By Chic Hollis – Philosophical Musings
Mad Magazine’s too-dumb-to-worry archetypal character has humorously tried to convince readers “not to worry.” Bright or stupid, humans aren’t very good at guessing the future, anticipating hidden complications, and uncovering disguised opportunities. In whatever we do, we choose to ignore the fact that there will always be some unintended negative consequences. Worrying about all the bad things that might happen tomorrow only makes you edgy, unhappy, and irritable. Taking normal precautions doesn’t guarantee that you will be properly prepared for whatever might happen. A small book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and it’s all small stuff, by Richard Carlson was helpful in explaining why we should pass along this important message.
“Never let them see you sweat,” was good advice from prior gurus, but they never told you how! Not worrying is essential in avoiding physical perspiration. Being born without the propensity to sweat easily has been beneficial to me. Staying indoors where there is less exposure to the heat and humidity was smart, but staying out of the tropics was smarter. I worked just north of the Sahara Desert in Libya on my first overseas assignment, and later in Venezuela and Brazil, so I know what “hot” weather is.
What I learned from the world’s school for the unenlightened curious is that there is nothing to be gained by worrying about the inevitable. You can’t do anything about something that is unavoidable. If you must worry about something, focus on the evitable or the avoidable. Or better yet, don’t worry at all about anything, but have Plan B ready in case Plan A fails.
Fretting, despairing, or agonizing about the future is the worst use of your time and energy. Such feelings only dissipate your present happiness, calmness, and tranquility. They trade positive emotions for negative ones and consume valuable time immersed in thinking about what is quite often unlikely to happen. How many times do you approach a “dangerous” intersection, and there are no cars approaching? Or there are, but each driver is obeying the stop signs?
How many times did you think you were going to be late, and there was very little traffic, so you were 15 minutes early? Or you went to a meeting concerned about discussing a thorny issue, and it was never brought up? Or you worried about passing an exam, and it was much easier than you had anticipated? With all these examples of the futility of worrying, we still are in the habit of worrying.
It is a difficult habit to break. There are no nicotine-type patches or gum to help you. There are no cheap 12 step programs like A.A. You have been brainwashed to pay attention to the barely audible voice of your mother or father whispering in your ear to “look out,” “take your rain coat,” and “drive carefully!” “And above all, dear, don’t spend all your money on the first thing you see!”
Behind each one of these cautious admonitions lies parental concern, rightfully or wrongfully perceived, for your future welfare. How can you ignore their parental wisdom, their humble teachings, their well-meant harping? That’s not easy, because just around the next corner disaster could strike you, or not. Most likely not, even in New York City today. Still, there is that one very remote chance that we ought “to worry about” and be prepared to face. It only takes one slip-up, one careless move, and then it is too late.
Too late to avoid, or to recuperate from? Or to witness that those feared, horrible consequences will never challenge you in the first place? If we are obedient children now grown-up, how can we curtail these latent, alarming messages predicting some catastrophe? How can we reduce our propensity to worry? We know that eliminating worry would be better for our mental and physical health. It might even improve our relationships with our friends and co-workers. More importantly, it might make our lives more enjoyable and pleasant. Maybe “not-to-worry” is sound advice!
How do we acquire the habit of worrying? First, we learn to fear: to anticipate that something painful or disgusting could happen to us, something that would harm us or injure us. Then we were taught that by considering the consequences of our acts a priori (by worrying), we could make some cautious decisions before we acted that would eliminate having to deal with certain of the unpleasant, harmful consequences. Finally, as we were considering “dire” consequences, we psychologically ignored the seriousness of the true risks, or foolishly imagined that some boogie-man was looking for us to ruin our peaceful lives. This enemy had the power to frighten us completely out of our rationality!
As young children we begin to fear anything we don’t want to happen to us. By the time we reach adulthood, we have phobias about many things. The primal fears can be categorized as: the fear of death, the fear of sickness or injury, the fear of failure and disgrace, and the general fear of the unknown. Most minor phobias fit in one of these classifications. What frightens us is usually an imaginary, anticipated future event that we want to avoid, even when it is inevitable like death. All the worrying in the world since time immemorial hasn’t been fruitful in providing humans with an alternative to “giving up the ghost.”
To attack our habit, we need to consider several things. First, is what we’re worrying about truly avoidable? A rain storm that happens in your area once in 50 years really can’t be avoided in the year it happens. If you buy some property on a flood plain, you have to expect that sometime this land is going to suffer from a flood of the nearby river. If you build a cute cottage in the woods that is surrounded by dry grasses and has no water hydrants close by, you are taking a risk that one day it may be engulfed by a wildfire. Now, you could worry every year that what is the statistically predictable over a period of years is going to happen during that year. But is worrying about that possibility going to forestall the event when it finally happens? Not at all.
Second, is the statistical likelihood of a potential tragedy, such as an airplane crash, reason to avoid flying at any time? Or taking the train or bus? Or driving yourself? Chances are usually considered by most of us too small to avoid using public transit and the interstate highways. But there are some of us with greatly exaggerated fears about taking these risks, so they don’t. Their decision not to use a certain means of travel eliminates the worry or anxiety of traveling in that manner. But, it doesn’t curtail the risks that people run in using another mode of travel! It just reduces their emotional concerns about arriving safely to a level they can tolerate, since the alternate way they choose to travel doesn’t frighten them as much.
Third, are the projected consequences accurately calculated by the anxious person? Those people who have a fear of heights won’t climb a ladder even though it has been secured. For whatever reason this fear has been learned, their estimation about the possibility of falling is significantly higher than that of a person without that fear, called acrophobia.
So, if we are to reduce the worrying about climbing for these fearful people, we must really deal with the latent cause of their fear. We can’t just say, “Stop worrying, you’re not going to fall!” The fearful person won’t believe what we’re saying, since mentally he or she has done all the mental calculations and is sure who is right! Not climbing will preclude falling and, of course, worrying. This is fine, if there is no urgent need to climb.
All three considerations are really just weighing the degrees of risk of some future event. First, avoidable versus unavoidable, then, highly risky by statistical measurements versus less risky, and finally irrationally risky versus rationally risky. We all can agree that jumping out of an airplane flying at 30,000 feet should be avoided. Jumping out a plane with a parachute is statistically less risky if you must jump, and even less risky at 3,000 feet with sky-diving experience and the proper equipment. But, for a person with acrophobia, jumping into a safety chute from an open hatch of a landed plane may be terrifying.
The same type of risk calculation is made when we enter the water. Many non-swimmers have a fear of the water and rarely go into water over their heads. Those who have learned to swim and use modern scuba equipment are much less concerned. Those who do deep-sea diving are sufficiently educated and properly equipped that the risks they run are minimized in their minds.
As the potential risks increase, the amount of fear we face has to be challenged. The fear itself cannot be eliminated entirely. The astronauts who went aloft replaced their fears with confidence that the preparations were adequate to avoid most catastrophes. Or that Plan B that would “get them back safely” if something unforeseen happened.
We worried when one of the missions to the moon had a serious glitch, and there was doubt that the three astronauts would be able to return to earth’s orbit. All our personal concerns could do little to help them survive that challenge. The general mood of the country was negatively affected, and then it was very uplifted when the three astronauts were safely back on terra firma. I’m sure that those brave astronauts had various concerns at different phases of the mission which might have frightened many of us to death.
To be continued…