My inbox lately has been increasingly clogged with dire warnings. I have been told that I am likely to be poisoned from breathing oil fumes, swept into oblivion by a giant methane-explosion-induced tsunami moving at 600 miles per hour, cast into poverty by foreign investors calling in their loans to the US, murdered by a band of unchecked immigrants, blown up by a terrorist I thought was my harmless neighbor tending his garden, subjected to a horrible curse if I fail to forward a message immediately to at least 10 friends, doomed to heart disease by a lifetime of eating huge quantities of “hidden” salt and sugar in commonplace foods… I could go on and on. The underlying message always is, “You should worry, worry, worry. Terrible things could happen.”
And then, yesterday, I received a poignant e-mail letting me know that the brother of one of my colleagues at West Virginia University dropped dead, alone in the water, on a practice swim for a big swim event. He was an athlete. He had done that practice swim, which he loved, many times. He was only 58 years old. No one ever would have thought that this would happen to a healthy, hearty man in his prime. No one worried about him when he set off to swim with a smile and a wave to his family, as he did nearly every day. I was reminded that terrible things DO happen, but they are rarely the things we’ve been anticipating.
The real message we get from life, if we listen, is: Worry is pointless. Worry erodes our health, our sense of wellbeing, and our ability to enjoy the present moment. Anything could happen any time. We can’t predict disaster, and we can’t predict wonderful surprises, either. All we can know for sure is what HAS happened and what IS happening, right now.
But too often, we miss what IS happening because we are so caught up in ruminating about or regretting what HAS happened, which we cannot change, or in worrying and fretting about what COULD happen, which we cannot predict. So the precious gift of now is lost because our worried minds are elsewhere.
For years, I have taught resiliency and have told participants in my classes and seminars the facts about stress and worry, about what it does to the immune system and to the capacity of our minds and bodies to regain or sustain health. I have recommended the book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers to hundreds of students and colleagues, to share with them the scientific understanding of the price we humans pay for entertaining stress, worry and anxiety. I have recommended the books Second Chance and The Missing Link to hundreds of students and colleagues, to share with them the logic of the simplicity of living at ease in the present, free from stress, worry and anxiety. I always feel privileged to be able to point in the direction of health and peace of mind, and watch innate wisdom blossom in people as they see this for themselves.
I want to send a message to all those people anxiously poring over and urgently sending out frightening messages of imminent horror that the world, individually and collectively, should be worrying about constantly. Stop! Please, just stop. You have the best of intentions, but all this doom and gloom stuff is not helping to make the world a better, safer place. Indeed, it is keeping people on edge and off balance as they turn their minds away from life right now and helpful ideas that might occur to them from a quiet state of mind to think about scary things over which they have no control.
It makes sense, of course, to be prudent. But being prudent is not a product of worry. Prudence is wisdom applied to information, in neutral, in the present. Once we’ve done everything we can, it is pointless to think more about it. Thinking more about it and extrapolating fearful ideas from it generate worry.
It is prudent to know the news and read your mail and ask, “Is there anything I can do right now to address this situation?” If the answer is yes, it is prudent to do that. If the answer is no, there is no point thinking further about it. There is nothing I can do to prevent a giant tsunami, for example. Going over and over in my mind about how horrible that would be is a misapplication of my imagination, a way to use my own thinking to keep me from enjoying life now. Instead of playing with my dog and enjoying the beauty of nature when we take our walks, should I be ignoring the dog because I’m too upset to play, and plodding nervously through our walks wondering what the scene would look like as the giant wave strikes? Would that kind of thinking help me in any way?
A wise person, years ago, startled me out of a bout of worry, with this question: “If you knew you only had a few hours to live, is that how you would be using your mind?” Ever since then, worry has seemed like a waste of precious time to me. I cannot think of a single hour I’ve spent worrying that has contributed one iota to the quality of my life.
Ah, but the hours spent relishing beautiful sunsets, making up games with my grandson, tending to a growing plant, talking about constructive ideas with colleagues, immersing myself in beautiful music, writing a poem for an occasion, laughing at silly jokes, holding the hand of a dying friend and sharing good memories, cheering in the heat of an exciting sports event, picking up the phone to talk to somene I’ve missed, reflecting on a challenge and arriving at a surprising new answer — those are the moments fully lived in the present. Those are the deposits in the account of a happy life.
I heard Bobby McFerrin interviewed on the radio recently. The interviewer said she wouldn’t give in to the temptation to ask questions about the song “Don’t worry, be happy!” because she was sure he was sick of people attaching his name only to that old, silly song, instead of his enormous body of subsequent creative work. He said he didn’t mind talking about that song. A lot of people loved it. It cheered people up at a time they seemed to need that message. Essentially, his answer was, “Don’t worry about what questions you ask me. Be happy we’re here together now, talking about the power and beauty of music.”
Remember the core idea of that little song? “In your life expect some trouble, but when you worry, you make it double.”