I come from a long line of worriers of many worthy worries. My grandpa Nels, who was born in 1866 and died in 1968 at 102 probably logged the most worries in our lineage. He worried mostly about suffering, close to home and far away. I remember a moment at the dinner table when he said he was worried about the crisis in Africa which was in the news. What crisis, asked someone. “The children are starving! Oh, those poor children” he wailed and began to cry. My father asked someone to please pass the chicken and the conversation moved on. Nels also worried that I would die. He had been a “sickly” child, and in the middle of winter after several weeks of being “confined to bed” a neighbor in their dirt-poor community in northern Minnesota, came to visit. “Oh dear,” she said to his father, “little Nels won’t last to see that tree in bloom.” He remembered how at 9 years old he looked out the window at the bare-limbed apple tree and at that moment felt the weight of the prediction. So, in spite of my obvious robust good health as a child, he worried that every time he saw me might be the last.
My mother, his daughter, was a champion worrier, specializing in the short-term future. Would the plumber really come tomorrow? Would she find a parking spot downtown? She fixated about food. If an egg had protein but also cholesterol, should she eat it? She never ate another grape in her life after Cesar Chavez told her not to. She worried about politics, despairing that all her worrying had no impact on the outcome of an election. In her later years she became so anxious that her doctor prescribed an anti-anxiety pill which she could take as needed. She chose to take it every afternoon at 1:00… and yes, she worried incessantly that she might forget to take it.
And then there is me. No surprise. How could I not be a worrier? I try to keep it under control, but it does get the best of me especially in the middle of the night, when the specters of a world without polar bears and penguins, an upcoming flight to DC, a washing machine that is working on only one cycle (extra hot and heavy duty), or macular degeneration, will send me into a frenzy of fretting. I can lie awake for an hour or more, reciting worries like rosary beads, before falling back asleep. When I officially awake in the morning, my first act is to put on reading glasses and look at my emails that have rolled in from colleagues on the east coast who are two hours ahead of me. This is a big mistake.
As I am scanning for a legitimate message, I am met with dozens of potential worries in the form of spam. I have to run the gauntlet of ”4 Stages of Memory Loss,” “Cancer Symptoms your Doctor Won’t Tell You About,” “Five Signs of a Stroke,” “Bring Back Your Smile with Teeth Implants,” “Losing Hair? Do this for 1 minute…,” “Tinnitus and Memory Loss,” “Ancient Mediterranean Ritual to Boost your Metabolism,” and finally, there is always at least one “ED solution! The end of the ‘little blue pill.’” Except for the last one, they all are fodder for worry. So I am off and running for the day. I have blocked, black-listed, identified as junk, everything possible to filter these out, but they keep coming. A new set of worries every morning. This is something my worrying predecessors didn’t have to deal with, although maybe they would have traded me for some of their top worries, like no fire wood, a neighbor with big club, or a charging saber-toothed tiger.
Tomorrow I am going to see my email server company – it is actually a building with humans in it about 20 minutes from my house – and beg them for help. In the meantime, I am focusing on this quote from Lao Tzu, “’If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
Now I’m worried that clearly I’m not living in the present and Lao Tzu will be disappointed in me.