Unmapped Country

The flip side of failure

The Tao of Worry

My worries increase as things improve - is this some kind of tao of worry?

Readers, I am obsessing about my left breast. I feel nothing different in it. It doesn’t hurt. And yet, in the past, I have had pain there, and a few months ago, I had a pulled muscle basically right underneath it. I spent so much time poking around the area that I bruised myself. Right now, nothing is going on. Yet I feel like I feel something, in the sense of sensing something. I feel like I sense something there. A thickness. A weirdness. Which reminds me of two things. One is this story about the sister of a friend who went to the doctor complaining that her breast hurt, “Right here.” She said, jabbing at the spot. The doctor said, “have you been doing that a lot?” “What this?” She said, jabbing at the spot. “Yes.” Said the doctor. “Yes,” she said. The doctor said, “Stop doing that.”

The other thing I'm reminded of is the homeopath I visited for a while in hopes of curing my chronic exercise-induced urticaria. (That’s hives, for the uninitiated.) I was also having problems breast feeding my kid with my LEFT breast. After taking my medical history she pointed out that I have issues on the left side of my body. Left ovary removed. Mastitis in left breast. Then she gave me a little bottle of something. It didn’t cure the hives. Years later, acupuncture alleviated them - and also led to the discovery of the lipoma (fatty benign tumor) on my left shoulderblade. Left, left left. 

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So the explanation of why I’m obsessing about my left breast may be that because I have a history of things going wrong on the left side of my body, when I start to worry about things going wrong, I tend towards the left (sinistra in Latin - root of sinister, if you think about it) side.

Good thing I’m going for my annual mammogram on Monday. After which, the husband asked, will I be able to relax about my boob for a while? Yeah, probably for about a month. Realistically.

Of course, maybe the mammogram will reveal something wrong, and then I’ll have the very shallow pleasure of knowing that I was right. Except that I’ve spent a portion of pretty much every day worrying about cancer, so eventually, I may be right, no matter what. Lately, I’ve added cardiac concerns to my worry list. Not that I have heart trouble – at least not that anyone’s discovered. That's precisely the point. No one has discovered any problem. Yet anything could develop at any moment. And it’s the stuff you don’t know about that will get you. It happened to a couple of friends of mine. Of course they are still alive and healthy. But they are living with the knowledge that there’s something wrong with their hearts. 

The real question, though, is why the worry in the first place?

Aren’t we all living with the knowledge that there could be something wrong? Indeed, isn’t there something wrong with all of our hearts? Hello? They are eventually going to stop working. We are going to die. That is what is wrong. That is why the worry.

Here are two pieces of advice I've been given by Professionals for dealing with worry:

  1. Set aside a certain amount of time every day to worry, and then don't worry until that time.
  2. Or, worry once and worry well.

This advice doesn't work for me. I cannot "worry once," and the time of day I set aside to worry is usually 3-5 a.m., which is kind of a drag.

I’ve concluded that I need to think about death. “Come to terms with death,” as some might say. Perhaps all you Readers have come to terms with death and live worry-free lives of great empowerment and fulfillment. If so, please share.

I find it interesting that my worries increase as things get better in other areas of my life. For example, I have paying work. I recently got a raise. I’ve had some success with my blog. My kids and husband are healthy, and I have friends. So the question is, do I have some kind of homeostatic mechanism at work trying to keep me at emotional equilibrium? You know, don’t fly too high, don’t dip too low? Is it a self-protective system to remind me to balance my life and pay attention to my physical health so I can continue? Is some kind of tao of worry at work?

Or is it a pathological set up, a self-sabotage that keeps me from fully expressing whatever it is in me to express? The time I spend in useless, pointless worry about illnesses I don’t have, is time spent not doing things that are useful. And it's not as if it's protective.

How to remove the anxiety? Besides medication, I mean. Perhaps, Readers, you are thinking that I am an excellent candidate for some kind of pill. Perhaps you are right. But I prefer not to take pills. I prefer to manage my anxiety in other ways. This attitude, I understand, is one symptom of the anxious person. Or one symptom of one kind of anxious person. My kind.

But I digress. The idea is to Come to Terms with Death. Is that even possible? Have you, Readers? I know that Tibetan Buddhist monks sometimes meditate in graveyards and charnel houses to accustom themselves to the idea. And there is a nifty mantra – sutra – on impermanence:

I am of the nature to grow old. I cannot escape growing old.

I am of the nature to become ill. I cannot escape illness.

I am of the nature to die. I cannot escape death.

It’s just not that appealing to meditate on these ideas. Yet, remembering that these processes – illness, old age (if you’re lucky), and death – are part of everyone’s parcel does relieve some anxiety. If you’re like me, you get into the mindset that everything in life is supposed to have a certain baseline: things are good, people are healthy, jobs are there, work is productive. So anytime something dips below baseline, there's a sense that there’s something wrong, abnormal, and let’s face it, kind of shameful. So it’s good to remember that there isn’t really a baseline, and that there’s nothing shameful about experiencing these natural processes of life.

All this blather reminds me of a high school weekend party I attended. I had a “deep” teenaged conversation about death with a person I won't name, because he was somebody’s boyfriend. Also because this is a blog, and I don't name names. But I apparently can't resist bragging about this boy obliquely. One of us was angsting about it (death) –guess who? The other one, he said he didn’t worry about death, because when he was dead, he wouldn’t care. And I found that so comforting. I had this moment of total release. It was so simple. Just letting go of the problem. It would come, life would be over, but it wouldn’t matter. Then he kissed me.

Linking sex and death. Gee, has that ever happened before? Is there any literature on that? Well, anyway, it's a much more pleasant connection than I started with. Although mentioning sex does remind me of my left breast....

 ©Hope A. Perlman March 2013. 

This post appeared on my blog http://www.unmappedcountry.com

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Hope Perlman is a writer and humorist.

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