The essayist Montaigne said, “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.” He was a clearly a worrier. You may not notice worriers right away. We’re not always as obvious as sitcoms and movies portray; Edith, that famous worrywart from All in the Family, Woody Allen, perfectly cast as Woody Allen’s nervous alter ego. Because of my outward personality, even I appear fun loving. At a recent dinner party I’m sure I seemed positively exuberant, glass of red wine in hand, chatting with a friend—until I noticed the hunk of metal hanging above her head. Conversation stopped completely while my eyes searched for the mechanism that secured this antique fence fragment to the wall.
The friend’s eyes followed mine. “I’ve always taken you for the carefree type,” she said. “You don’t look like a worrier.”
She doesn’t know me very well. If she did, she’d know that my trapezius muscles are pliable as stone. If she looked closely, she’d notice few laugh lines but plenty of creases on my forehead.
“I come from a long line of worriers,” I said. That’s how I put it in social situations, using humor to deflect embarrassment. Not warriors, I often have to clarify. Worriers.
In truth, the line may not be so very long. All I know about my great-grandmother is that she was adopted and raised in a chicken coop. Her daughter, Noni, my mother’s mother, was extremely timid and could not bring herself to pick a roadside flower for fear she’d be caught. (She had ten kids and didn’t get out much.) My own mother buys escape ladders for Christmas gifts and tells you things like, “Never park next to a van, you could get abducted.”
Though, in Mom’s defense, to parent is to worry. Most parents say you’ll never stop. New moms worry about staircases or that their child’s cough is whooping cough. Not abnormal. But worriers worry that their bad napper will grow up to be short because babies only grow when they’re sleeping. My mother says with motherhood comes Mother’s Ears, a state of heightened awareness, even in sleep, that doesn’t go away until your child leaves home. The first year of my daughter’s life, I visualized her death nearly every day. Later I feared my own, inextricably linked to her wellbeing as I was. Now Madeleine is five and I worry that I will turn her into a worrier. “You’re going to fall and crack your skull,” I hear myself say, cringing. I kept the door to the basement stairs closed.
At that dinner party, the kids hung out in the basement family room. When a little girl named Agatha arrived, Simon, an older boy, carried her piggy-back toward the staircase. Don’t carry her down the stairs like that, I wanted to say, and if either had been my child I would have. The stairs were steep with no railing part way down. When I took Madeleine down them I said, “Be very careful. Hold the railing and where there is none, be extra careful.” I sounded just like my mother.
I’m not as bad as my mom, but the older I get the more I have to fight against my heredity. In fact, worry isn’t just a learned behavior; some people are born worriers. A study of hundreds of babies found a handful with a natural tendency for anxiety, and this had nothing to do with the infants’ parents. A calm mother could have a calming effect on her anxiety-prone baby and vice versa, but parents were not the cause.
We think worry is uniquely human. Animals seem to worry, like lap dogs that suffer from separation anxiety, but—supposedly—animals live in the moment, and therefore can’t be worried about the future. That means a lap dog isn’t worried his people won’t come back; he believes they are already gone forever and that’s that: life as he knows it is over. If you ask me, that kind of living in the moment sounds like hell, but perhaps animals are better off, because—as far as we know—animals don’t know they are going to die. Sure, animals will prick up their ears at the sound of a potential predator, but these instincts have more to do with Darwin than with death.
Line up a pig in a slaughterhouse and I guarantee he will put two-and-two together by the time he’s next—but that’s not worry, that’s self-preservation. Worry is something altogether different. Worry is concern for what might happen, projection into a possible future.
In humans, the survival instinct can become pathological when worries—imagined or real—trigger the fight or flight response but the extra adrenaline doesn’t recede, leaving one in a state conducive to further worrying. (And cumulative fight or flight response, known as stress, can be a killer.) But let’s clarify something: what Mom and I have is not pathological. We are fully functioning, able to leave home each day; we don’t chew our fingernails down to the nubs or suffer panic attacks. What we have may be slightly debilitating but it isn’t a phobia, a psychosis or even a neurosis. Just your garden-variety worry. Not something we can take medication to alter. It’s not even really something to worry about, unless you’re a worrier.
Worriers can’t comprehend how an airline pilot doesn’t live in fear of crashing or why a woman would choose to jog at night. Telling a worrier not to worry is like telling an addict to just quit, or an upset person to calm down—they hate that. Don’t-worry-be-happy my ass. Worriers have a job to do! and yet . . . worrying is never useful. It only appears useful because problems are often solved after a period of worrying. Like the dog that barks at the postman everyday—he thinks it works. Everyday he barks and everyday the postman leaves, but there is no causality.
What are we worried about? My acupuncturist believes that if you follow any fear to its eventual end, you’ll find that you’re not really afraid of abandonment, failure, or melting ice caps, but Death. Stop for a moment and see for yourself. Choose something you worry about, then ask, What’s the worst-case scenario? Or take something I worry about: sleeplessness. What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll get insomnia, become so tired from a lack of sleep that I’ll miss too much work, get fired, then I won’t be able to find other work—because now I’m really not sleeping—and then I’ll become homeless, die of exposure, starvation or alcoholism, or I’ll get beat up and die from that. See? Sleeplessness = Death.
I have plenty to keep me awake at night: I’m a single mom, over 40, in a custody battle, in graduate school, and hovering at the poverty line. I know better than to check my bank account at bedtime. Yet, for all of these troubles, the biggest worry is the mom part. Psychologists rate the death of one’s child as the most traumatic experience we can have. Statistically this scenario is unlikely—I have to remind myself.
I recently spent several days worrying about my daughter’s impending road trip with her father. I know that most car accidents occur within five miles from home, however, my body soaked up the extra adrenaline like it was lifeblood, and I probably aged faster, but once my daughter left, I felt a flood of relaxation. The road trip was no longer the future; it was now. I had to succumb. Let go.
Mom has this God Can, a tin with a slit in the top. Let go, let God, the can advises. Because when you can’t, God Can. It’s dusty, this can, so I think she doesn’t use it, besides, what if it didn’t work? I choose not to put faith in talismans for this reason. My mother gave Madeleine a St. Christopher medal for her to take on her road trip. After Madeleine left, I found it in her bed. Had I believed the necklace had the power to prevent her death, I would have thrown myself sobbing upon the mattress.
Worriers and non-worriers alike may find solace in the Bible. I found this: God told Matthew not to worry about what to eat, drink or wear. “These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” Juxtapose that with Dorothea Lange’s photos from the Great Depression: destitute people living in tents, their shoes worn out, not enough work, money or food to maintain their threadbare livelihoods. They didn’t look worried; it seemed the worst had already happened to them. Had they not lived righteously enough, or were they unbelievers? No doubt humans are the only animals who pray.
Though I don’t believe in God with a capital G, I do pray on occasion—like in airplanes. I always say a prayer on the way up and another on the way down. I pray whenever I’m in the back of a New York cab. (I don’t necessarily think any One hears my prayers, but I figure why not try begging for my life.) What do these two situations have in common? They are ones in which I have zero control. Some say worry is control masked as vigilance. Worry and control may share a spectrum, but you can be a worrier without being a control freak and vice versa. I can see how the Serenity Prayer might help—the one about accepting what you can’t change, courage to change what you can, and the wisdom to know the difference. The acceptance that you are not in control of the universe, I get that. Perhaps prayer is a last ditch effort at feeling effectual—at doing something. To me, prayer in the face of fear feels almost . . . instinctual.
Since praying feels a lot like worrying, it’s easy to confuse them while you wear grooves in the floor beneath your rocking chair. Rather than ruminate, worriers would benefit from meditation, emptying the mind altogether. I’ve tried meditation when I can’t sleep, but the only way I can get my chatter brain to shut up is by doing something—and this is where Buddhism offers a lot more peace than the Bible. Thich Nhat Hanh says the present moment is a beautiful moment. He tells us to do the dishes when we do them, rather than hurrying off to the next task in our minds. The simple tasks of daily life can be a form of moving mediation. (And since being present is the only way to “slow” time, it may actually slow the aging process!) So take that power-walk around the lake, fold those clothes, play badminton ‘til the sun goes down, wash the dishes and do nothing but. You can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time.
I heard someone say worry is a vampire: it sucks you dry, but it can only exist in the dark. Similarly, my acupuncturist suggests we invite our monsters in for tea. I say honor the inner-worrier. She may not be any fun, but she makes some decent arguments. I imagine inviting her in, and when I notice my heart rate going up, feel my shoulders creeping up around my ears, that’s when I turn her out, send her off on her not-so-merry way with a copy of Mad magazine, freckle-faced Alfred E. Newman’s tooth-missing grin ever-present despite bombs in the background. (If laughter isn’t a way to shine a light, I don’t know what is.)
My mother doesn’t understand irony, and that’s where we differ the most. I asked her recently, what if we just relax, take a load off. “Somebody’s got to worry about this stuff,” she said—in all earnestness. But she may be right. Worriers fill important roles in society, in jobs and even socially. We are likely to be safe drivers, attentive friends, and thorough workers. Caution, introspection, and the capacity to work alone can be adaptive qualities. I’m an event planner. Plan for the worst and hope for the best, Mom likes to say. We are the Felix Ungers of the world, paving a safe path for the Oscar Madisons . . . and surely we prevent little disasters every now and then?
The day 3-year-old Madeleine did finally fall down our basement stairs, I heard her coming. I was in the basement and could hear her clomping around in those ill-fitting plastic princess shoes. “Mama?” The clomping was heading toward the stairs. “No, baby!” I dashed to the stairs but she was already rolling down in her blue princess gown. My hand slipped under her skull just as it was about to land on the cement floor.
At that dinner party, I wasn’t surprised to hear Simon fell carrying Agatha—only it was up the stairs. Injuries were minor, and Simon’s foot whacked Madeleine’s head. She was behind them. “At least you didn’t crack your skull,” I said, to which she cheerily replied, “Yep. At least we didn’t die!”
We can never know how many lives we may have saved, nor can we factor the impact of a worrier heritage. There is no control group, no twin Madeleine given up for adoption and raised by another mother who is a lot more fun at parties. But more than our deaths, I worry about the quality of our lives—cracked skulls, homelessness, nuclear winter. I’d prefer to be present for Madeleine, not dwelling in so many fictional futures. I want to remain cognitive and ambulatory until I die, to die laughing if at all possible
I have no control over any of this.