The last time my husband cleaned out the garage, he dropped a large gray plastic tub at my feet and asked, “Do we need this?”
I peeked under the lid. “Of course we do. These are our emergency supplies.”
He shook his head, “Do you really think a bag of lentils and 25 pounds of rice are going to save us in an emergency?”
“Ten pounds of lentils goes a long way, and there are also matches, rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, and a can opener.”
“What’s the can opener for?” he asked as he picked up the tub and hid it in a corner of the garage.
“To open the extra canned goods that I keep in the pantry in case our food supply is cut off due to a natural disaster or widespread illness like the bird flu.”
He stared at me, and then asked, “Who thinks about these things?”
Psychologist Dr. Susan Fetcher says that “Worry is a misuse of imagination.” As a writer, my imagination is my most valuable asset, which is wonderful when I am composing an essay, but not so helpful in the middle of the night when I am worrying about how to survive a water landing in case our flight goes down over Spring Break.
The thing is, I didn’t used to be a worrier. Sure, I stocked up on medical supplies, potable water, and cooking fuel in the weeks leading up to Y2K, but I didn’t really turn on the worry faucet until I had children. Then, my worries multiplied like bacteria in a petri dish. Will my daughters develop osteoporosis as adult women because I didn’t give them enough milk to drink as toddlers? Will they get kidnapped or hit by a car if I allow them to ride their bikes to the neighborhood store? And, ironically, why does my oldest daughter worry so much?
One of my biggest concerns as an older parent is living long enough to witness the significant milestones in my daughters’ lives. Especially since psychologists tell us that chronic and excessive worrying can lead to anxiety issues and an increased stress response. As most of us know by now, increased stress weakens the immune system, creates sleep issues, leads to hypertension and more serious diseases such as Alzheimer’s and cancer.
Worry, for me, has become a Catch-22 situation.
Recently, I faced the fact that my worrying has become excessive and is slowing me down mentally and physically. What I needed was a worry break, so I decided to give up worrying for Lent. For forty days, beginning on February 22, I vowed to be worry-free. No middle-of-the-night what-if sessions. No misuse of my imagination.
Almost immediately, the powers that be tested my worry-free resolve. My oldest daughter’s teacher announced that for the upcoming class trip in May, we will be camping at a state beach instead of sleeping in a church basement as usual. Out of habit, my what-if imagination kicked into high gear.
I cornered Mr. Jackson after school. “I’ve given up worrying for Lent–” I watched as he carefully arranged his face into a polite expression that masked the bewilderment he seemed to experience when talking with me, “But if I were going to worry about the class trip, these are the things I would worry about.” I told him the potential problems I foresaw: enough car space to haul all necessary camping equipment, corralling eighteen kids in a public space for twenty-four hours a day, and the challenge of feeding that many people over an outdoor grill, just to name a few.
He nodded thoughtfully, and then smiled. “I usually just come up with the idea of where we’re going for the trip and then figure that everything will work itself out. In the five years we’ve been doing this, everything always turns out okay.”
His easy-going approach kind of took the wind out of my sails, but as I walked away, I lobbed one more stink bomb. “If it rains, I’m checking into a hotel. That would be a disaster.”
He looked pained. “It would be an adventure,” he called after me.
It wasn’t until I was driving home, tsking to myself about our conversation that I remembered my Lenten promise not to worry.
“But if I don’t worry about the class trip,” I thought to myself, “Everything will fall apart for sure.”
Suddenly, it became crystal clear to me why I worry so much. Somewhere along the line, I’d convinced myself that worrying prevented bad things from happening, or at least, mitigated the damage when the worst occurred. Worrying helped me prepare a mental emergency first aid kit, and if I could manifest that preparation, like the gray tub of survival supplies in the garage, all the better.
The problem was that my brain was close to short circuiting from too many preventive planning details vying for attention. One worry often led to another, and as the worries accumulated, so did the mental preparation. My first aid kit was getting so large and unwieldy that I was frequently tense and stressed from trying to contain it all.
I took a deep breath. “Okay,” I told myself, white-knuckling the steering wheel. “I can do this. I am NOT going to worry about the class trip. If it all falls apart…well, I can’t worry about what happens if it all falls apart. Because I am not a worrier. I have stopped worrying. No worries. I’m worry free.”
I reminded myself that what will happen, will happen, and that much of it, like the weather, is out of my control. I recited the Serenity Prayer several times. I reinforced the idea that I am competent and efficient and can deal with any little disaster that crops up. And, I recognized that no amount of preparation could ready me for when the big disasters knock me off my feet. What’s important is having the energy, mentally and physically, to get back up again.
I scrolled through my iPod until I found “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley. At the top of my lungs, I sang, “‘Baby, don’t worry, ‘bout a thing. ‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right.’ Oh yeah! Everybody now!”
In my rear view mirror I saw my girls exchange a glance. I intercepted a worry that they will grow up and remember me as a wacko.
Since my conversation with Mr. Jackson, I have been fairly successful at keeping my Lenten promise. I sometimes have to catch a worry by the tail just as it is taking shape (what exactly will be the implications of those recent solar flares?), but over the past few weeks, I have started to enjoy my worry-free status. Without my daily quota of worry, I find that I have a lot more free time, especially mentally. I have been applying the imagination I used to spend on worrying to my writing, and my productivity has increased greatly. I like to think that the new worry-free me is much more relaxed and easier to live with.
There are only a few more days of Lent left. I could pick up worrying where I left off, but I’m not so sure I want to. I’ve discovered in the last month or so that what they say is true: worrying doesn’t solve anything. I think I will leave my mental emergency first aid kit in the garage next to the gray tub with our survival supplies. And as I do, I’m not going to worry that no one in my family even likes lentils.