What, Me Worry?

It all developed at lunch on Monday with Henry and Wally in our old stomping grounds in New Paltz.  Henry came up north from his new digs in Delaware and it was a nice reunion.  My idea took shape at lunch as it often does when the three of us begin conversing about ideas, emotions, and feelings. This time though, due to my vast storehouse of scholarly research, I am finally able to quote an authority with substantial credentials in the field of psychology, intelligensia, and a myriad of other fields too numerous and hard to spell to mention.  In the words of the world reknowned intellect of Dr Alfred E. Neuman, “What, me worry?” I reply, HELL YEA!

I learned early on that worry was my friend!  If I worried strong enough, and painted the mental picture dark enough of whatever event led to the worry in the first place, chances are when events unfolded I would be pleasantly surprised.  Deep relief sighs would emanate from this small 5 year old body and the world order could return to normal.  That practiced and improved living technique got me through most of my informative years. It started mal serving me as I grew into my adult years and took on more adult responsibilities. But old habits and practices die hard. 

Glass half empty and half full began to be used to describe me.  I couldn’t see the half full part.   But I had to try cause I was no longer the only one who had consequences of my actions. I hoped I could find a better way! I had to find a way to trade worry for hope.  I hoped that the situation  would improve, but I worried it could be much worse!  I worried that intense worry could lead to real anxiety but then intense hope that never came to fruition could lead to the same place.  Henry, Wally and I discussed how useless and unproductive worry is. There is nothing beneficial that comes from worry, nothing to take away that improves one’s life.  I can see that.  Nothing tangible, nothing helpful, nothing material changes with worry.  So if that is the measure of an emotion, we should ban it from our emotional index and lock it away.  

Hhmmmm, But……..with more reflection, when I dredge up hope from my thesaurus I wonder, is it not just the other side of worry?  If I hope too much do I not risk incredible disappointment?  Just like worry, what do I take away from hope that is tangible, helpful or material?  And if the answer is “nothing” then what is the difference?

The difference is that I am human.  Hope springs eternal! Hope and worry are tools we use to get through our lives.  The use of one over the other may help to label us and define us but I’m not sure one is anymore productive than the other.  Try to get through a conversation with someone without either using the words hope or worry!  I dare you….As for me, I am more comfortable with worry because over the years it was a tool of survival.  I can’t discard it now!


George, I get it – I’m a worrier as well. I think that what Hen and I were trying to say is that worry can be helpful if it spurs a motivation to set a plan of action and assists you to examine all the possible options to relieve your situation. My normal approach is to make lists of all the worrying problems I face and to do my best to break them down into digestible bites. But I’ve also used worry as an ‘amulet’ to imagine the worst-case scenario in order to console myself that anything short of that would be a positive outcome. Call it a hedge against disappointment. James Reston coined a term ‘preventative worry’ which fits in that case.

You’ve raised a point about the relationship between worry and hope. I think an old myth holds part of the answer. The story about Pandora addresses the situation where the gods have given Pandora a box that holds a number of spirits. The box – more accurately, a lidded clay jar – isn’t quite a loving gift. She’s told not to open the jar, although it is a foregone conclusion that she will. When she removes the lid, the Furies are released upon the world, causing all sorts of havoc.  But one spirit gets stuck under the jar’s lid – Elpis, the spirit of hope, which remained inside Pandora’s vessel of clay.

If it stopped there, I might have surmised that our vessels are strengthened by hope in the face of chaos. I was surprised to learn that elpis can be translated not just as ‘hope’, but as an expectation of the future, be it positive or negative. In that context both worry and hope are simply expectations. Expectation is a way of toting up the probabilities of success. Therefore, it makes all kinds of sense that individuals cycle between hope and worry as they evaluate their changing landscape. Perhaps both hope and worry serve you well, given the state of play at any given moment. It’s probably also true that excessive worry, just like false hope, never solves a problem.

I like poetry… it’s amazing that such descriptive and profound thoughts can be captured in a few lines. I’m going to try to find a poem for each post that makes some sense about the subject at hand. Here’s one by Mary Oliver:

I Hope You Don’t Worry Too Much

It seems to me that worry precedes anxiety.  That is, a worry is a lower level baseline for a concern that often grows in scope and intensity to actions that are indicative of anxiety, fear, and anger.  After examining what worry and hope mean to me, I came to the conclusion that I often skip the worry stage and move directly into anxiety.  

I don’t believe that I’m a worrier.  I have learned to anticipate and prepare for what I need to do each day with hope that they turn out as I have anticipated.  And, I do so with less and less dependency on how it actually transpires.  For the most part this works well for me and I don’t “worry” about how my day will turn out.  Of course I do have certain parameters that, if not met, move me swiftly into an anxious and much less easy-going mode of operation.  For example, (and by the way I wasn’t always like this,) I like to be early to a scheduled event or appointment. (I would also add that George and Wal are also early-to appointment-people.  In fact, if it’s five minutes before we’re scheduled to meet and one of us is not yet there, some of us would argue, it’s time to WORRY!)  This takes the “worry” out of concern for something out of my control that could make me late – traffic, unexpected phone calls, etc. However, if I’m reliant on someone else to get somewhere on time and they have a more laissez-faire attitude about timeliness, I move directly into an anxious mode.  My brain fires in multiple directions from blame to fear to anger.  This is not a place I want to be and I’m working on letting go of the outcome once I know I’ve done all I can to stick to the timetable.  I’m fairly certain I’ll never completely overcome this glitch but I hope to make progress in both the frequency and intensity of my unwanted reactions.

And since I used “hope” in the previous sentence I’ll explain my relationship with this word.  I see it as a desire for something good to happen.  I often use hope when I wish someone a good trip or a speedy recovery from a medical situation.  I like the word.  It feels optimistic, positive, and light.  For me, it doesn’t carry the same level of intensity of a worry or concern.  It’s a preference for something nice or pleasant to happen but usually not designed to counter a worry that something bad will take its place.

One last thought on this subject.  I sometimes find myself using wonder rather than a word like worry.  For example, I wonder if this rejoinder is too short.  I’m not really concerned if it is.  And, if it is and my blogging buddies tell me that it needs to be fleshed out more, I’d do so.  No worries!

Here’s hoping you all have a pleasant and worry-free day!

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