I was on the phone last night for an hour talking someone down off their worry ledge. Actually, that’s not true. I wasn’t equipped to talk them down, I didn’t have the script for it, all I could do was listen. And now I’m taking the time to think it through, reflect and work out what I should have said. I listened to a sustained litany of worry. An avalanche of uncontrollable, weighty, overwhelming worries that encompassed all world events: locusts, fire, flood, storm, pestilence, war. ‘It’s biblical, it’s happening,’ I was told. ‘Why are you not worried? I was asked. ‘Doesn’t it wake you in the middle of the night?’ I was probed. I’m not immune to gloom, far from it, but I do try my best to hurry in the opposite direction of worry. I don’t shut myself off from news, but I do try to close myself down to identifying with the menu of fear that it pedals. Stories abound that feed our greatest fear: that we are all doomed and that we are all going to die. But I don’t see that as news. I know I am going to die. And, whilst I don’t fixate on it, I do remember it, for it helps me to live.
It’s almost impossible not to put ourselves at the centre of our world, see ourselves as the most important thing and squirrel worries away related to what threatens us. But if we can just inch back a little from how central we are to the planet and feel a drop of empathy for those who are having a shittier time than us, it can begin to feel a bit easier. Perspective works. So does changing the record, which you can do by following the old, hackneyed advice of, ‘closing your eyes and taking yourself to a happy place.’ I didn’t use that line last night – timing is all for that sort of thing, and sometimes the worry must peak and explode before serene visualisations, happy memories, and counting blessings can be called upon as an armoury of defence. Yet, it is true – sometimes the simpler the technique, the better. When the worry hits and the dog bites, there’s a lot to be said for seeking out your own equivalent of ‘raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens’.
Worry is an ineffective, fruitless, exhausting, self-perpetuating, corrosive, and invasive habit. Wow, how unsympathetic do I sound? It’s true though, it is simply a bad habit that needs disciplining in order to be broken. Once you begin worrying it becomes a bit like eating Pringles, you just can’t stop. So don’t let it take hold. Guard against it. Get angry, get active, get going, get even. But don’t get worried. Don’t get scared, don’t get fearful, don’t render yourself inert with terror. I’ll say it again: we are all going to die. Remember that. Think on it occasionally and take a perverse comfort from it. Then drop it, because right now you’re alive and you have a responsibility to live.
I’m sure you’ve read or heard some of these apocryphal quotes collected from dying people about things they wish they’d done in their lives. That they had invested in more worry is never one. So, when you find what works for you – be it faith, perspective, experience, living in the now, thumbing a worry stone in your pocket – get onto it and chase those worries over the hills, as far as the horizon and beyond. Give up worrying, it will come to nothing.
I Worried, by Mary Oliver
I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?
Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?
Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,