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Facing Anxiety in a Wide World} ?> I love stories of brave, powerful heroes and dream of being like them. But in reality, I’m shy and struggle with anxiety. I think I’m too weak to be a hero, but characters like Bilbo Baggins remind me that it’s possible to be both anxious and heroic.
If anyone understands what it’s like to feel overwhelmed, it’s Bilbo. In the opening of The Hobbit, Bilbo is very comfortable in Bag End and doesn’t like anything disrupting his quiet life. Then Gandalf appears and embroils the hobbit in an adventure—without taking Bilbo’s opinion into consideration.
When the dwarves unexpectedly arrive at Bag End, Bilbo is pushed to higher and higher levels of stress, which also describes my own experience. Gandalf sent the dwarves to Bag End without giving Bilbo any notice or explanation, and my life has a similar way of introducing one “dwarf” after another at the most inconvenient times.
Eventually, it feels like too much to deal with. I end up wanting to react the same way Bilbo does: “The poor little hobbit sat down in the hall and put his head in his hands, and wondered what had happened, and what was going to happen, and whether they would all stay to supper.” That is, essentially, a description of anxiety: feeling overwhelmed by what is happening, what might happen, and what may be expected of you.
To make matters harder for Bilbo, the situation that stresses him feels normal to the dwarves and Gandalf. While the dwarves calmly discuss an adventure that might cost their lives, Bilbo has a panic attack at the thought: “Poor Bilbo couldn’t bear it any longer. At may never return he began to feel a shriek coming up inside, and very soon it burst out.”
One of the hardest things I’ve dealt with regarding anxiety is being in a situation that frightens me while everyone else acts completely normal. I worry that if I make a scene the way Bilbo does, or even step out to get some air, no one will understand. I’m afraid I’ll be judged for my anxiety and seen as weak, and that fear only makes me worry more.
When I am in a stressful situation, I often think, I just want to go home. Home is my safe place, where I feel cared for and don’t feel any pressure to keep up an appearance. Bilbo has the same desire to be at home, and Bag End is described as a comfortable, haven-like environment.
The trouble is, staying at home—or wherever we feel safe—doesn’t work forever, for two reasons. First, something always comes up that requires us to leave. For Bilbo, it is a wizard who brings “a most wretched adventure… right into his house.” For me, it’s been multiple scenarios, but none more so than my first semester at college—anxious or not, I had to go to class.
Second, something inside us can urge us to leave our safe place. Humans naturally rebel against anything that keeps us prisoner, even when the captors are our own minds. When Bilbo hears the dwarves singing about their mountain kingdoms and treasures, “something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains… and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.” Bilbo wishes for something beyond the safe, comfortable life he designed for himself.
There are many times when I feel the same way, when I glimpse the opportunities beyond my comfort zone and want to seize them. This is how I began dealing with my fears. When I first struggled with anxiety, I didn’t know what to do besides huddle in a chair at home, trying to make myself feel safe. At last I learned that, the more I indulged anxiety, the tighter its stranglehold became. So, as uncomfortable as it was, I started pushing back.
Bilbo does the same thing. Against all his better judgment, he runs after the dwarves to join them on their adventure. The first major hurdle in overcoming his timidity is breached: he steps out his door and goes.
It would be nice if a single choice was enough to silence anxiety. But as soon as he begins the journey, Bilbo encounters challenges that scare him, starting with three hungry trolls. He often wishes he was safe at home, and one could argue that his anxiety is justified by his experiences.
Yet The Hobbit doesn’t end with Bilbo cowering in a cave or returning home before the quest is complete. It ends with him being a hero, because he chooses to make the right choices even when doing so makes him uncomfortable. During the journey, he bests Gollum in a game of riddles, saves the dwarves from King Thranduil’s imprisonment, finds the hidden door into Erebor, and bandies words with Smaug himself. Time and again, Bilbo’s presence makes the difference between success and failure in the quest—and all because he adopts a new attitude, the one he expresses while lost in the goblin tunnels: “‘Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!’”
I’ve learned that courage isn’t about what you feel; it’s about the choices you make regardless of your feelings. Bilbo never lost his love for home, but he stopped letting his home be a comfortable prison. His journey didn’t make him fearless, but he learned not to listen to the fear. In my own quest to overcome anxiety and enjoy life’s adventures, I sometimes stumble and let the fear win. But every time, I know the way to move on is to take a deep breath, acknowledge the danger, and press on anyway. Someday, maybe I won’t feel the fear at all. But I refuse to put life on hold until that day comes. There are adventures out there and I intend to answer them.
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