Published on February 23rd, 2018 | by Christopher Witmer
“What If My Life Is a Failure?” Dealing with Anxiety and Fear
“Next episode playing in 15…14…13…”
I turned my head to see my alarm clock across the room. The big red “2:00 am” glared at me through the darkness. I knew staying up late watching Netflix was a terrible habit. I knew I was gonna hate myself in the morning, but the distraction was too enticing at the moment. Besides, it wasn’t like I’d be able to sleep anyways.
Tomorrow the cycle would repeat and I’d be disgusted with myself and struggle with exhaustion and guilt and I’d delete the app for the one thousandth time. At the moment, though, I’d rather have been watching The Flash or Arrow or The Crown than thinking for endless hours about how I’m failing at life.
Ironic, I know.
It was destroying me. I knew it was a crazy big cycle, but I didn’t know how to pull out of it. During the day I’d be tired and worn out and the last thing I felt like being was productive. But every night, I’d lay in bed thinking about how I could have been one hundred percent more productive during the day. I’d recount all the opportunities and impact I was missing and the relationships that felt tense and how I definitely should have had a book published by then.
My chest tightened like a vice grip and I picked up my cell-phone again. I wasn’t so much interested in the entertainment as I was in avoiding my thoughts.
Is this how anxiety feels to other people, too?
It’s like the question–What if my life is a failure?–was self-fulfilling. My fear of blowing my life paralyzed me from actually doing something with it.
I slept past 10:00 a.m. which meant the sun got up long before I did. Again. There were a million things I could’ve worked on, but I wasn’t inspired. No, worse. I didn’t want to. I just wanted to sleep and forget the day I was about to blow. Of course, I had failed the day already, staying up so late the night before. It shamed me to imagine what the people I admired would think if they knew my sleeping habits–or lack thereof.
What had I become? The time I wasn’t like this seemed so long ago I’d forgotten it was not who I really am.
But this question nagged at me: What if it was who I am? What if this blob of a life I was living was actually who I am and at twenty-one I had already blown it?
It was everything I could do to resist the urge to crawl back into my safe covers and forget about it.
Maybe you’ve felt this way before, as well. Maybe you’ve sat up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, heart pounding, convinced you’ve completely blown the last year and all it’s miraculous, God-given opportunities to make a difference along with it. Maybe a relationship or church situation has your stomach so tied in knots, you can’t even eat. Maybe your anxieties stem from major public failures driving you to numb your pain with the closest anesthetic. Maybe they’re little day-to-day worries eating away at your soul, and your sleep, and your blood pressure.
I don’t really have any answers right now.
Here’s what I do know and I share it only because I know there are others who need to hear it:
That question “What if my life is a failure” is ridiculous. I’m twenty-two now and I have my whole life ahead of me. So why am I so afraid of messing it up?
I think part of it is because we Millennials and Gen-Zer’s grew up hearing things like “You are unique” or “You have special gifts” or “You are a world-changer.” We are fiercely passionate about making a difference. Many of us Christians grew up desperate to not “waste our lives” but instead “do hard things.” We admire heroes like Nate Saint and Jim Elliot and Bruce Olsen who inspired so many to live completely abandoned for God while they’re still young. Then we look at ourselves barely making it through geometry without falling asleep, and we despair.
Or we freak out when we realize Dietrich Bonhoeffer graduated summa cum laude with a Doctor of Theology degree at the age of twenty-one while we’re eighteen and haven’t even decided what our under-under-undergrad should be.
What does it mean to have a successful life?
If being a martyr makes one a successful Christian, most of us are screwed because we’re not going to be martyred. If randomly plunging into the jungle at nineteen like Olsen or being hyper-educated by twenty-one like Bonhoeffer is what makes us successful–again, we’re screwed. It’s too late. I may as well give up now because I’m already twenty-two and haven’t done any of that.
Was Nate Saint more successful than the faithful, hardworking Christian who farmed his life away in the Kansas plains? Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer greater than the unknown, eighth grade dropout who spent his days in a factory and raised his kids to be self-sacrificing servants?
We tend to associate success with impact and visibility, but what if a successful life has nothing to do with who can see and applaud you? What if the man praying under the stage is just as successful as the man preaching on it?
If you’re one of those people, like me, tossing and turning at night wondering if you’re failing at life, here’s the truth I want you to hear.
You don’t have to be inspiring. Full stop.
Let that sink in for a moment.
“Change the world” is the motif of our generation. I can’t speak for all my peers, but somewhere along the line I concluded if I don’t make a visible impact, I’ll have wasted my life. So when I woke up in the middle of the night remembering the opportunities I had dropped, I worried I was wasting my life, as if I was already stacking up regret. I wasn’t inspiring anyone.
But we weren’t made to be inspiring.
We were made to worship Jesus. We were made to live in relationship with God.
If no one this side of eternity writes your biography, you have not failed. The most successful thing you could do is spend your life worshiping at the feet of Jesus.
It’s true: we don’t want to waste our lives! I want my life to count for eternity. I want to pass on my legacy with no regrets.
However, this isn’t about becoming famous or writing more books than John Piper or dying a martyr’s death. It’s about demonstrating the beauty and grace and glory of Jesus by stepping into and resting in the identity He has given us–that is, His beloved children.
And for some of you, in this moment in time, at this stage of life with your specific circumstances, experiences, and current physical capability, pulling yourself out of bed and facing the day with courage and faith and joy may be what it means to be successful.
This isn’t a permission slip for laziness. No, it’s entirely the opposite.
It’s a call to courageously face your fears and live the life God has given you.
You don’t have to inspire. You don’t have to get hundreds of likes on Facebook. You don’t have to write books at nineteen if you don’t want to. You don’t have to cure aids, or save Uganda, or die a martyr’s death in order to be a success.
The fact you are the beloved daughter or son in whom the Father is very, well pleased is what makes your life successful.
Often we want to “change the world” to give our life purpose. I’m saying, being God’s children is purpose enough and it’s from this reality of rest and identity that we change the world.
And that’s reason enough to get out of bed in the morning.
A version of this article was originally posted on christopherwitmer.com.