Most things that I worry ’bout
Never happen anyway
-Tom Petty, “Crawling Back to You”
In every life we have some trouble
When you worry, you make it double
-Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”
I don’t think most people think of themselves as artists, but we all sure seem to have an amazing capacity for creativity when it comes to worrying. After all, worrying is by definition a creative venture: it’s concern—usually overblown concern—about something that may or may not happen. “Concern” can be legitimate, when it’s based on reality; “worrying” is all about fiction.
Even before I got nicknamed “Crash” by my mother’s co-workers, whenever I left the house in a car during my teens, my mom would write up a short but gory horror story in her mind. It’s a familiar but always-compelling tale: Teen Dies in Car Crash. And for every extra five or ten minutes I didn’t arrive home when expected, Mom would fire up the mental projector and run the reel once more. (I’m sorry, I forgot to mention..she got the short story optioned and made into a film while I was out with my friends.)
Only when I got home would she set herself free from having to actually live out that invented future where the worst case scenario happened. Like a miracle, I would instantly go from probably being dead to being as alive and annoying as ever. My mom’s mental theatrics allowed me to perform this mini-miracle night after night.
I don’t mean to pick on Mom—I think she did what most parents do. And it takes now-adult me precisely 43 seconds to begin panicking if I think one of my indoor cats has gotten out by mistake. Since I’m a writer, it’s no problem at all to quickly whip up horrific visions of what might have happened in the short time since I last saw Mr. Putty Paws.
That’s not my cat’s real name; I don’t want to post his real name because then some sicko will probably be able to finally put two and two together and figure out where I live, and he’ll use my cat’s name to gain his confidence, and abduct my whole pet family, and oh my God, I don’t know how I could even live if that happened. I mean, the place would feel so empty…
Etcetera. See how easy it is? I also like to think of myself as a bit of an actor, and I was actually able to get my pulse to start racing right around the “and oh my God” part of the above paragraph as I was writing it. Keep in mind, the cats are cozy, the door is closed, and I have been posting publicly about my pets on the web for years. My address has never been hard to find. In other words, I have no real fears like the above…but the story is so temptingly wrenching, that my genuine concern for my pets was able to leapfrog into fantasy just like that.
I sure hope I’m not the only one. That would be so humiliating. I mean, here I’ve gone and bared my soul to a bunch of strangers, and by now they all probably just think I’m a freak. I bet they’ll print this up and pass it around like one of those office jokes: “Haha, look at this wussy mama’s boy with his cats”…
Boom! Did it again. This worrying crap is too damn easy!
I think that may be why I try my best not to do it. Painting worrisome mental pictures is so easy that it’s basically the laziest alternative at any given time. We’ve all been filled with enough nightmare scenarios via a plentitude of sources; we can spit them out without a moment’s thought or effort.
Bad things do happen—all the time in fact. Esteemed sociologist/vocal genius Robert McFerrin, PhD concluded in his chart-topping 1988 study that every single life does indeed “have some trouble”. But as he reported widely that year, worrying can only change that trend in one direction: “[making] it double”. Of course the worst might happen, but as the great statistician/chill-rocker Dr. Thomas Petty’s famous theory states, most things that you worry about will not in fact occur.
You can’t argue with science, folks. The people I’m pretending are experts and I agree: The vast majority of worrying is simply an exercise in unfortunate fiction. Worst-case thinking is the default for a lot of people, and it’s a too-handy crutch for the rest of us. I’m not immune to its charms, and I doubt you are either. But with all the great things that imagination can provide for us, why in the world would you ask it to provide you with extra burdens? It almost sounds crazy.
Hmm… Maybe you’re going crazy and you don’t even realize it.
That happens to people, you know.
Nah, it’s probably not that. Forget I said anything.
This column is featured in The Simplifier #5.15.