How Worrying Seduces UsSo often in life, we find ourselves ruminating over past events that we cannot change, or project into a future that we irrationally believe we can control with our thoughts. Anxiety often manifests itself in spending an excessive amount of time and energy worrying about things that might happen or might not happen. I once heard that 47% of of waking hours are spent on thinking about what isn’t going on.
Well, we must be getting something out of worrying or else we wouldn’t do it so much. What is the benefit we get? As irrational as it might sound, I suggest that deep down, we believe that worrying does one of two things: 1) prevents bad things from happening, or 2) prepares us for the bad thing happening, thus making it easier if it does. Our logical selves know that neither of these outcomes can be the result of perseverating, but our unconscious selves persist in this behavior nonetheless.
When we allow our minds to become mired in anticipating future misery, we are, in effect choosing current misery with the misconception that we might spare ourselves later. It is rather ironic that we create so much suffering in the present on the pretense that we are preventing it at a future date. If I spend all week worrying that the predicted snowstorm on Friday will thwart people from coming to the big party I am planning, I am projecting that I will be unhappy if my party fails to meet my expectations. However, if I start on Monday anticipating that unhappiness, I have now added a week of misery to the presumed misery that may or may not occur on Friday. Perhaps the weather won’t be so bad or perhaps people will venture out despite the cold. And, if my fears are valid and I have a poor showing at my event, what is the worst thing that will happen?
Even with no evidence to back it up, we believe that our thoughts are very powerful. We are tricked into imagining that we may be able to control outcomes in the world merely by thinking in a certain way. The dilemma posed by worrying is that it presents us with both the desire for control as well as the discomfort of uncertainty. We are drawn toward control, even when we know it to be unattainable. We understand the reality of uncertainty, even when we resist surrendering to it. The reality is that no amount of angsting is going to serve as a preventive or immunizing tool. When we are able to quiet our minds, we can see one of the greatest risks of worrying: it may preemptively snatch away that which we value most.
Traveling Life’s Road, Bumps and All
Often, when our lives are not going the way we anticipated, we get into a mind-set that we just need to get through the rough spot before we return to the status quo to which we have become accustomed. We think we can just wait out the difficult patch. When we have an exam or a work deadline looming, we may coach ourselves to rally to a level of high performance that involves long hours, little sleep, and rigorous intellectual effort, knowing that this surge will be time-limited. But in many cases, the changes we are experiencing are such that we need to accept that the departure from our comfortable routine may be long-term or even permanent: we have embarked on a new course.
It can be tempting to see major and minor bumps as “detours,” but I think it is more helpful to see them as part of our lives. Sometimes the road we are traveling is unexpected or undesired, but it is still our road. Most significant challenges aren’t merely a brief bypass that returns us to our regular lives. We are on a new path that is our real life, bumps and all. Even if things go back to “normal” after a crisis, we are still changed simply from going through the experience.
As is often said, only our expectations can cause us disappointment. In order to cope with turns in our roads, we may need to revise our assumptions. If we move through our lives with hard and fast expectations, we can have a lifetime of disappointments. So many things can intervene in our journey or disrupt our carefully laid plans. The better we can experience the present without an eye toward an expectation that may or may not happen, the less likely we will be disappointed when our route is redirected.
Strengthening Where We Are Unsteady
Each of us tends to have our own natural way of reacting to stress. We may be wired to go immediately to fear, or to anger, or to anxiety or any another emotion. When we are disoriented, we do what is familiar, even if it doesn’t necessarily work well or isn’t in our best interests. How do we confront and lessen the impact of emotions that are only adding to our distress?
Many of us work out regularly to train our bodies to become stronger, to gear up for physical challenges, and to feel that we are in shape. We are all familiar with the routines we employ to gain control over our physical condition by going on a vigorous walk or lifting weights at the gym. When we are under stress, perhaps we need to do the same thing mentally by training our minds to be fit, prepared for emotional challenges.
With equal determination, we can try to master our emotional condition by strengthening the places where we are unsteady. It takes time and practice, but with intention and purpose we can create a more stable and resilient inner being by becoming conscious of negative thought patterns and behaviors that impair our ability to handle the challenges we are facing. By building emotional stamina, we can learn to rely on it. We train ourselves emotionally to face what we need to face.
When you have managed to handle something even after you were sure you had hit the wall, it becomes part of you, part of your history. Build on that experience: “I’ve done it before, I can do it again.” Most of us remember times when we were in school and had a paper due that we were absolutely one hundred percent sure we would not be able to turn in on time. But, then we found ourselves staying up all night, drinking a lot of coffee, and ultimately, turning in a good product. When the scenario repeated itself, we knew that if we had to stay up all night and get an assignment finished, we could, because we had done it before. That assumption was based on experience and proof. Keeping our past successes in mind can help us tackle new challenges in our lives with confidence and courage.
One morning as I was making coffee, I was listening to a radio program. The woman being interviewed had a son with severe disabilities. She described in detail the extensive care her child required and how she, on her own, had taken care of him and his five siblings. There came a point she said, when she just could not do it anymore. She was completely overwhelmed and exhausted by the physical and emotional demands of her life. She thought she would break down if she had to do it one more day. “And then,” she declared, “I chose joy.”
At that point, she changed her whole perspective on her life’s circumstances. She willed herself to find the blessings and rewards in taking care of her son. She appreciated her son’s abilities instead of focusing on his disabilities. She discovered the ways she could learn from her situation and grow as a person. She chose joy.
Her attitude was more than simple “mind over matter” or making lemons into lemonade. It was not being in denial. She scoped out her situation and made a conscious decision about how she was going to live her life.
Most of us don’t think about joy as a choice. If we even consider the subject, we may think about it as something that happens to you when everything in your life is right. But is that ever the case? Isn’t there always something “wrong”? Aren’t there always problems, disappointments, frustrations that prevent us from choosing joy?
Joy can be more overarching than and not as precarious as happiness. It is a state of mind and a state of heart. Viewing joy as a decision leaves room to consciously acknowledge that everything may not be great in your life, but you are going to choose it anyway. When we select other things in our lives: jobs, mates, friends, schools, we consider the alternatives and, ideally after introspection and reflection, we choose what is meaningful to us; we choose the course that we think will be best. We have a much better opportunity to lead a satisfying life if we do not wait for an event to occur (or stop occurring) to cause us to be happy or content. The circumstance we most desperately want may never happen so we, nonetheless, must discover a way to live life with joy. If you tend to view yourself as a raft adrift in the sea of life, try changing that image to captain of your ship. Choose joy.
Is Being “Strong” a Virtue or a Burden?
When we hold everything together while dealing with difficult circumstances in our lives, we may find ourselves receiving praise and positive reinforcement for being “strong.” While this is typically considered in our culture to be an admirable trait, it may backfire when taken to an extreme. What does it mean to be strong? Does it mean to soldier through all of life’s challenges without emoting or faltering? Or does it mean to be in touch with our true authentic selves, even if that may reveal vulnerability or insecurity? Being “the strong one,” may work to help you cope with crises in your life. But struggling to maintain that position of strength may, at the same time, have a cost. You may find yourself detaching from your inner self in order to fulfill the burden of living up to this standard, whether self-imposed or other-imposed. Maybe this is necessary for the short term, but at some point, we all must connect with what is going on inside.
Perhaps it is helpful to think of other definitions for strength, besides the usual concepts of power and indestructibility. Maybe it is strong to be honest, even if that means admitting our fatigue and fear. Or might we consider ourselves to be strong when we acknowledge that we are merely human, or that we need help, or that we are overwhelmed? Hemingway wrote that “many of us are strong in the broken places.” Most people will find that both strength and vulnerability are companions to us on life’s ever evolving journey.
The Art of Not Knowing
The journey of life requires that we dwell in uncertainty, as uncomfortable as that may be. The state of “not knowing” may make us feel vulnerable and somehow in danger. When our sense of self becomes threatened by the fear we encounter, we may experience an emotional “fight or flight” – and our instinct to protect ourselves sets in. We end up “assuming the worst” to somehow immunize ourselves from the hurt we may encounter if our projections turn out to be true.
After 9-11, everyone in the nation was forced to confront the precariousness of life. Thousands of regular people doing regular things didn’t come home from their days that had started out so ordinary. Since then, our world has increasingly become a place where mass casualties are a reality, whether they are acts of violence or natural disasters, making naïve any complacent presumptions about our personal and national invulnerability. Our anticipated destinies are only that: anticipations. There are no guarantees. Even tragic, painful events must find their place in our lives.
And yet. Whenever we are inclined to live our lives waiting for the proverbial ax to fall, we must remind ourselves how paralyzing and fruitless that attitude is. Knowing that security is an illusion does not require that we live in fear of all the misfortunes or tragedies that possibly could befall us. We just have to accept the fact that we cannot know the course our lives will take. Because we cannot weave our own futures, we are forced to integrate unpredictability and insecurity as part of our life’s fabric. We travel in a state of continuous change. That impermanence is what gives beauty and urgency to the present.