Saturday, December 11, 2010

Anxious

When I was a kid, I worried.

I worried about pretty much anything.

My parents nominally attended an easy going, non-doctrinal Methodist church. However, whenever we were in South Carolina with my mom's kin, we'd go to the Southern Baptist Church in Chesnee where my grandmother played the organ (a Hammond B3) and my grandfather led the congregation singing.

Before the service, I'd always go to Sunday school in the church basement. One morning, I had an inspired Sunday school teacher. Seeing a yankee Methodist heathen amidst her throng of students, she felt it important to save my four-year-old soul, immediately. So she'd laid into the hell-fire and brimstone stuff.

I was a rather imaginative kid. Hearing about people writhing in pain and agony as if their skin were on fire, it didn't take me long to start begging Jesus to forgive my sins (whatever sins were) and take me to heaven when I died.

I left Sunday school, feeling better. Well, not better than before Sunday school, but better than in the middle of Sunday school. And then I thought, "What about Dave?" (Dave's my younger brother.)

Dave was three at the time and I wanted to make sure that he too was saved. I thought maybe he'd already got saved, so I started by asking him if he'd accepted Jesus into his heart?

He didn't seem that interested, so I said, "Hey Dave, do you want to accept Jesus into your heart so you get to goto heaven instead of hell?"

He looked at me and said, "OK"

I felt better.

Inadvertent Murder
That winter, we were standing outside waiting for the bus for Kindergarden. Jackie Jacoby and I were playing around pushing each other, and just as the bus pulled up, I pushed Jackie who tripped and fell off the curb. Jackie got up laughing and we climbed into the bus, but I started thinking, "What if I'd pushed Jackie harder and he'd fallen out in the street in front of the bus? He might of died, and then I would have gone to hell?"

I knew that hell was for murderers and sinners, and I started worrying about accidentally becoming a murderer and inadvertently winning a one-way ticket. My mind became consumed with how not to become a murderer. I stopped any activities that might lead to me accidentally killing someone. At first they included your basic rough-housing (wrestling and pushing), but then I decided I'd better not play baseball, because I'd heard a story about a kid who'd got hit in the head at a major league game and died as a result.

Lacking confidence in my initiatives, I'd start asking my mom, "Mom, I accepted Jesus into my heart, but how can I know that I'm not going to go to hell?"

At first my mom would sit and talk with me a bit about it, quietly assuring me that I wasn't going to hell, that when I died, I was going to live in heaven forever and ever. But after weeks of my seeking reassurance many times a day, the conversation degraded to: "Mom, am I going to hell?" and "No, you're not going to hell!", my mom's exasperation building throughout the day, the "How many times have I told you" being more attitudinal than verbal.

Forever and Ever
One day I stopped thinking about the hell part and started thinking about the forever and ever part. I tried to imagine forever and ever. I started thinking about infinity and eternity, trying to comprehend them, to count them. It totally freaked me out. Forget about hell and heaven. I don't want to do anything forever!

I'd lie in bed at night staring at my ceiling trying to imagine eternity. My mom would come in to check on me and then sit down on the bed beside me and rub my legs. She'd ask me what I was thinking about, but after the first few times, I gave up trying to explain it.

Deseases Everywhere
Over time, I got distracted from infinity by medical shows on television. Anytime they depicted someone with a life-threatening desease, I was sure that I had it, especially if the victim was a child. I started taking measures to ensure that I didn't get sick. I'd wash my hands until they were raw. I'd replay my day checking to see if I'd touched anything that might have had germs on it. If someone sneezed on me, I'd run into the house and scrub myself with a washcloth. I wasn't taking any chances.

I started quizzing my friends' parents when invited to lunch or dinner at their homes. I'd ask when the meat had been purchased and whether or not it had been thoroughly cooked. Did you wash the string beans? How old is this ketchup?

When my mom started getting into organics, it got worse. Were these potato chips preserved with BHA or BHT? Did you know that preservatives can give you cancer? Is there aluminum in this? Did you know that aluminum can give you dementia? At six, I wasn't exactly sure what cancer and dementia were, but I knew they weren't good. My friends' parents weren't always as patient as my mom.

My Latest Obsession
I moved from one object of worry to the next. Watching the evening news with my dad or overhearing the latest urban legend at school always left me wondering, contemplating, worrying and then obsessing. A comet that would wipe out the planet in 2004. A gas main explosion in Chicago killing several people... Cancer... Heart attacks... Venereal deseases... my life was one long succession of objects of worry and obsession.

Over time, I stopped seeking reassurance from the people around me and internalizing my fears and worries. Mainly because it would become so annoying to everyone that even I could see it, but also because it simply never worked.

As I became an adult, I adopted new worries, paying bills, supporting my family, being good enough.

Topeka!
And then one day, I came to a remarkable conclusion, one that changed absolutely everything.

My strategy of convincing myself that whatever concerns me is not going to happen never works (or at least not for long). The only way for me to effectively deal with my fear, anxiety, worry and obsession is to accept that the object of my concern may indeed happen, and if it does, I'll figure out what to do, that everything will be alright.

Knowing that if I fail, I'll just get up the next day and try again or try something else, is so much easier than running around trying not to fail, or seeking assurance that I won't fail, or worrying about failing. Knowing that being alone is fine, is way better than worrying about being alone.

This first conclusion got boosted by a secondary conclusion that even if I can't figure it out now, I'll be able to figure it out then.

My days of anxiety became isolated hours of anxiety and then isolated minutes and then seconds. After forty-years squandering a fortune in consciousness trying to avoid the objects of my fears, I'd found a consciousness-efficient solution: embrace them.

No matter what happens, it'll be alright. In short: it's all good.

The funny thing is that knowing that it's all good, that it'll be alright no matter what, didn't lead to my adopting a laissez-faire attitude toward my life. Instead, I feel more empowered and in control. Any time I do experience being anxious, it's not longer a deer frozen in the headlights experience, but instead a caged lion pacing experience.

Go figure.

Happy Saturday,
Teflon

6 comments:

  1. Remarkable indeed, Tef; thanks for sharing your journey to it.

    A question about that conclusion: you say it came after forty-some years of trying to avoid your fears. Do you reckon you had enough experiences of figuring your way out of & surviving crises that supported that conclusion?

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  2. Ahh... Sree, if only it had been an evidence-based conclusion, I would have reached it twenty-years earlier. I think your question leads to the core issue: no amount of evidence can get you there.

    If you're at all creative, you can always come up with a scenario that the evidence does not answer. So the answer lies in making whatever happens not matter, making it ALL good.

    The evidence-based conclusion may be much more satisfying on some levels, but it's still vulnerable to new evidence to the contrary. IT'S ALL GOOD may be challenging on some fronts (how can losing my job be good?), but it's basis is in perspective, not fact, and therefore it is less vulnerable over time.

    Thanks for the great question!

    Teflon

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  3. It's re'mark'able, yes. How many others continue still like mindless sheep, co-erced by well intended, but short sighted, religeous zealots? ....oh the humanity bw

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  4. Tef: That's what I guessed too, since you didn't link your change of perspective to any of the supporting evidence that came before it.

    However, since you at 40+ were different from the you at 20+, I suppose it was all in the mix somehow.

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  5. Wow Sree, that opens the door to a complete line of questions.

    Why now and not then? Why at forty and not at twenty? Why at twenty and not at forty?

    In this case, I'm not sure whether or not that I finally concluded that the evidence-based approach to anxiety was futile or I was simply exposed to alternatives that I hadn't experienced before?

    I feel a couple of posts coming on...

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  6. when was it you met Iris, and Option? bw

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