Jun 22, 2015

    Thirty Going On Auntie: I worry, therefore I am


    I WORRY a lot.

    I worry that this column will suck. Or that it'll never get written, because I'm sitting at my desk on a Sunday morning, listening to the birds chirping - and wondering if they're not, right then, covering my freshly washed car downstairs in white splotches. (Yes, they most definitely are.)

    I worry that the children will come home from their weekend sleepover at their grandparents' house and find me hogging the family computer with a half-written draft. Then I worry that the children will grow up and not come home, period.

    I worry about the upstairs bathroom leaking into the kitchen downstairs until the concrete spalls and one day comes crashing down on my head while I'm washing the dishes.

    I worry that there is never enough money to fix things. As Crowded House puts it: "My possessions are causing me suspicions, but there's no proof."

    I didn't use to be like this.

    Once upon a time, I was a relatively sane person who could get through a day without obsessively counting white hairs, or tearing them out over minuscule dinks and scratches on various shiny surfaces. Through my teens and 20s, my focus was on fun: Everything else existed to facilitate achieving that fun. Who cared if stuff got damaged in the process?

    I do. Now.

    These days that I am a (supposedly) stable, married woman, partying has become less of a priority; home maintenance, more. And, honestly, it is not much fun.

    The solution to one problem often engenders another. Like that time I called in the air-conditioner man to service the compressor and he broke my new bidet spray while hooking up a rubber hose to a pipe. Then I called in the plumber to tend to the bidet spray and, in the process, a leak sprang from the toilet water supply valve.

    Perhaps, you say, I am plagued by bad home-repair karma. Probably. There was also the case of my car's punctured tyre, which was replaced - but not before whoever did the job ruined the suspension system too. I just wish things like these don't send me to bed with a headache for three days straight.

    "Maybe you should get a stable job, so that you have things to do and not go nuts over tiny things," suggests the Supportive Spouse, trying to be helpful. This is the man who also decides to suddenly watch Blue Jasmine on TV. Watching Cate Blanchette as a socialite having a nervous breakdown: not helping me either.

    "I have many things to do!" I explode at him. Or as much as someone lying down with hands folded in the "Doctor, there's something wrong with me" classic couch pose can explode. And it's true. I am hawking a manuscript, trying to write new fiction, freelancing as a journalist, teaching an undergraduate class part-time, launching a literary website and mothering two young boys.

    Listing them this way, I realise that my pursuits, while related, pull me in many directions. My to-do lists multiply like mushrooms on my Evernote productivity app. Still, my all-too-chimpanzee brain looks for a unified goal and straightforward path and, finding none, proceeds to go haywire. Hence, the worrying.

    In a Guardian review last week of Francis O'Gorman's non-fiction book, Worrying: A Literary And Cultural History, Joe Moran wrote that "worrying, which at first referred solely to the act of choking or distressing animals or humans, acquired its more common modern sense in the 19th century".

    Apart from conjuring up in my mind an amusing image of Homer Simpson strangling his son, Bart (cue Marge's voice: "Homie! Stop worrying him!"), this etymological factoid suggests that worrying served an evolutionary purpose: By worrying other animals or humans, one could show them who's boss and therefore avoid future problems of having to constantly re-establish one's status as the alpha male/female.

    But, as the need for violence in daily survival wore off, worrying morphed into something like the appendix. It's there, but we just can't remember what it's for.

    Author O'Gorman's theory is that worrying persists as a remnant of pre-Enlightenment belief in heavenly retribution. Writes Moran: "Worrying, a form of superstition that secretly traded in charms and fetishes to ward off misfortune, was also evidence of the survival of pre-modern beliefs. For every worrier feels that worrying somehow helps, that if we desist from it, we will be punished for our complacency."

    It is true for me. I have felt that if I don't lie awake at night and think of all the possible scenarios, then make flow charts of what to do in each instance, my life will fall apart. That I then will have to live a pre-Enlightenment existence, trying to keep body and soul together without basic sanitation.

    Worrying is what keeps us competitive. A smidgen of it prods us to prepare and do better.

    However, a bucket-load of it is debilitating. The rational mind, in exploring all avenues, ties itself up in infinite loops and crashes.

    The irony, however, is that non-worriers (the Supportive Spouse) often tell worriers (me) to be "rational" whenever the latter gets caught up in a "consider all options" system overload.

    I now write my worries down on a big mood board in my bedroom. Bad things go in one column: Gimp arm. Numb leg. Low cash. Then I balance them out with good things in another column: My family. Friends. Time to write. The trick is to reduce the bad column to nothing, rubbing entries out as I succeed in not letting them bother me. It has helped - as has this column baring my neuroses.

    As we grow older, we gain more in our lives and understandably fret more about protecting what is ours. This chronic worrier is once again reminded to be thankful she has enough; in turn, giving her enough to worry about.

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