"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Worrywarts–Or How To Stop Worrying In Troubled Times

I met a man worried about his feet
About a fungus growing in the drain
Crawling, oozing up onto his feet.
"You can never be too careful", he said
Stopping to buy Lysol
To put in his travel kit
For hotel drains
To stop the ooze
And let him sleep (Unknown)
Randy Filbert worried about everything and all things equally.  He worried as much about getting to appointments on time as he did a suspicious mole on his face.  His worry was indiscriminate and his way of making life bearable. If he had prioritized his worries – i.e., the ugly black discoloration on his left cheek was of far more concern than a missed rendezvous with the accountant – that would increase his anxiety to an intolerable level.  If the mole was simply a part of a package of worries in which missing a turn off I-95 was included, the imminence of cancer would be diluted by far less worrisome chance of ending up in an urban ghetto.
This of course made no sense to most people who could only live if they prioritized, shelving the least important threats, and highlighting only the most dangerous.
The logic behind Randy Filbert’s reasoning was that life-threatening disaster lurked around every corner.  If he missed his appointment with the accountant, key documentation to the IRS might be delayed, setting off a robotic and frighteningly Kafkaesque chain of events which would land him in debtors prison, penniless, homeless, and without the support of his wife and children who, having been brought up according to a strict moral code, would abandon him.
Missing the turn to the Delaware Memorial Bridge and instead ending up into some of the worst slums on the East Coast was likely to end up badly – who can ever forget the wrong-turn scene in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities where the hero of the story gets eaten alive by ghetto homeboys – but cancer is another thing altogether. 
There is no way to face that frightening possibility head on, unaccompanied by lesser worries, unmitigated and full strength.  Randy didn’t know what he would do if he ever got cancer, if he would collapse when the doctor gave him the news, go catatonic and dumb, or break down inconsolably and completely.  And there wasn’t just one cancer to worry about, but hundreds.  The unusual rough patch on the tip of the tongue could be deadly mouth cancer, the only treatment for which is the complete removal of the lower jaw, a disfiguring and dismembering operation which leaves one dependent on a liquid diet and no conversation until it takes you off.
The odd, unusually shaped floater disrupting distance vision was a sure sign of a cancerous lesion on the optic nerve.  A raspy cough was lung cancer. A queasy stomach, cancer of the colon or gall bladder. A prickly urination, cancer of the bladder or urethra.  Randy remembered what Al Pacino’s character said to Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco.  “I got cancer of the prick”, Pacino says, desultorily and incidentally because in the scheme of things – broke, dope addict son, low man on the Mafia totem pole – cancer, even of his dick, is the least of his worries.
In fact, Randy wanted to meet the screenwriter of the movie because he was the only one who understood his ‘Confederation of Worry’ as Randy named his particular approach to anxiety.  Cancer, when viewed within the context of the many tragedies looming in life, was nothing.
Randy was a survivor. He had travelled internationally for years, crippled with worry for weeks before his trip, dry-mouthed and shaky on his way to the Lagos, Kinshasa, or Luanda airports; hysterical with panic when his suitcase did not appear within the first ten minutes on the cracked, creaking, and sporadically-functioning luggage carousels; as nervous as a drug mule with two kilos of heroin strapped to his body when he approached Customs and Immigration; and debilitated by the thought of a body search by predatory militiamen in Abidjan.
“You’re my hero”, said his internist when Randy decided to quit the horrible and debilitating trips abroad. “You dealt with your anxieties”.  The doctor failed to recall the Prescription Era when he wrote Randy scrip for tons of Valium, Xanax, and Prozac none of which did any good and which neutered his ‘Power of Deflection’.  Despite Randy’s continuous, persistent, and never-ending worries, nothing untoward ever happened to him.  The worries never materialized.  He was never car-jacked, or involved in a crippling car accident, although he came close once on the Chinese Road between Bamako and Mopti.  He never got encephalitis, schistosomiasis, trichinosis, or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. His wallet and passport were never stolen.  His jeep never broke down in the middle of the Sahara, and he did not die from the many bouts of salmonella and shigella he got from dinners out ‘in the community’.
The reason why nothing that he feared ever happened was because he worried. Somehow by assembling all his mental resource and by forging them into one powerful defensive force, he could keep disaster at bay.  In airport baggage claim areas he was as twitchy and unhinged as the worst New York crazy.  He crossed all of his fingers, walked in circles around the carousel, repeated liturgical lines from his childhood (Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum, sed tantum dic verbum et sanabitur anima mea), and always walked counterclockwise.  It worked.  In thirty-five years of travel to the most inhospitable places, with the most terrifyingly incompetent airlines, and under the worst possible meteorological conditions, nothing out of the ordinary had happened to him.
In The Death of Ivan Ilyich Tolstoy tells of the agony of a man who had so carefully planned and constructed his life that the appearance of a terminal illness drove him nearly insane.  This wasn’t supposed to happen, he said to himself.  His meticulously logical choices – a marriage based on compatibility and resources rather than love; a job chosen for its predictability and security; social interactions designed to expose little while gaining much – were worth nothing in the end.  Here Ivan was facing death with no preparation, no juju or potent gris-gris to ward off evil spirits and to keep the Grim Reaper at bay.
Randy had of course read Ivan Ilyich but commented that Ivan had gone about life in the wrong way.  He had never anticipated disease and death and therefore neither knew how to keep away nor how to deal with them when they arrived. Randy’s Power of Deflection was the only way.
I know many worrywarts, but none with the elaborately constructed defense mechanisms of Randy Filbert.  Nor did I know anyone who had such a repertoire of worry.  Most people focused on one concern and were subject to a very specific neurosis.  The people who are unable to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, for example, and who hire contractors who will drive them across the span while they ride blindfolded in the back seat.  While they get a little apprehensive about crossing the Delaware, the Hudson, or the Susquehanna, they can do it on their own.  It is only the Bay Bridge that cripples them, turning them into emotional jelly and incapable of going on.
Mysophobiacs – people who are paranoically afraid of germs – are common today.  They are never without their personalized Purell and antiseptic wipes, turn doorknobs with their elbows, avoid handshakes and intimate conversations, and hermetically seal their houses.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is filled with hundreds of weird phobias; and most of us know friends and neighbors who are afraid of something silly.
Then there are the macro-worriers, those people who are concerned about Global Warming, pandemic viruses, devastating economic depressions, and virulent, crop-destroying fungi.  They build their own seed banks, shift money regularly from gold to platinum to pork bellies, and hedge their bets in all markets. There is little chance that any of these concerns will materialize, but at least they have some basis in fact.  The trade winds could possibly carry pathogenic spores from Africa to our shores, and it would be curtains for America; but it is not likely.
Finally there are the serious worriers, those who are convinced that Armageddon is coming and coming soon.  There is, for example, a millennial cult in Idaho which so believes that nuclear holocaust is on its way that they have build bomb shelters deep underground Evergreen Valley.  After 100 years the members of the Church Resplendent and Glorious will emerge and repopulate a devastated world.
Any Americans who have adopted a Que Sera, Sera or mañana attitude towards life are marginalized for being ostriches, ignoramuses, sybarites, and worse.  Anyone who has read history and seen the inevitability of its repetition; or has read philosophy and concluded that ‘Everything is permitted’ as Ivan Dostoyevsky and his half-brother Smerdyakov have; or followed Sartre and Camus into the bleak alleys of Existentialism is considered wacko by macro-worriers who believe that a mobilization of resources can blunt the inroads of destruction.
Ironically, these macro-worriers are as loony as Randy Filbert who believes that concentrated, high-octane worry actually can forestall untoward events.  They truly are convinced that the Grand Mechanism of history can actually be stopped; that they can throw a spanner into the works of human events, and that they can forestall the predation, aggression, and venally self-interested assaults of the historical past.
The Buddhists have the answer in their Philosophy of Impermanence.  There is only change, their sages say.  No higher or lower value, no deflection of the amoral Wheel of Becoming, no better or worse.  Just things as they are, as they have been, and as they always will be.
Easier said than done, said Randy Filbert for whom macro-worry or Armageddon-style cataclysmic worry were way beyond him.  He was still worried that his baggage had been sent to Abuja instead of Abidjan, that his Air Ethiopia flight would never make it through the sandstorms of Southern Sudan, leaving him stranded in Kampala, and that the mole on his cheek was indeed the worst kind of skin cancer you could get.  He had enough on his plate to get through the day than to worry about the Polar ice caps or Ebola. 
Of course those who are macro-worriers or Armageddon millennialists have evolved their own Randy Filbert-like defense mechanisms.  By immersing themselves in campaigns to fight Climate Change, volunteering in Liberia, or offering their services gratis to CDC, they are wrapping themselves in a protective cocoon no less loony than that of Randy.
We all should heed the sage advice of Dr. Ludwig – “You’re a survivor.  Keep it up.”



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