In Praise of Worry
Why, much as we'll always love MAD magazine, "What Me, Worry?" isn't a great motto for life.
January 24, 2012 - 12:01 am
Dear Belladonna Rogers,
I’m a worrier. My husband says worrying does no good, wastes time, and won’t help. Is he right?
Worried in Wyoming
While too much worry creates stress, which is hazardous to your health, too little worry can be just as dangerous. The anthem of the International Association of Worriers — which doesn’t exist, but one day might — could be the popular song by Randy Newman in the YouTube clip above.
We all worry. The difference is not between worriers and non-worriers but between people who acknowledge they worry and those who don’t. The second group may think they’re not worrying, but they’re unaware that they are. To err is human, as is to worry. Those who say they’re not worried show their inner turmoil in many ways, from hair-pulling to beard-tugging, to drinking in excess, to sleeping or eating too little or too much.
Neurotic worry, or obsessive, repetitive thinking about a problem is counterproductive. But wisely directed worry can solve problems and lead to vastly improved outcomes.
People who claim not to worry enjoy mocking those who recognize they do, calling them worrywarts, fussbudgets, fusspots, handwringers, and Nervous Nellies.
Even the otherwise judicious Roman rhetorician, Marcus Annaeus Seneca, said, “There is nothing so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness is it in expecting evil before it arrives?” Right. Guess he never had to prepare for a hurricane, a blizzard, a flood, or a child’s college tuition payments.
Echoing Seneca, some people prefer to be what they consider “tough,” “mature,” “realistic,” or “stoic,” boasting, “I never worry because it serves no purpose. If something is out of my hands, there’s no point in my worrying about it.” Both assertions are inaccurate but the second sentence is more so. Rarely are situations completely beyond our ability to improve their outcomes. Believing that something is out of our hands doesn’t make it so: we can make an enormous difference for the better through actions we take after some beneficial worry.
But no situation will bend to our efforts to improve it if we believe “nothing can be done” and “it’s out of my hands.” Those responses aren’t merely dismissive of the benefits of worry, they’re hostile to the notion that worry can produce positive consequences. Such passive attitudes are far more detrimental to your health and happiness than is worrying.
Worrying constructively can change the outcome of the troubling situation for the better. The productive worrier is often thinking about what options are available in difficult circumstances, choices that could make the source of worry less threatening — less worrisome.
Case in point: after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Sigmund Freud’s daughter, the gifted psychoanalyst Anna Freud, was deeply and justifiably worried about her father’s safety. Both she and her 82-year-old father had been questioned at Gestapo Headquarters in Vienna, a terrifying experience that could have led to an immediate deportation order to transport them to a death camp. By worrying and using her worrying to come up with a successful escape to London, Anna Freud was able to save her mother and her father, as well as herself from certain death in concentration camps, which was the tragic fate of all of Sigmund Freud’s four older sisters.
More recently, Andrew Grove, the retired co-founder and CEO of Intel, the pioneering microchip company, titled his classic business book Only The Paranoid Survive. He would know: while he and his mother, Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary, were sheltered by friends during World War II, Grove’s father was imprisoned in a concentration camp, which he survived.
Grove’s book focuses on the need to stay competitive in business, where sudden changes in regulation, innovation, and market forces require pivoting on a dime. Worry in business and at many places of employment is essential: competition from other companies and from others within your workplace create the necessity for worry. Others are trying to surpass, supplant, and outdo you or your enterprise. Unruffled, over-confident complacency is unwise.
To skip through life with nary a care may seem to be an agreeable way to go, but you probably won’t go far. In his penetrating book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker illuminates the critical importance of being realistically worried about the dangers that surround us.
While necessity is the mother of invention, worry is the parent of prudence. Not only in business, but also in our daily lives, being on the qui vive can prevent disaster.
When you’re driving, for example, worry is as functional as knowing how to brake. If it never occurs to you on a Saturday night or on New Year’s Eve that other drivers could be drunk, you will be more likely to conclude your evening in an accident, a hospital emergency room, or on a marble slab at the morgue than if you’d worried and been hyper-alert.
If you’re in the woods and are happily unconcerned about poison ivy, you could discover the shiny three-leafed plant has left you with some maddeningly irritating souvenirs.
A happy-go-lucky unmarried man with a “What Me, Worry?” tattoo can go condomless as often as he pleases, until a gnawing itch is diagnosed as herpes, or other symptoms turn out to be syphilis, gonorrhea, or worse.
Being worried enough to wear a condom isn’t being a fussbudget. It’s being smart.
In family finances, not to mention the federal budget, worrying about disaster compels the prudent person or government to put aside money for a rainy day. Worry is the cause of saving, which can be the difference between having a home and being homeless, having a Triple A bond rating, or being downgraded.
In political life, if we weren’t worried, we wouldn’t vote at all.
Forward-thinking worry is part of a realistic person’s intellectual and emotional suit of armor in dealing with what Hamlet called the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Do not ask for whom worrying is indispensable. It’s indispensable for you.
Worry isn’t just for worrywarts: it’s for us all.
– Belladonna Rogers
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