The Christian writer and doctor John White has an alarming story about the early days of his medical career. Within just a year of completing his training, he was frequently put in charge of all the night time emergency surgery in a large city hospital (wisely, he does not tell us which one). During the day, he was often given his own operating list. He goes on:
Understandably, sometimes things went wrong – seriously wrong. In the operating room, a wave of panic would sometimes rise in me as with horror I would see that the operation was getting in a deeper and deeper mess.*
White eventually went on to become a psychiatrist. You might assume that he withdrew from surgery because of a string of disasters on the operating table, but that was not the case. In fact his patients seem to have survived despite his inexperience, thanks to a valuable lesson he learnt about thinking under pressure.
During these white-knuckle sessions in theatre, White discovered that his brain’s first reaction was to freeze. His movements became pointless and repetitive. He would look desperately at his assisting team, but all eyes just stared back at him: he was the guy in charge. All he could do at that point was to force himself to think carefully and deliberately. ‘Now take it easy,’ he would say to himself. ‘What’s my immediate aim? What should I do first?’
Slowly, with a sense of growing confidence and relief, I found my way through the difficulties, successfully completing what could have been a tragically botched operation. My mind had been freed to accept new ideas, to remember old principles and to force myself to rely on them and go ahead.
The most interesting thing for me about this story (apart from the reassuring fact that fatalities were averted) is what happened to White’s prayers when panic took over. White describes them as becoming like ‘muttered incantations’. ‘Oh Lord, help! Lord, don’t let it go wrong! Lord, don’t let it get in a mess! Don’t let her die!’
I have never had the type of life-and-death responsibility that faces a surgeon, thank goodness, but I do recognise this kind of ‘incantation’. It is what I do when I sense life is getting out of control. I have come to see it as one of the early signs that my mental health is at risk. ‘Oh Lord, help! Oh Lord, stop me from getting so tired that I bite everyone’s head off! Oh Lord, don’t let me get depressed again!’
As White wisely points out, this is not prayer. This is not communicating with God; it is ‘expressing panic in parrot talk’. Saints through the ages have taught us that prayer leads to peace and freedom from our anxieties. Unfortunately, if we do not recognise the difference between panicky parrot talk and really communicating with a God we trust, things will actually get worse, not better. ‘Why don’t I feel any peace? Why am I even more worried now than I was an hour ago? Oh God I am such a terrible Christian!’
As part of my recovery from the mental distress that used to plague me with horrible regularity, I have discovered that sometimes before I pray I need to spend some time in careful, logical thought. Or as White puts it, sometimes before we talk to God, we have to talk to ourselves. ‘What really is the problem here? What solution do I want to see? What can I do about it? What do I need God to do about it?’
There are several situations that are causing me a bit of anxiety at the moment. Snowed in and unable to get to church this morning, it has been good to spend time thinking slowly about what needs to happen with each of them, and only then to bring them to God in prayer. This makes my relationship with God feel much more real. I have a sense that together we will be able to work out a creative solution. Of course things may still not resolve themselves in the way I would like, but I am not panicking; my anxiety levels have dropped, and I have a genuine hope for each situation.
Finally, I couldn’t blog today without posting a snow picture. I spent two hours out walking with a camera today, but the photograph I like best was waiting for me back in the front garden.
*All quotations from John White’s book Parents in Pain. (Now out of print but available here.)