When I was a young boy I was prone to worry a lot, especially about school. I was filled with dread when test time approached—even though I generally did well. My heart would race and my adrenaline would rush… all the things that go along with anxiety.
That was how I was for the first few years in school. But then an epiphany hit me. I can remember that moment as clearly as if it were yesterday. I was riding home from school on the bus. I was still in the third grade. There was some test coming up the following day that was making me nervous. I dreaded that test.
Fretting about the test, I said to myself, "Why do we have to have tests anyway?”
I answered, "I don’t know. They seem pretty pointless.”
"Well Mrs. Babbert and Mom and Dad think they are important.”
I sighed… and then one of the most life-changing ideas I’ve ever had came to me. I thought to myself, "Why worry?”
The question is so simple and I could easily have countered myself with pessimistic answers to no end. But instead of spiraling down that direction, it was like a whole new understanding about life popped into my life—I could not give myself a good reason to actually worry about the test.
Out of the blue I realized that I had studied as much as I could for the topic. I either knew what was required or I didn’t. I would pass or fail. Either way, what was the big deal? In a week, the consequence of either would pass away to insignificance—as had all previous encounters with tests, quizzes and other monumental challenges in my young life.
That lesson has never left my mind. I passed that test just fine. I just stopped worrying about everything. And progressively in my life I have learned that fretting and worrying are generally worthless activities that divert useful energy into wasteful habits. This is especially true when the target of worry is something that is out of our hands—if you have done all you can do to affect an outcome, then you have no reason to worry; worry cannot help. Ever since the epiphany, I have not been heavily affected by stress.
This is not to say that you should never occupy your mind with overcoming challenges. But you have to realize that sometimes all you can do is do your best—after that you deal with life as it comes to you. A mentality to that frets is likely to turn small issues into giant monsters.
In The Grapes of Wrath the Joad family faced the challenge of moving to California from the Midwest without proper funds and tools. In or approaching New Mexico the bearing went out on one vehicle in the caravan; the family did not have a spare part or even the proper tools to fix it. While dealing with the situation, a fellow traveler and former preacher named Casy asked Tom Joad if life would be as good in California as they hoped.
Tom said, "This here bearing went out. We didn’ know it was goin’, so we did’ worry none. Now she’s out an’ we’ll fix her…. I ain’t gonna worry. I can’t do it. This here little piece of iron an’ babbit… [is] the only goddamn thing in the world I got on my mind.”
What happens in the future is important, but it should not blind us to the reality of life and the moment. If you forever worry about the future, you’ll never have a chance to enjoy your life.
One of the best articles in a popular publication I have read in years was the cover story by Jeffrey Kluger in the December 4, 2006 issue of Time. The article was entitled "Why we worry about the things we shouldn’t… and ignore the things we shouldn’t”. People habitually worry about things that are unlikely to happen and ignore things that are more likely to happen all the time. For example, one interesting number in the report pulled from the Centers for Disease Control, 594 people died from falling out of bed in America in 2003. In that same year, 47 people died form lightning strikes. Everyone is instinctively scared of lighting… but who worries about falling out of bed?
Remember the Anthrax scare? The media blew it into a huge ordeal, and the government spent millions of dollars on it—all because a handful of people died.
The fact that people worry so much is something that insurance industries take advantage of all the time. Insurance companies know it is unlikely that you will succumb to most of the things you pay for insuring… but we, as a species, are naturally worrisome.
Life is simply precarious. We should do all that we can to live long and prosper… but in the end… we will all die. The best thing to do is realize that fact and get over it—so that we can get on with living rather than worrying.