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What, Me Worry?

What, Me Worry?
Art credit: I Worried sign - photo by Aubree Herrick from unsplash

You Know, You Could Get Hit by a Bus Tomorrow

By Janet Marshall Watkins

Three years ago, in one of the most worry-filled seasons of my life, I was sitting with my husband in his cardiologist’s office when he nearly passed out. His doctor was trying to figure out how dangerous his heart rhythm had become, and it turned out the answer was “Very.” He was admitted to the hospital for emergency surgery, and as I sat in a hospital chair later, getting ready to call our kids to assure them everything would be fine—though I wasn’t really sure—my phone rang. It was my dad’s oxygen supply company, calling with a question that needed a timely answer because my dad was dying of cancer.

It might’ve been smart in that moment to accept my lack of control and maybe even laugh at the insanity of the dual crises. But what I did instead was what people often do: I tried to manage things—my worries, our children’s worries, my dad’s care. In the dreary months that followed, as my dad died, my husband’s health issues worsened, and COVID set in, I power-walked miles and miles each day, trying to contain my anxiety and keep myself strong. I wanted things to be fine for all of us, especially the kids.

Then one day I was chatting on the phone with a friend who often helps me find perspective when I’ve lost sight of it. I’m sure I sounded overwhelmed, and I’m sure she was empathetic, but what I remember her saying is this: “You know, you could get hit by a bus tomorrow.” Wouldn’t that be hilarious? It could be ME on the verge of catastrophe. And what good would my worry do then?

We live in anxiety-producing times. COVID, gun violence, 24/7 access to bad news, personal challenges, and systemic inequities—it’s no wonder 60 percent of Americans reported experiencing daily stress and worry in a 2020 Gallup poll. More recently, a third of Americans reported signs of anxiety or depression in a CDC study. We live in a world of overbooked therapists, anti-anxiety meds, meditation apps, and lots and lots of substance abuse. In good ways and bad, people are trying to soothe and rewire their worried minds.

My yoga teacher says we can’t avoid stress—hard things will always happen—but we can try to manage our reactions. And that’s in sync with some of the best research I’ve read on how to get through hard times. Dr. Lucy Hone of the New Zealand Institute of Well-Being and Resilience discussed the research in a fascinating Ted Talk I watched as part of a Florida State University class on trauma and resilience. Hone shared how she had had to apply everything she knew about resilience to herself after the stuff of worst nightmares happened: Her 12-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident.

There’s no simple recipe for navigating painful times or containing our deepest fears. But Hone says three things have helped her—and could help all of us, even with smaller concerns. First: Know that bad stuff happens. It just does, and it’s not personal. Second: Focus your attention wisely—mostly on gratitude and what you can actually control. Tune in to the good things happening around you. Third: Be guided by this question: Is what I’m doing helping or harming me? When you need a reality check, it’s a powerful thing to ask.

None of Hone’s advice involves worrying, and I tend to think worrying is mostly futile. It’s the price of love, maybe—like grief—but still futile. Yet worry can have some upsides. A reasonable amount can prompt you to do protective things, like wear a mask and make sure you have a designated driver. It can drive action that keeps you and your loved ones well. But keeping a rational lid on it—that’s the tricky part.

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Years ago, when I was a working journalist, I interviewed a woman who had developed a terrible fear of flying. She couldn’t manage a trip without Valium, and neither could her husband. Yet on Valium, they couldn’t stay awake to tend to their kids. It was a conundrum, and it was rooted in what I think is the most primal kind of worry—parental worry. She had never been afraid to fly, she said, until she became a mom. Then, the stakes of something going wrong suddenly seemed so high.

I didn’t grow up being a worrier, but parenting changed me, as I think it changes a lot of people. Suddenly, we have these adorable little people who we love so much and who don’t know not to walk in front of cars or stick their fingers in outlets. And once they figure that out, they start driving and setting up Tinder accounts. How can we not imagine them in a roadside ditch–maybe with a serial killer closing in, if we’re really letting our minds run wild? (A friend actually did have a serial killer on campus her freshman year in college. Several classmates were murdered. I don’t know how her parents survived when all they could really do was call her dorm phone and say “Stick with a buddy” and “Please let us know you’re OK.”)

Because the stakes feel so high, we say things like that over and over, hoping it will make a difference. Make good choices. Fasten your seatbelt. Look both ways! We want our words to wrap our most beloved people in a cloak of invincibility. To protect them from accidents. Bullies. Pain. But there is no cloak of invincibility. And the older I get, and the older my children get, the more I think it’s unfair to thrust my worries on them.

So, not long ago, a friend and I made a list of things we say over and over to our teen and young adult children. Drive safely, be responsible—all the classics. We put a good spin on it, calling it “Dear child, when I say these things, I’m really saying ‘I love you.’” I sent the list to my college kids, telling them it would stand in for the boring old lectures I give when they go somewhere, and my mind—calm in my pre-parenting days—envisions bad things. Now, when I start to say “Be careful out there, 95’s a mess,” I try hard to cut myself off. “You already know,” I say. “Have fun.” And I hope they do.

A friend told me recently that if she could rewind her parenting years and change one thing, she’d worry less. It hadn’t made a difference, she said, except to wear her out and rob her of joy. She sounded so wise. Inspirational, really. Then, a few days later, she said she was tired; she’d been up half the night worrying about one of her kids. 

Why not just stop? That’s essentially the question posed in a quote by the poet Hafiz—a quote a friend left on a card at our house years ago. It says: “Now that all your worry has proved such an unlucrative business, why not find a better job?” Hafiz lived in the 1300s, so if the quote seems like an indictment of our modern culture, it’s also proof of the timeless nature of human worry. Everyone I’ve shared the Hafiz quote with has either laughed or nodded—a sign, I think, that none have found a better job.

Control what you can control, let go of the rest, get support when you need it, laugh, exercise, focus on the good, practice non-attachment, don’t catastrophize—the advice for fending off worry seems timeless, too. It’s all good, and ideally, if we follow it, we’ll be freed to lead more joyful lives. We’ve only got this one wild and precious life, after all, as the poet Mary Oliver wrote. And, as someone said to my husband not long ago, “All our life stories have the same ending.” 

It’s true. They do. Those endings are printed in the obit section, on a day we can’t predict. (“She died Tuesday after getting hit by a bus. Should’ve looked both ways.”)

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In the rough season when my dad was dying and my husband was back home recovering from heart surgery, I spent a full day with my mom and dad while my husband stayed with our daughters. 

My dad was never much of a worrier, and even as he approached death, he seemed calm. He’d always projected the healthy perspective that things usually worked out for the best, and if they didn’t, you’d adjust. I inherited some of that mindset, and I’m grateful. When I’m stressed, I can certainly ask whether what I’m doing is helping or harming me, but I can also ask, What would Dad say?

He didn’t say much that day we spent together, but with some of his last energy, he asked some important questions about my husband: Is he home from the hospital? Yes, he’s home. Doing OK? Yep, he’s OK. Surgery went well? Yes, it went well. A while later, he asked again: Is he home? Doing OK?

I think what he was really doing was asking if I would be OK.

Right up to the end, we want assurance that the people we love will be fine, even when there are no guarantees, and even when we can’t control a thing.

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Janet Watkins, a writer and editor, is the co-founder of Pie & Chai. She just ended a 10-year career as a nonprofit director. She lives in Fredericksburg with her husband, her dog, and her college-age kids when they’re home on breaks.