I love that phrase. Most geeks do. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is full of quirky essays, rambly asides, and bits and pieces of razor-sharp insight. This is probably my favorite.
In many of the more relaxed civilisations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitchhiker’s Guide [to the Galaxy] has already supplanted the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects.
First, it is slightly cheaper; and second, it has the words DON’T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.
—The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, prologue
I love that phrase, because I tend to panic. Not to the point of panic attacks, but enough that as a kid, my parents eventually chose to ignore me until it went away. Which might sound mean, so you should know that I was one of those kids who could panic over nothing whatsoever. Reacting made it worse.
One time, I panicked over Daylight Savings Time. To make it more humiliating, I was thirteen.
I’ve picked at the reasons behind this tendency to panic, and have come up with nothing useful. It might be related to my passionate nature. It might be because I prefer to deal with things intellectually, and panic when my emotions override that. It might be because I get an adrenaline high from emergencies and disasters and so on, and thus in a way enjoy panicking. Could be something of all three, I don’t know. In any case, I hit this spiral, where one bad thing sets off about fifteen others, stuff piles up, I get upset and thus can’t think straight, so more things go wrong, and eventually I reach the point of panicking about panicking.
Panicking never does me any good.
Once, way back in junior high, I was on a canoeing trip, and our leaders showed us ‘rock-bouncing’. This is where you float down gentle rapids in nothing but your swimsuit and a lifejacket. I am told that, done correctly, this is enjoyable. However, in our case, there was a right way and a wrong way to go down the rapids. Guess which one I took? To make matters worse, I panicked and grabbed onto the girl next to me. This is probably the worst thing you can do, because you end up holding the other person underwater. (I apologized repeatedly when we got back on shore, but I don’t think she ever forgave me.) When I panic, I’m unreasonable and irrational and loud. I make a mess. I make things worse. Nothing goes anywhere. I’m miserable. And, as is the way of human ingenuity, panicking is embarrassing, so if you tell me I’m panicking while I’m panicking, I might deny it and get even more upset. Smart, huh?
The thing I’m beginning to learn isn’t that panicking is useless. I’ve known that since the above-mentioned trip. The thing I’m beginning to learn is that there’s no reason to panic.
I wonder about Douglas Adams sometimes. He was an atheist. I wonder if he put in the “Don’t panic” thing because panicking is useless, or because it was annoying, or because he was a little bit fatalist: we’re all going to die anyway, so why get upset? Maybe a bit of each, I don’t know. The last reason is true whatever we believe: death is inevitable, and there are many things we can’t change. Why panic?
For a Christian, there’s a flipside, a positive truth to go with the negative truth. We’re all going to die and there is much we can’t control or do anything about, true. On the other hand, God can control everything—God does control everything. What happens in the world does so with his permission; even at his behest. Which sounds lovely and false, because what we forget is that this does not mean that things will be calm.
That’s what comes to mind, isn’t it? A nice, calm, ordered life, as God has ordained. Never happens. At some point, there’s going to be a storm. We might see it coming from far off, or it might come out of nowhere and knock us down. Either way, it comes.
We in the Great Plains know a few things about storms. Thunderstorms, snowstorms, windstorms, ice storms, hailstorms, thundersnow—no hurricanes, of course, but a decent helping of tornadoes. Around here, weather isn’t small talk. It’s news. Sometimes it’s a matter of knowing when to get up early to scrape my car, sometimes it’s a matter of life and death. Thing is, around here, standard practice for a storm isn’t to run and hide. Not remotely. The minute the TV starts blaring “thunderstorm warning”, we scurry for the nearest porch or awning or window, sit back, and watch the fun.
And it is fun. It’s invigorating, watching (and hearing and smelling and feeling) the rain lash down, and the lightning split the sky, and the thunder roll and growl and crack and boom. My parents have a prime view. Out their back door is a set of transmission towers, and when the lightning hits one, the entire tower flashes and there’s a sound like a cannon going off. I get a terrific sense of awe when all that is going on, and there’s howling and roaring in the wind, and the sky is a weird color and the air smells sharp, and the trees toss and shake and groan, and I think, “God is in control.”
Of everything, including storms.
Storms are destructive. A few years back, we had a tornado that hit at 2AM (rare for a tornado) that took off roofs and plowed down houses. No one was killed, fortunately. When I was a kid, we had a storm where straight-line winds reached 100 mph and took down trees. Houses are destroyed, people are injured, people die. And God is in control.
“If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” (Psalm 139:8, ESV) Before Jesus shed some light on the subject, the Jews knew the afterlife as Sheol, a kind of shadowy realm where the dead wait for resurrection, and from there, judgement. It was the ultimate unknown. “Even if I put myself beyond the bounds of human understanding, past the event horizon of existence, you are there.”
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” (Psalm 23:4a, ESV)
All of us will find ourselves down some dark road someday. Even then there’s no reason to panic. Death looks different to God It has to: he stands on both sides of it. He knows exactly when to take us through. Suffering can cause good things as well as bad. Hardship and darkness are not fun, but sometimes I think that they have a lexicon of graces all their own. The storms that rage in our hearts and minds have the same master, one that isn’t us. It seems as if he stands at the other end of our fear, our anger, our despair, so that when we run as far as we can, we find that he’s sitting where we thought he couldn’t possibly be. There’s nowhere he can’t get us out of, either in life or in death. There’s no pit I can drive myself into that he isn’t in that pit with me, that he can’t free me from. Even if I’m not just at rock bottom; I’m digging.
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39, ESV)
Panicking is no reason to panic. There’s a lovely little Möbius in that: when my normal pattern is to spiral down into the darkness, I know God can take me back to where I started. I get a do-over. I know that doubt about faith, fear of fear, and panic about panic won’t destroy me either. I’m going to mess up. I’m going to fail. I’m going to run around in circles like a chicken with its head cut off. I’m going to neglect my blog for awhile because of perfectly understandable circumstances, get all worked up about how I’m not posting, thus no one is reading, and I’m not saying anything useful, and I’m never gonna build an audience, and I’m not even edifying myself, which was the main thing, and round and round I go, into greater and greater realms of hysteria, and then it hits me.
God says to me, It all came from me in the first place, remember? God says to me, It’s all right. God says to me, No matter what you do, I can work with worse. God says to me, I can redeem the past: watch. You’ve got nothing to panic about. I’m here. Let’s go.
At some point I’m gonna panic again. ‘Cause I’m me. But God can lead me back from that. He always does. Don’t panic.