and worrying – with a malaria or croup or dysentery or whooping cough or typhoid sick child – again,
- when I hear loud exploding noises nearby and the political or security situation is already precarious,
- when I’m scared and feel helpless to actually do anything about it,
- when I feel like I’m trying to do something I’m completely under-qualified to do and the everyday job requirements are totally out of my league,
- when I’m insecure and unsure from not feeling the support of friends and family,
- when reading God’s Word becomes a simple academic activity on a checklist and not a search for His Presence,
- when I’m longing for, pleading for, the comforting, calming Presence of Jesus, but just not sensing it…
Do these nasty nighttime critters ever plague you? What do you do about it?
I have some friends (including my husband) who tell me that they “just don’t go there.” They take the offensive in this mental or emotional warfare by stopping and changing the direction of dangerous thoughts and feelings as soon as they recognize what is happening. I’m a little envious of that one because I’ve never been able to combat the whatifs in such a manner. That just doesn’t work for me. Instead, they grow bigger, stronger and more terrifying.
I know others for whom this is a clear spiritual battle. When those first pesky tickles and twitches start, they immediately begin to pray. And God gives grace and grants power while those friends emerge standing valiant and victorious, even though they don’t necessarily have any answers. God hasn’t worked that way in my life – and I’m secretly a little relieved, almost more afraid of whatif He did.
What works for me?
I have to go ahead and grapple with those vexing mental and emotional creepy crawlies. I have to let myself imagine the individual whatifs and then think about what I’d do, where I’d seek support, verses I’d run to in God’s Word, how I’d move forward, etc. Somewhere, in that wrestling? It is then that I hear God and begin to feel His Presence. It is then that I notice how He directed, even when it was not readily apparent to me on the front end.
It is in the struggling that He is changing, growing and transforming me as a person, as a wife, as a mother, as a servant, as one of His followers.
Which “whatifs” do you encounter?
I’ve shared three ways that I’ve personally seen others overcome becoming paralyzed by the “whatifs.” Do you find one more effective than the others? Do you have a different strategy than what is mentioned? Please share!
– Richelle Wright, missionary on home assignment from Niger, W. Africa