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Worry Lines

Looks at the different things that makes a person worry. Worries as indication of a person's personality; Things that a person should worry about.

A jazz critic whose name I've forgotten once wrote an article describing the50 CDs he'd want with him if he were stranded on a desert island with an expensive stereo system (and, presumably, a very long extension cord). It's not his choice of albums that I remember, however, but his claim that his musical preferences provided a particularly revealing window into his soul. "Listen to these 50 recordings," he wrote, "and you'll learn practically all there is to know about me."

As a music nut myself, I almost agree. But after reading psychiatrist Edward Hallowell's book on worry (you'll find an excerpt beginning on page 34), I think that our worries are an even better indication of who we are. After all, they reflect our ideals, interests, experiences, desires. Tell me your worries and I can tell you an awful lot about what you treasure, who you love, and what makes you tick. And if you don't worry about situation X or person Y, that says something important, too.

Worries are this revealing only because modern American life has made staying alive a relatively easy thing to accomplish. Ten thousand years ago, many worries were truly matters of life and death: Will I find food? Shelter? Is that bear-like thing growling in the distance going to pick me as tonight's entree? But if you're reading this magazine, you're probably fairly well fed, sheltered, and free from predators, giving you the luxury to worry about far less urgent matters. For example, in addition to more legitimate worries, I spend an absurd amount of time being concerned about the weeds that keep cropping up in a part of my backyard that no one ever sees anyway.

Not all worries are personally revealing, of course. Some are so widespread, acquire so much cultural momentum, that they become the defining worries of a nation or generation. Anyone who came of age during the supposedly idyllic 1950s remembers vividly the fear of Communist invasion and nuclear attack that had schoolchildren huddling under their desks for weekly air raid drills. The Soviet threat is no more, but in today's health-conscious climate the words "saturated fat" strike fear in the hearts of millions of Americans. (Then there's so-called Generation X, which has been characterized, however unfairly, as a bunch of apathetic slackers--in effect, a generation that doesn't worry enough.) Being attuned to these widespread anxieties is particularly important for politicians; a presidential candidate who doesn't address voters' economic insecurities, for example, isn't likely to make it to the White House.

But for me, it's still those personally revealing worries that I find most intriguing. So let me direct you to "30 Days in Worry Detox" (page 36), news editor Annie Murphy Paul's diary of her efforts to worry a little less. When we assigned Annie the story, we had no idea that she was such a prolific worrier. But then again, a worrier's relationship with his or her anxieties often resembles a secret liaison, a love affair unsuspected by friends or family. Now that Annie's been "outed" as a worrier—like the rest of us here at PT—we hope she'll at least feel secure around the office.

If I've been philosophical about worry, instead of condemning it, it's because, as Annie and Hallowell remind us, worry is not an entirely bad thing. There is plenty that we should worry about—our children, the environment, politics—and a little more national brow-knitting about these matters ought to be encouraged. After all, when properly harnessed, worry can spur us to action with amazing alacrity. In fact, now that I've finished writing this, I think I'll go do something about those pesky weeds in the backyard.