I remember being so worried, so nervous about something that I threw up. Right there in Bay City, Michigan. I had felt nerves in my stomach before, but never anything like this.
And the timing wasn't great; I was starting my freshman year of high school in a week, and the whole thing left me wondering, "What the hell just happened?"
The memory stuck with me all through that September as I continued to feel anxious about starting high school. Then, in October, I had to give a speech in front of the entire school; not a very long one, just two introductions for the freshman homecoming court. But it felt like a life or death situation. I remember this thought creeping up days before the event, "Remember that time you were so nervous that you actually threw up? What if that happened again, but this time in front of the entire school?"
Great, what a setup: the speech could go well, OR I could be the kid who puked on himself in front of 2,000 people.
As ridiculous as the fear seems now, at the time I couldn't shake off the thought, because what evidence did I have to use? I had given speeches before, but never in front of that big of an audience. And that Bay City puke did happen. It was like the worry couldn't be disproven until the actual event took place.
The result? The speech went well despite, or maybe because of, all the added pre-speech worry.
As high school went on, then college, then life after college, there have been plenty more things to be nervous or worried about. Most things have worked out, some things didn't, but there's never been a result as bad as the imagined worst case scenario.
So then why all the continued fuss? It's left me pondering a few questions that I've explored for the last 13 years.
- How do we get over our worries and fears?
- Do they help or hurt us?
- And, with the world more dangerous than ever before, plus all of our own personal challenges, is it even possible for us not to worry?
The Shooting in Las Vegas
One thing that stood out to me after the horrifying shooting in Las Vegas were comments and Tweets that said something like, "People can't even go to a concert anymore without risking their life."
I remember seeing these types of comments after the shooting at the Ariana Grande concert. Or the movie theater shooting in Aurora. Or the bombing at the Boston Marathon.
And it's a valid question. One that feels like it can not be disproven until we actually go to a concert, go to the movies, go to a marathon and have things work out fine.
But even then, what about the next one? How can we ever feel safe?
I poured all of my thoughts on this topic into a long novel called Toilet Bowl that I hope gives a somewhat satisfying answer on how to wrestle with our worries, fear, and guilt.
I don't want to give away the ending, but I do want to show you the three epigraphs I used that have each helped, and continue to help, along the journey.
Quote 1: Matthew 6:34
“Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
This is one of my favorite verses in the Bible. In Matthew 6, Jesus is running a clinic on why we shouldn't worry. A few verses earlier is another great quote, "Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?"
But for as much comfort as these words have given me over the years, sometimes it can make me feel even worse. Even though the verses don't have that intense Old Testament "thou shall not" feel to them, it still seems like a command. And so, when I do find myself worrying, I can sometimes feel like I'm doing a pretty shitty job of having faith. And now I need to ask forgiveness for typing "shitty." Whoops, there it is again!
So it all makes sense, it would be nice not to worry about tomorrow. Worrying doesn't add anything productive. But it's like weeds in a garden; new worries keep popping up. Does that mean I have a problem? Am I not making any progress?
Quote 2: Nelson Mandela
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
I love this quote. It pairs well with Maggie Kuhn's quote, "Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind--even if your voice shakes."
These feel more attainable. The presence of nerves, worry, fear doesn't mean we can't still have courage. Those gut/in-the-moment-feelings of fear are biological, fight or flight responses. Tony Robbins refers to it as "survival software." This is the prehistoric caveman brain kicking in, and it was helpful way back then when people faced real life or death danger every day, but it doesn't really fit into the modern world.
Time for some research
In Adam Grant's masterpiece of a book "Originals", he shows the research behind people who repeatedly imagine the worst case scenario before a major event. They are referred to as "defensive pessimists."
Defensive pessimists expect the worst, feeling anxious and imagining all the things that can go wrong. If you’re a defensive pessimist, about a week before a big speech you convince yourself that you’re doomed to fail. And it won’t be just ordinary failure: You’ll trip on stage and then forget all your lines. (p. 212)
What's interesting is defensive pessimists do just as well, a lot of times better, compared to those who are focused on positive thinking, blocking out all negative thoughts. The reason?
They (defensive pessimists) deliberately imagine a disaster scenario to intensify their anxiety and convert it into motivation. Once they’ve considered the worst, they’re driven to avoid it, considering every relevant detail to make sure they don’t crash and burn, which enables them to feel a sense of control. Their anxiety reaches its zenith before the event, so that when it arrives, they’re ready to succeed. Their confidence springs not from ignorance or delusions about the difficulties ahead, but from a realistic appraisal and an exhaustive plan. (p. 213)
For people who fit into this defensive pessimist category, it's not wise to try and shutdown the worry, to essentially "slam down on the brakes." Susan Cain, author of Quiet argues that the best solution is reframing the anxiety as excitement.
So then Grant's final argument, summing up his research is to:
Instead of hitting the stop switch, we can motivate ourselves to act in the face of fear by pressing the go switch. Fear is marked by uncertainty about the future: We’re worried that something bad will happen. But because the event hasn’t occurred yet, there’s also a possibility, however slim, that the outcome will be positive. We can step on the gas by focusing on the reasons to move forward--the sliver of excitement that we feel about breaking loose and singing our song. (216-217)
Mandela, Kuhn, Robbins, Grant, Cain, this was all really powerful stuff, but it more so applies for how to deal with the pressure of the non life or death situations that feel like they are. The above advice is great for my high school speech example, but what about the question posed regarding Las Vegas? How do we wrestle with worry when the life or death argument truly applies?
Quote 3: J.K. Rowling
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”
I'm making a little bit of a stretch here since the quote is about failure, but what struck me about this was Rowling's wisdom on a life worth living.
Because, yes, the next concert we go to could have an attack. That's true. Same thing with a movie theater. Same thing with a marathon, a mall, a school, a walk down the street. These things could happen. And it makes the worry and fear feel that much more legitimate.
And so we try to fight off the fear with logic. Make a rational argument. Here's the tiny tiny percent chance an airplane crashes. See, we're safer in the air than on the drive to the airport. But the logical argument doesn't help because worry and fear were never rational arguments to begin with. When we make a reasonable case, worry responds like a troll saying, "Stop hitting yourself. Stop hitting yourself. I know you are, but what am I?"
We can also avoid anything potentially risky, sure, but our comfort zone will get smaller and smaller. If courage and leaps of faith stretch our comfort zone, then the reverse is true; giving in to the worries and fears will only make it shrink. Technically the safest person on the planet is the one who hasn't left their underground bomb shelter in thirty years; which is not a bad life, if you like a good can of baked beans...
The conclusion I reached after nine years and 500 pages can, in a way, be an unsatisfying answer. The risks aren't going away. The worries and fears aren't going away. Sweet. Awesome. Hurrah for adulthood!
But I look at it differently. If we stay on offense, understand the worries and fears for what they are -- the brain calculating risk and turning that into an initial gut feeling -- then we can make a concerted effort to triumph over it. We can keep going; not being naive, not having rose-tinted glasses, but understanding that the alternative (avoiding everything) is a loss from the very beginning.
Faith over fear. Courage over worry. Taking a risk over playing it safe.
That's a life worth living.
Tomorrow can worry about itself.
If you're interested in seeing how this all plays out in Toilet Bowl, the book will be available for pre-order on October 18th and officially released on November 1st. It's a story about growing up, overcoming worry and fear, and going after your true loves.
BUT you can actually get a head start right now. I've already released the book in two parts (Meet the Godfreys and Tour de Bathroom) which are available for sale now (physical book and ebook) on Amazon.com or the CreatesSpace store.
And why's it called Toilet Bowl? The fictional story focuses on the great-grandsons of the guy who invented the urinal cake. They are trying to build a smart toilet that sends health updates to your phone (like a FitBit for the bathroom).
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