The Stress Trap

“Be always drunken. Nothing else matters: that is the only question. If you would not feel the horrible burden of Time weighing on your shoulders and crushing you to the earth, be drunken continually. Drunken with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you will. But be drunken.”
                   — Eugene O'Neill, Long Day's Journey Into Night
“Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap.” (Luke 21:34)

A while back I had abdominal pain that became progressively worse over time. The pain was so acute I had difficulty concentrating at work. I have a history of cancer in my family, so after one very rough morning I made a trip to the emergency room. An MRI and blood test came back negative for any physical causes. I was chatting with a nurse who suggested this could be stress-related. The symptoms were physical so I told her that wasn't possible, but in fact, I was managing a lot of stress. After meeting with a specialist, the diagnosis came back with certainty. My symptoms were caused by stress.

Stress is something we all have in varying degrees, and if you are forced to live with it for an extended amount of time, it can take a physical and mental toll. It's not unusual to have physical symptoms and mistake them for something else. The question is not whether we have stress but what we do about it.

A typical way to address it, in our culture, is to drink. Alcohol has the ability to temporarily relieve stress. It relieves it, in part, by numbing us to the pain it creates. It allows us to detach and lose focus. It causes us to stay in the moment and not dwell on bigger things. O'Neill commends it in his play Long Day's Journey Into Night.

The problem with using alcohol is that it's temporary, and its effect becomes less effective over time and leads to even bigger problems. As a way to manage stress, it traps you in a cycle. To enjoy the effects that alcohol brings, you increasingly partake in behaviors which themselves lead to more stress. New problems arise, including physical symptoms such as loss of sleep, inability to concentrate, and difficulty maintaining social relationships. So you drink even more to manage the side-effects of drinking, and your burdens grow heavier.

In Luke 21:34, Jesus mentions drunkenness in the context of the anxieties of life. Stress was triggered differently in his culture, but the results were the same. It can bring you down and lead you into behaviors like drinking and partying (carousing) that can catch you in a cycle. It weighs down your heart, Jesus says. So much so that you can miss the thing that really matters.  His words are framed as a caution, not a condemnation, because he knows that even good people can get drawn into this. We all have anxieties, demands, and pressure. The urge to find a quick solution can be intense.

Jesus' concern is that if we get caught in this cycle, we will not be ready for the day of his return. It's not so much a behavior he warns against but a weight which grows increasingly heavy. It can take over our lives, control us, rob us of life, and cause the years to pass by and become meaningless. We can spend so much time caught in the moment that we lose everything else. It is not an indictment of alcohol, it is an indictment of how we use it. If we use it to lighten our load and reduce our pain, we may never make it back to a life which lives in eager anticipation of his return.

The way out of stress is to stay away from temporary fixes and focus on the day we will be with our Lord. As we pursue him and see his faithfulness in our lives, our anxiety will lessen. He will prove faithful, and the more you trust him, the more you will find your heart is lightened. He will walk together with you, and lift your burdens in his timing. It is not the quick-fix; the process of discipleship is harder but develops character. As we refuse to compromise to the easy way out, we change on the inside.

I had to learn to put my cares in his hands. It was a process, and I am still growing. But my pain is gone. He is and will always be faithful.

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