There’s a reason we often devise physical objects as tools to deal with worry. Rosary beds in Catholicism and prayer beads in Buddhism and Islam. Worry stones and those squeeze toys for stress relief. We counter worry with physical objects because worry is a physical thing. It is a physical compulsion, and what better way to counter one compulsion than with another? Touch these beads and say a prayer instead of worrying. Squeeze the hell out of this thing.
Worry is a stone we pick up and put in our pocket, our fingers wearing its surface smooth over time when we’re not even aware we’re touching it at all. It is a small stone we get used to– attached to. When it’s gone, we run our mind over the space it left the same way we run our tongue over the gap left by a missing tooth.
Last week, I spent entirely too much time worrying, running my hand over the spot of missing flesh on my side where I’d had a scary mole removed and sent away to be biopsied. Thankfully for me, everything is okay, despite the fact that I had spent a great deal of time convincing myself that it would not be. Truthfully, someday it probably won’t all be okay. But not today. Not this week, at least. This, I believe, should call for a major paradigm shift in my own relationship with worry.
Worry as a security blanket
Here is something my husband didn’t know about me before we got married; I think perhaps if he had known, he might have said, ‘No, thank you,’ and kept on moving towards the door. Sometimes, after I wake up in the morning or get finished with a particularly mind-absorbing task, I think to myself, “Now what is it I’m supposed to be worrying about now?” Because there is always something, even if in the particular moment I can’t recall what it is.
What can you conclude from such a tendency except that perhaps worry itself has become a kind of security blanket for me? Who would I be if I didn’t have something to worry about? What would there be to fill the spaces in my day where all the worry went? Even as I sit here now, knowing that the news was good, there’s a little part of me that can not quite believe it is time to put this worry down. Even now, a part of me is already looking for the next cause for concern.
I know there are people who worry less than me. And I like to believe that I’m making some progress with my worrying addiction. There were times during the week or so I waited for my results when I thought to myself, “Oh, worrying is so very boring. Let’s move on already.” And for a while, I would. But then, often in the early hours of the morning, I would find myself circling around the worry once again, never quite giving in to total panic, but also failing to rise above it like a hot air balloon, freed from the heavy burdens of what might come to pass.
The hierarchy of worry
If there is a hierarchy of worry out there (and there really should be), worrying about your own health would be close to the top. The only thing I might put above worrying about my own health would be worrying about the health of my family. But health is one of the Big Worries, so that when you’re worrying about something else, people will say to you, “At least you’ve got your health.” If worries are like stones, your health should be the biggest one.
Only, it’s not. All the worries feel exactly the same in shape and size when you’re carrying them around in your pocket. A worry is a worry is a worry and they’re deeply interchangeable. The insanity of a colleague can become just as all-consuming as the contemplation of your own imminent death. This interchangeability of worries is both horrifying and comforting.
Thinking about worries as physical things–stones or beads or missing teeth–is useful. It suggests a physical space that needs to be filled. Here, inside my head, is the space that I have carved out over the years for worries. If you want to get rid of the worry, you must put something else in its place. Put down that stone and pick up this one. Find the good beads. Pay attention to the teeth you still have.
I think what takes the place of worry are things like joy. Kindness. Compassion. Like worry, these are emotions that can expand to fill a small space; they are small things that can become big. A little act of kindness can mean so much. Compassion is infinite. But there’s only so much room inside, and worry is greedy; it wants to take up all the space. What would it mean to make joy and kindness and compassion into the things you can’t quite put down? I don’t know, but it seems worth a try.