Writing Prompt #201: If you had three hours where all of your worries and problems were removed, what would you do?
Ah, the mark of a gold-medal worrier…what would I do? Obviously, come up with new things to worry about. Worrying shouldn’t be limited to natural disasters and newsbreaking crises. If you are to be a world class worrier, then you must learn how to worry in the absence of true problems, to dig up old anxieties and plant new seeds of doubt. When faced with hours of free time, worrying not only absorbs every second but also can provide you with abundant distraction when you have actual tasks to accomplish. I have become a worry master.
I started my course in worrying in childhood. Trouble was always unexpected, disasters unforeseen. So, if I could make sure that I worried about every possible bad thing that might ever occur, then nothing would be unexpected and therefore nothing bad would happen. I might have been on to some deep universal secret, but this global worrying only served to create massive anxiety and the plan was aborted.
Then there’s the genetic pre-disposition. Bubby Ida, despite her motto of “99% of what we worry about never happens”, taught the art of worrying interspersed with lessons on re-using tin foil and opening gifts without tearing the wrapping paper. (She sounds less crazy if you remember that she was raised during the Depression. Also, with all of the money she saved on tin foil, her red Jaguar was quite snazzy.) As her daughters, my mother and aunts stage champion worrying competitions, making sure to cover the required worry topics: children, health, your children’s health, parents, your parent’s health, Israel, anti-Semitism, and the overarching worry that everyone you love is happy so that you can sleep at night. Then there are the subcategories: Politics, the economy, global warming, how your children will survive the global warming, vacation planning, gift-giving strategies, and developing plans B, C, D, and M just in case plan A falls short. I'm telling you, worrying is serious business.
So if it only causes anxiety and doesn’t prevent heartache, why do I worry? I'm sure control plays some crucial part, allowing me to believe that I have some say in the outcome, imposing structure on the unknowable, and plans for the unexpected. The other piece is that worry becomes a symbol of affection. I rarely worry about earthquakes or massive floods, although being a California resident; I may have to add these to my worry roster. I must admit, I seldom worry about politics or the state of our nation. I skip past the dangers of smoking and perils of eating non-organic food. I feel twinges of anxiety as I read about terrorist attacks and subway bombs. But most of my worry is done locally.
I worry about my family and of course, their health. I worry if the people I love are happy and how I might add to their joy. I worry about finances and if it’s really possible to earn a living doing what you love. I worry about the to-do lists and making sure I have an adequate supply of my favorite salad dressing. I worry about the cleanliness of my floors and the pile of laundry to do. I pause over conversations with friends, scanning the script for possible hurts I might have imposed. I catalogue relationships, worrying about missed birthdays and belated anniversary cards. And as a master worrier, I worry about the things I don’t know to worry about. What aren’t they telling me? What problem do they really have that they don’t want to burden me with?
It’s the dance we play in the worry play-offs. I don’t want to worry you, so I won’t tell you the hardships in my life. But you don’t want me to worry, so you do the same. And then we all can worry together about the worse case scenario and what horrible thing you aren’t sharing that I really ought to be worrying about. All in the name of love and protection.
And then there are those days where I draw a blank. Family all seems healthy and happy. Friendships are secure. Warm weather and dusted bookshelves. Hints of doors opening on the career front. Do I sit back and enjoy the peace? No. Instead I develop dog-owner hypochondria.
Ah, my parents must be so proud. In the absence of my usual top ten worries, I have simply created a new worry topic: the health and happiness of my puppy. She didn’t eat as much today, maybe she’s sick. She was sleeping quite a bit after two walks, maybe I'm asking too much of her. She was too cooperative while I was brushing her ears last night, she must be dying. She laid on the couch and cuddled all evening, what if she’s unhappy living in LA? It’s a sickness, I know. I have gone round the bend. Plus, she can’t reassure me, convince me that she’s fine, she’s happy, she’s perfectly ok. Not that I would believe her anyway, going on my track record with actual humans who have attempted the same convincing speech. But in the absence of actual facts, my brain jumps to the darkest corner. The hyper-vigilance sets in. I track her every step, analyze her sleeping pattern, check her ears and nose and teeth as I search for any lurking illness, a reincarnation of my old mantra: it can’t happen if I make sure I worry about it first.
I must be stopped. I fear I have taken worrying to a new level, and am torn between amazement at my gold-medal skill and running through the list of possible terrible events that I haven’t worried about yet. I know that worrying doesn’t serve me, doesn’t enhance my life, and surely doesn’t prevent wounds of any kind. It is true that struggles are usually unexpected, but worrying about all possibilities only ensures that the struggle I’ll be faced with will be uniquely designed. I try listing my worries to get them out of my head. This usually backfires, as I begin worrying about perfecting the list. I’ve been told to imagine a box and place all my worries inside, locking it with my mind’s eye. I’ve heard of burning scraps of worries or lecturing myself on the uselessness of this worry talent. I'm sure these are helpful tools for some people, but as for me, laughing is the best antidote to worry.
Laughing and connections. I can’t worry about the sky falling if I'm laughing amidst the clouds. I can’t wallow in financial insecurity if I'm chuckling with a friend. The worry checklist gathers dust as I read his supportive email or dial her number just to say hi.
Worry is my brain’s default, the way I fill blank spaces and ease uncertainty. I can get lost in the lists, horrible possibilities, challenges, and struggles yet to be had. I can allow myself to be consumed with the ‘what if’s’ and the future tears. I can, but a life of worry only guarantees ignoring the scent of blooming jasmine, minimizing joys, and maximizing peril. Maybe she is angry with me. Maybe he feels hurt. Maybe you have unshared pain. Maybe they are sick. Maybe. Maybe I can drive myself crazy filling all of my moments with worry.
In a family of worriers, the unspoken translation becomes “I worry because I love you. I worry because I want to protect you and buy you joy.” Worry doesn’t have to be the way I prove my love. Worry isn’t the end of the equation in relationships. If the painful growth opportunities are going to come either way, I think I’ll choose worrying less. I choose filling my free time with books and puppy licks, walks in the park and ice cream with friends. I dust off my brain’s dark corners and string twinkle lights over the stressful possibilities. When there is actually something to worry about, something real and imminent, I'm sure I’ll know. Worrying is probably like riding a bike…I'm guessing that it’s a talent you don’t lose.
So I’ll lock my worries in an imaginary box and stuff my roster in a drawer. I’ll tell the truth about my pain and my happiness, and trust that you’ll do the same. I’ll do the next right thing, do my best, kiss my puppy while she sleeps, and work on enjoying the ordinary, disaster-free days…
And now I'm worrying that I said it was a disaster-free day, so I am basically asking for trouble…
Ok, letting go of it…letting it go…99% of what I worry about never happens….