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.