What, Me Worry?

On the persistent need to manage outcomes

"I simply don't worry about circumstances I can't control," a young woman confided to me over coffee recently. Wow, I thought. What a show-off.

Is it a generational thing, I wonder? Are all the 30somethings out there drifting around on a pink cloud of insouciance? Maybe they just haven't faced the facts. If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, runs a parody of the famous Kipling poem, you obviously haven't grasped the situation.

As for me, I grasped the situation a long time ago. I was born with a grasp—indeed, one might say a vise-like grip—of the situation. When it comes to worrying about things I can't control, I'm world class. If it's true that you die as you live, then I am destined to meet my Maker overweight, overextended, and anxious.

I should note here that I'm not totally delusional, control-wise. Gulf oil crisis? Didn't cause it, can't control it, can't cure it. Ditto world financial market instability. Ditto the unemployment rate, Icelandic volcano eruptions, and LeBron James' choice of Miami. I lament over these happenings. I do not believe I can fix them.

No, my preoccupation is with those shadowy, ambiguous areas of life where I cling to the notion that the sheer force of my angst might still move the needle. If I worry enough, will the plane land safely? Will my son get the job? Will the biopsy be negative? You'd think by now I would have outgrown the nagging anxiety, the persistent need to manage outcomes. It's late in the game to be mentally directing my own small universe. And surely by now I should have realized that my powers are imaginary at best.

But here's the thing. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, when I obsess over a situation long enough, it really does turn out the way I'd hoped. Pure coincidence, scoffs any rational person. Well, maybe.

As a veteran worrier, I've examined the case from every angle. And what I've decided is this: A modicum of worry may not be an altogether bad thing, as long as it is governed by certain rules.

First, it must be time-limited. I've written before about the wise advice I once received from a friend who faced seemingly insurmountable—and simultaneous—problems in his personal and professional life. Every day, he allotted 30 minutes to worry. He set a timer. When it dinged, he stopped. This rationed approach saved his sanity, he told me. And eventually, things got better.

Second, it must be creative. I've wasted endless pre-dawn hours covering the same ground, spinning my wheels in the deep ruts of negative projection. I have finally had to concede that there is no magic there, just darkness and exhaustion. Since I can't give it up completely, I compromise. I match each bleak speculation with a positive possibility. Everything could fall to pieces. Or it could turn on a dime. It's happened before. Fair is fair.

Third, there must be an element of humility. I once heard it said that control was the original sin. Maybe the Garden of Eden was paradise as long as its inhabitants acknowledged their humanity. The downward spiral began with the temptation to know it all.

For me, intractable worry seems rooted in pride: I should be able to make this better. I should be able to make this go away. I should be wiser, stronger, more powerful. When my 30 minutes are up, when the timer dings, there is a certain redemption in surrender. Over to You. Over and out.