(“Sheep, Storm. South Park, Colorado” by Myron Wood, June 1967. Copyright Pikes Peak Library District, courtesy of Special Collections. Image Number: 002-1269.)

The Middle Distance 11.19.10: “Worry Wart”

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photo by Sean Cayton

I have always considered myself among the least fretful of worriers. Morally squishy and given to unreasonable flights of optimism, I fall somewhere between my sister, a worry warrior who doggedly and dogmatically expects the worst, and my mother, a worrier with an eye trained on God’s mercy and the rewards of faithful worrying. Everything will work out according to God’s will, she believes, even her cancer. And if not, then that is God’s will too.

Oh, for faith in this season of anxiety, the years of our lives I call The Middle Distance, when our check box on the survey form has, stunningly, evolved to 55 and over, the age of worry.

Which of us thought, when we were young mothers, our skin smooth and elastic, our hair dirty from shower deprivation, our children plump and rosy, that we would ever know a more worry-filled time? We worried habitually about every little thing—mysterious rashes, the quality of pre-school playtime, whether our kids would make it into the prime reading group. We were sure our indulged little ones teetered constantly on the precipice of failure or disaster. We worried about anything and everything except the real hazards that faced us down the road, those we could not fathom: divorce, financial collapse, joblessness, aging parents, uncertain futures, sickness and death.

Remember those little, faceless twigs covered in bright cloth that came in a drawstring bag, Guatemalan worry dolls? I used to stuff them in my children’s Christmas stockings. A rolled-up sliver of paper explained how to use them: Place one worry each day on one of the worry dolls, then slip it under your pillow at night. The next morning, your worry will be gone.

Where I grew up, worry was an active verb describing a physical action as well as a state of mind.

“Stop worrying that belt!” women would command their fidgeting kids, dressed in their Sunday finest. Or, “Don’t worry that scab.”

Now, in our pop pharmaceutical age, worry is inextricably linked with anxiety and too often mistaken for a clinical condition that only the most severe worriers suffer, an Escher-esque mind trap most of us cannot imagine. I’ve experienced some bad bouts of worrying over the past few years, as family members have toppled like great trees, leaving me and the other survivors behind to cut up and haul off the debris. But I have never known hopelessness, though I have seen it consume others.

Early this week, worry transcended its usual bedraggled and silently gloomy state, and crashed into view in the form of a 32-car pile-up on Interstate 25, reportedly caused by a patch of black ice in the northern shadow of Monument Hill. No fatalities! the newspaper headlines and television anchor people crowed amid ghastly images of crumpled metal, shattered windshields, shivering drivers deposed from their vehicles, and road shoulders littered with bumpers. Commuters’ winter worries began in earnest, illustrating one of the more useful purposes of worry: to remind us of real hazards, to be cautious in hazardous conditions.

Then came a mindless trip to King Sooper’s at rush hour, just after dark. Buoyed by being out among happy pre-holiday shoppers, their baskets loaded with butter and eggnog, frozen turkeys the size of bowling balls, and soft dinner rolls in anticipation of next Thursday’s national feast, I was happy to be out among the living after a week of doom-imposed exile from all things bright and lively.

As I was pulling out of the parking lot, a black cloud swooped down the mountains and swept across the valley. Gale force winds made twisters of the parking lot dust and stray bags and paper receipts. Rain and snow poured and blew sideways. The yellow pavement lines disapperared and our cars with their smudged headlights looked like giant bumper cars in an amusement park, each driver clutching wide-eyed at the wheel, turning at odd angles.

It was exhilarating. No time to worry. Eyes fixed forward. A quickening of the heart. A jolt of concentrated energy. Blinded by weather, we inched forward in our bumper cars through wet streets toward home, slowly and steadily, then grabbed the grocery bags from the trunk and raced into our warmly lighted houses. At my house, we celebrated with bits of leftovers and jelly doughnuts and ice cream for dinner. Worry, that sad friend, took a holiday, a long one I hope.

“The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

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2 Responses to The Middle Distance 11/19/10: "Worry Wart"

  1. Libby says:

    So very well “put”, as always, Kathryn! We had “God baskets”, rather than “worry dolls”. I’m glad to be reminded of constructive purpose of worrying–common sense caution. Over the years so many well-meaning offered, “If you pray, why worry? If you worry, why pray?” My response remained, “But I’m so damn good at both!” Thanks again, Libby

  2. Sarah says:

    I was driving to king Soopers the same night – I noticed the cloud, thought “hmmmm…” and decided to go straight home and see about improvising dinner. The wind came up just as we were scrambling to get in our back door. We had burgers on toast for dinner.

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