In My Own Write: What, me worry?

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”

Overwhelmed anxious businessman 390 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Overwhelmed anxious businessman 390
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
‘When I don’t have a problem to worry about,” a friend confided to me recently, “I create one.” She smiled, wryly. “Maybe it has something to do with being Jewish.”
I wasn’t sure to what extent she was joking, but I could sympathize with her, because anxiety – seemingly irrational, non-specific worry – is something I’m quite familiar with.
With the exception – or so it seems in memory – of idyllic childhood summers in England whose long days of carefree play were punctuated largely by strawberries and ice cream and tall, cold glasses of gooseberry fool, a degree of anxiety has followed me throughout my life. It’s a shadowy companion I cannot shake off, a sort of Ancient Mariner ever ready to block my path and unsettle me with his long tale of woe.
Now I know that anxiety is a normal human emotion, especially in times of stress or challenge, which are plentiful, especially here in Israel. And my variety, thank God, isn’t severe enough to be labeled neurotic.
It doesn’t cause paralysis or panic attacks. It never led me to take a day’s sick leave from work, or forced me to give up on something I really needed or wanted to do. I’ve never taken medication for it.
Yet the niggling unease that often fills me on waking, or that waits for the lull between one activity and the next, and then curls up inside my middle, wriggling about and undermining whatever calm reigns there, does make me wish I could do something about it.
And here’s another thing: Most of the time, I don’t even know what I’m worrying about.
Or I do know; and then the worry seems unnecessary; even ridiculous.
Like the time, decades ago, when I bought an apartment in Ramat Gan and ordered appliances for the kitchen. I had chosen a large Amcor fridge, and was thrilled by its green trim, which matched my cupboards.
Delivery was set for a couple of weeks later, and having never really set up home on my own before, I was quite excited.
Yet as the time grew nearer, I became seriously anxious – for no reason I could fathom – and I knew it was connected to that fridge.
There were no surprises lurking. I had measured the space in my kitchen and knew the appliance would fit; I had seen the model and liked it; I had even paid for it. Yet the unmistakable foreboding persisted.
The fridge duly arrived, was installed and worked fine, as I had known it probably would.
So why had I been so anxious? From time to time, I still wonder about it, precisely because the worry I experienced was so tangible, and its cause so frivolous.
Or was it? Maybe the fact of setting up a new home, involving as it does a dismantling of the old, familiar and secure one, is what provoked my anxiety; and that not-yet-arrived fridge became a metaphor and symbol of my self-perceived situation at the time – suspended over the empty space between the old home and the new, a space into which I might fall? NOW I could come up with plenty more bits of armchair psychology in an attempt to pinpoint anxiety’s causes – which, by the way, experts are still debating.
I could invoke my Jewish background, my Holocaust survivor parents, separation from them at a very tender age owing to hospitalization in a period when hospital visits, even to tiny children, were limited to an extent that would be judged quite cruel today.
But all that seems far less important than the question of what, if anything, I and my fellow worriers might do to channel our energy-gobbling anxiety into something productive, and not defeating.
It is in this context that I came across the views of Rollo May (1909-1994), considered one of the most influential American psychologists of the 20th century.
For May, the root of anxiety is quite clear: It is, essentially, our awareness that ultimately we will die.
He concedes that we may not be anywhere near death at the present moment; but awareness of our impending demise can manifest itself at any time – for example, in the loss of love, which is a partial death; or when something we do doesn’t turn out to be as good as we had hoped it would be.
This sounds very pessimistic, but not to May. On the contrary: It is what keeps us alert and alive.
“It is the struggle with this dilemma of being alive – but someday we will be dead – that gives life zest, and helps us to make the most of it; that gives us our energy to put into it.”
From this viewpoint, therefore, not only is a certain amount of anxiety essential to our well-being, it is the source of creativity.
“You don’t paint a great picture lying on the couch having an afternoon nap; you paint a great picture by struggle, by throwing yourself into it.”
Much in the way that the Chinese word for “crisis” is also the word for “opportunity,” anxiety signals a new possibility; more than that, it is a propellant, moving us toward making that possibility happen, whether it is getting a new job or having a better relationship with our children.
Awareness of death as an essential stimulus to creativity was very much on the mind of the late Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, in a moving Commencement address he delivered at Stanford University, California, in 2005.
Diagnosed with cancer the year before, he died in 2011.
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life,” he told the graduating students.
“Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things all just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart….
“No one wants to die,” Jobs told his hushed audience.
“Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new…. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”
What a magnificent shift of emphasis we have here: Moving from viewing anxiety as an energy-sapping burden, to realizing that it is rooted in an awareness of the finite nature of life; and, in turn, allowing that awareness to fuel a new zest for life, a new appreciation of its possibilities, and, hopefully, a renewed ability and drive to actualize some of those possibilities.
All things considered, it may be way past time for me to start seeing my anxiety less as a bothersome Ancient Mariner, and more like Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, who holds the secret that brings Dorothy home.