WHY WORRY?

How will the world change in the next ten years? It’s not easy to know. But consider this: In 2000 gas cost $1.50, there were no iPods, no YouTube, no Facebook, 9-11 hadn’t been seared into our memories, leading us into trillions of dollars of debt and two wars. No Hurricane Katrina. (From Willamette University promotion brochure, 2009) We have no way of knowing what the New World will look like. It may be very different than today, resources and wealth made scarce, but love and compassion on the rise or… it may just stay the same. Trying to imagine what our world will look like next week is hard enough, beyond that it’s as about reliable as last year’s economic forecast.

I come from a long line of worriers. My mother was a real pro, bless her soul. She would be at the airport the day before we had to leave. My dad on the other hand lived by the motto, “there is always another plane”. Coming out of this bi-polarity, I find myself mostly non-anxious unless fear really has me in its grip. . It used to be worse. So much so that my friends bought me a copy of “Mr. Worry”, the story of a little man who worried too much. I had always thought of myself as cautious, a realist, but certainly not a worrier. Naturally, when I received the book I worried about what they thought of me. I was the Boy Scouts’ boy scout, prepared for almost anything. I had not one, but two pocketknives. It was a real ego death to realize I was seen as a worried man. It took me twenty years, but here I am, not worried about almost anything, much to the chagrin of some of you and the amusement of my family.

With the current economic climate we have good reasons to worry. As I mentioned last week, some of us are facing real hardship. What we need to remember is that we are here to help. And since last Sunday, several of us have found help. So with that worrisome sermon behind us let me turn to understanding just how we can tell the difference between what we really need to worry about and what we don’t. That is the more hopeful side of the equation. Discerning the difference is a spiritual practice.

It turns out, according to an article published in the journal Science, that there is a gene for worry. It seems that people who are fretful, crabby, neurotic – what in New York we call Kvetches – tend to have a shorter version of a certain gene. (gene number slc6a4 on chromosome number 17q12, if you must know). If you are worrier (and I know some of you are) it’s not necessarily because you have a lot in life to worry about, but because you are genetically inclined to worry. Feel better? Well, of course you don’t. You can’t feel better; that’s the point. (As published in the New Yorker 1997)

The discovery of the worry gene follows directly on the discovery of the “throw it all to the wind” gene. The bungee jumping, spice of life, novelty and excitement gene. Turns out that many of the people who have this gene are also impatient. The lucky ones become cab drivers and for the rest of us, these foot-tapping people just drive us crazy. (Ibid, New Yorker)

I have my doubts about determining our personality through genes; it’s akin to the defense some criminals in the 1970s used claiming that they had an extra Y chromosome, which made them genetically more aggressive. Perhaps this ascription to genetics is really the reemergence of polytheism. A long time ago, our little quirks and life’s mishaps were blamed quite conveniently on unseen gods; the struggle among the gods and goddesses of war, love, wisdom and so forth. How silly and primitive that was! Now we have a little science to describe the same thing but instead of gods we have our own genes to blame. The gods aren’t angry; it’s in the genes. Of course, in between blaming it on the gods and blaming it on our genes there are many other explanations (God must have his reasons, or Freud’s Oedipus complex, or bad diet and so on). (Ibid. New Yorker)

But whether you call it determined or not, the fact remains that some people worry more than others. Under it all, I find a deeper spiritual message to worrying in our lives. Sometimes it is good to worry, such as when your life depends on you being cautious but most of the time worrying doesn’t change a thing. I can remember one woman who prayed for an entire flight from New York to Chicago. When I asked her if she was all right; she said she would be fine once we were on the ground. “Don’t worry,” I told her, but she worried anyway. And when we got on the ground I said, “see nothing to worry about.” To which she replied, “Only because I prayed the plane down safely.” Reminds me of a Gary Larson cartoon I saw once wherein the co-pilot says “Frank, oh my God, Frank, the fuel lights on! We’re going to die!” And then he takes it back, saying, “Whoops, my mistake. That was only the intercom light.”

The spiritual underpinnings to worry have more to do with how we see our world that in what causes our world to falter. It’s like a fight with the ones you love. If you look hard enough you can always find a fault. So it is with worry. If we see the world as half empty we will never be able to appreciate it the half that is full. I am convinced that our ability to transcend the world and live a more joyful life is inextricably tied up with our degree of anxiety about what might happen.

All genes and gods aside, the ability of any one of us to see the glass of our lives as half full has much more to do with how we were raised. Susan Vaughn, a psychiatrist living in New York, (now that is something to worry about) does a wonderful job in laying out a convincing argument and resolution on how we might learn to worry less and laugh at life more. (Half Empty, Half Full: Understanding the Psychological Roots of Optimism Harcourt and Brace, 2000)

Vaughn begins with the premise that reality is highly overrated. Now this may come as shock to a few of you who pride yourselves on being “realistic,” but studies have shown that people who consider themselves realists are in fact more worried than those who create another reality for themselves as to what they want live to be. Reality is simply not what it’s cracked up to be. In fact, says Vaughn, people who worry less are more likely to achieve more and live longer. Illusion, while not real, may be psychologically healthier. When studies were done on the levels of anxiety compared to recovery from disease there was a direct inverse correlation: the more anxious you are the greater your susceptibility to illness. Not always, and certainly not forever, but often enough. In fact, those cancer patients whose prognosis was terminal found that the quality of life was enhanced by their ability to find that life was still worth living.

What does all of this mean if you are worrier? Well, for starters, don’t worry about it because you can change. What Vaughn and so many others figured out is that we are taught to worry, not consciously, but subtly. And it all has to do with control. If as an infant for instance, you were left crying in your crib because that was what some expert told your parents to do, you soon realized that your crying had little effect or control over the actions of your parents. Chances are you stopped crying, but chances also are that you began to believe that your actions didn’t change your world. Now crying alone does not a worrier make. It takes time and emotional distance. Worriers tend, as a group, to come from homes in which emotions were not well expressed, meaning that we tended to internalize our feelings rather than testing them out in the world to see what we could change.

People like me began to believe that my actions had little effect on the world. This is not to blame anybody; it’s just the way we put two and two together. “Why bother?” translates into “the world is out to get me.” So what is a worrier to do? How do we transform ourselves from a pessimistic Eeyore to an optimistic Tigger?

Well, the mystics tell us that we begin when we create a better world in our minds. I have been urging our leadership to take a new look at our vision for the future as a church. Some might argue with the worry of the economy that this is a bad time; I argue it is the perfect time. Let’s fill the void of anxiety with positive possibility — not wait around for the worst to come. Imagination. Its God’s second greatest gift, the first being life itself. We dream and we see where it is we want to go. We begin with an end in mind. I dream of this church home, wherein songs are sung, art is shown, children play and people laugh. I still dream of a refurbished hall and a new building at the end of our campus for classes and chapel. I turned the chairs this to use this glass wall as a canvass for our imagination.

Now that is all well and good but what does that mean to some of you who might like to imagine being happy again, surviving your disease, or finding a job? You start with imagination and then you create your reality by gaining control of your world in some way. I have come to believe that love is most possible when we use the most positive language we can find. As our first African American President refrained “Yes We Can.” You have to teach yourself to feel empowered. In other words, as AA says, “You fake it to make it.” I have lived my whole adult life faking it to make it. I have my dark nights of doubt, just like you, but never on Sunday morning. The prescription for worry and the health of your spirit depends on gaining control, as Jean Cocteau once put it, “to massage the organs no masseuse can reach.” Optimism is a learned behavior and it starts by putting reality in its place. “Get real,” one treasurer yelled at me years ago, “we can’t afford that now.” “I know,” I said, “but now only lasts for a moment.”

We gain control over our lives by naming our emotions. Fear is the first great enemy of life and love. Fear is, in many ways, what is running this recession. We can’t possibly know the future, why are we permitting our imagination to see the worst. In our meditation I asked you to name what you were feeling. If we name it, just like Jacob wrestling the angel, we have some power over it. It’s the “Rumpelstiltskin Effect”. When I am angry I try to shut my mouth and say, “hello anger.” You can disarm another that way as well. Next time you are in an argument try telling someone, “I see that you are angry,” and watch the temperature fall. Begin by verbalizing your emotions and then letting them go. Studies have shown that abused children who grow up to be adults have almost no vocabulary for anger or sadness. In fact, they can’t cry. It leads to a silent cycle of abuse that can last for generations.

Next, remember that failure is a perspective. There is always a lesson to what didn’t work. Always. Look for it. There is a treasure in each sinking ship of our lives. Find it. Be careful to not equate fault with a person, including yourself, but with their actions. Right being, taught the Buddha, follows from right action. First act, then become. Not the other way around.

Watch what you say. Words like can’t, shouldn’t, wrong, need to be used carefully. My favorite is, “we tried that before.” So what? Try it again, but pay attention to what didn’t work. Anxiety is caused in large part by our own language, verbalizing what we don’t have control over. Verbalize what you do have control over. When any one of you is facing disease or even death I ask you to find out a little more about your disease and your plan of treatment everyday and then to verbalize it, write it down. Knowledge is power.

Learn to be your own judge. We taught our children to judge for themselves. Even if you received a bad grade, evaluate what you missed, but don’t evaluate your worth by what others say. It’s worrisome to turn over our worth to someone else. Maybe they are having a bad day. Remember you are not the victim, you are the actor. Act like you are in control and you will be.

Limit the domain of your troubles. I used to yell at inanimate objects. “Stupid computers, they never work.” Learn to not extend your anxiety to all of life. Try instead “Today is a bad day for me and this computer.” Recognizing our limitations is not the same thing as giving up in despair. Despair is the greatest disease of the soul, a cancer of negative energy. All of your life is not lost. And even when it seems lost, your reaction to it is still yours. When the musicians played music as the Titanic was sinking they were not mad, or even hopeful, they realized the domain of their troubles: they were going to die. But they played on because the music soothed the last moments of life for hundreds of people. They took control of the smallest part of their life.

Finally, my friends recognize that your mind is your most powerful muscle; all the way from how we look at the world to what constitutes sex, our mind is the spirit incarnate within us. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

But in order to change to a more positive self-image we must first change how we view our reality. Dominique Bauby was a successful editor at Vogue magazine in Paris. While driving one day to pick up his son from school he got into a terrible accident. When he awoke he realized that he was completely paralyzed; no movement in his body, no voice, only one eyelid that he had control over. The horror of his loss was immense, more than any of us could imagine. To be trapped without expression fully cognizant and feeling everything happening to him. Worst yet, he had become a ghost. Even his family talked over him as if he was already dead. He knew first hand what Jean Paul Sartre called ‘the anatomy of despair.’ His greatest anguish and worry was the loss of his voice. (I too have imagined what it would be like) until he remembered what the French philosopher Voltaire once wrote, “your voice is your mind.” Suddenly life changed for Bauby. One nurse, knowing full well that he was alive in that shell of a body, devised a system of yes and no answers using his eyelids. Two blinks for yes, one blink for no. With this the nurse could identify each letter Bauby meant to use, and although painstaking, he could spell words. Bauby went on to write a beautiful book in this way: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, describing the paradox of living life strapped to a diving bell in the ocean of stillness while outstretching the wings of his mind like a butterfly. One day, a physician came in to sew shut his bad eye as the lack of control of it was damaging his cornea. Like some Kafkaesque nightmare he wanted to yell at the doctor to not sew his good eye as well. Bauby blinked away madly. Finally, as a way of meditation he imagined himself returning to the womb, going back into the stillness from which he had come like some journey in reverse. That small imagination kept him from going mad. The doctor did not sew his good eye shut, but Bauby died several months later.

Why worry? Worry, yes, to escape danger and keep yourself and your loved ones safe, but beyond that work towards freeing yourself from worry’s hold. Our imagination, like our memory, is what we make it; and by so being we are free to choose so much more about what our life will become in the short time we have. I believe we are destined, each one of you in this room, to be a great person. A person who laughs loudly, sings fully, loves completely and hopes for something more than we now see. I believe that each one of us in this room is moving not towards death but towards a life if only we could imagine the journey in a different way. Imagine a different world, after the correction, ah, er, recession. Imagine yourself getting younger. Imagine that and you will find little to be worried about.

Blessings Be

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: