Worry is the Work…

Many years ago, I ran across this pithy quote:

Worrying is like being in a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but you don’t ever get anywhere.

I have no idea how it came to me. I was a young teenager and my parents were separated. They later divorced, and we kids moved to Dallas with Mamala. I was to enter a new school halfway through my eighth grade year.

Remember junior high? The painful awkwardness? Add a traumatic family experience, then throw in a dash of being the new kid amid people, many of whom had known each other since kindergarten. And do all that with just a semester to get one’s bearings before high school.

There was plenty about that that was worrisome.

But I tried to put it all out of my mind, because it doesn’t do any good to worry, right? Even Jesus says so.

Wrong. (Sorry Jesus.)

Fast forward almost 20 years, when I was pregnant with Caroline. My favorite book about pregnancy and childbirth had a chapter called “Worry Is the Work of Pregnancy.” In it the authors made the following counter-intuitive case: Worry is actually useful and helpful. And when well-intentioned people advise us not to worry, they are actually keeping is from doing very important psychological and spiritual work; namely, to mentally picture ourselves in that situation, to plan for contingencies, to prepare for the unexpected.

This chapter was a tremendous relief.

I am a talented worrier, and there are all sorts of worrisome aspects of pregnancy and labor. What if the fetus isn’t healthy? What if I get preeclampsia? What if I don’t have the kind of birth I want? What if the baby needs to go to the NICU? What if we can’t ever get breastfeeding to work?

Making worry one’s work means taking these fears to their logical conclusions by asking, “Well… what if I need a C-section? What will that be like? What do I need to know in order to feel good about that outcome?” That felt so much more sensible than trying not to think about all those unlikely scenarios because “there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.” Yes, there is. Even the practice of seeing one in the situation is a help. Even if the worst-case scenario never comes to pass, it is not wasted effort. You are stronger for looking at the fearful possibilities and saying, “Here is how I will handle that with strength and courage.”

As you can see, this is a productive kind of mental exercise. Worry is not the same as fretting. It’s not healthy to let one’s life be consumed with anxiety. Rather, worry is engaging Shel Silverstein’s Whatifs and saying, “Show me what you’ve got.”

I know a dear family with three sweet children. Their oldest contracted a disease that required a bone marrow transplant. Unfortunately, his body was too compromised, and he died. Their other son also has this disease, though he was asymptomatic for a long time. One night the mother asked the father, “What are we going to do if this disease progresses in J?” The husband answered, “We will go back to Minnesota and go through the bone marrow process again.” He was kind, but matter-of-fact: That one’s easy.

And in fact… they did have to go back to Minnesota. And things are going very differently for their other son. It’s not my story to tell, but he’s doing well.

I had my first mammogram last week. On Friday the doctor called and asked me to come in today for some additional views of a spot they couldn’t see clearly. Statistics were on my side; genetics were on my side. I knew that chances were good that the additional tests would reveal nothing of concern. And that’s exactly what happened.

But I did spend some time with the Whatifs. What would I do if there was a problem? Whom would I tell? What would I need? And those questions did not consume the days between the doctor’s call and the appointment. They gave me something firm to stand on today.

So I guess you could say, I worried…

But because I worried, I wasn’t afraid.


10 thoughts on “Worry is the Work…

  1. Katherine says:

    I’m really glad to hear you’re okay. I was worrying.

    Thanks for this – definitely food for thought.

  2. Worry is like a rocking chair-it keeps you moving but doesn’t get you anywhere.
    – Corrie ten Boom

  3. Sue Ferguson says:

    So today my weekly bible study covered Luke 12:22-34…..Do Not Worry. yes. ok. and this exactly why He was who He was and I am an imperfect fallen human being 🙂

    I totally agree that worry (NOT fret) is sometimes a good thing – if it brings peace and confidence that “hey, I CAN deal with this, and I WILL get thru it”. My husband has had cancer 3 times. We have done the bone marrow transplant thing. We have faced death head on – and I can assure you that my brain HAD to go there – to that place no one wants to go. I would cling every day to faith that no matter what happened, it was God’s plan – yet it was that same faith that ALLOWED me to let my mind worry, and think about the possible outcomes and how I might deal with it. It let me go that place – yet also gave me the strength to LEAVE that place and not let it consume me. Three years cancer free and I still worry. Every day. And my faith is stronger for it.

  4. Mamala says:

    You live what you say here. When I texted you the Monday evening to find out when you were going for your followup exam (which you said you would schedule “first thing Monday morning”), you replied “Duh…No. Will call tomorrow. Forgot.” Now you just happened to be on a vacation with the kiddos in PA. I realized that you were far different from me at that point. Come hell or vacation, I would have stopped all the fun and called the Dr’s office first thing Monday morning to get this worrisome thing done. Instead, you did the right thing.

    And I apologize that I played a part in creating that stress for you in 8th grade.

  5. Rachel Heslin says:

    My mother taught me to imagine the absolute worst possible scenario and figure out what you would do in that situation. Once you accept that as a possibility, anything else is cake.

    I have to admit that I get stuck on words sometimes, though. Even with the clarity of your definition, I still associate “worry” with “going around in circles” — essentially putting more energy into imagining what awful things could happen than in how you would deal with those things. But I definitely agree that ignoring (or, more accurately, attempting to suppress fear about) potentially negative situations is not a very useful strategy for this uncertain adventure that is Life.

    And I’m glad your results showed no reason for concern. 🙂

  6. sherry says:

    I like the way your blog changes from blue to golden yellow as I scroll down the comments. It is a wonderful color way to illuminate the change from worry to peace.

  7. leehullmoses says:

    Thanks for this, MaryAnn. I’ve always been a little defensive of my tendency to worry – I think it has served me well on a number of occasions.

  8. anne says:

    one thing i’ve learned from having various health challenges—my hive provides the salt in my water that makes it easy to float even when big waves come my way.

  9. […] fact that we both posted about seeking out nature in the suburbs last week), she still manages to minister to me. If I lived anywhere near her, I would totally join Tiny Church. For now, I’ll have to settle […]

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