In a Life-Threatening Emergency, This Constant Worrier Found a Moment of Calm
A man who has spent his life consumed with uncertainty learns to let go—for a minute or two.
Dynamic Duo/Illustration SourceMy father’s father was many things: a mechanic, a taxi driver, a postman, a caretaker farmer. By every account I’ve heard, he was composed and kind and truly empathetic. And he worried: about his family and his neighbors and the land and livestock in his charge; about the light in the fridge in my parents’ house and whether it went off when the door closed; about things great and small, abstract and real.
I got it from him. I worry. From the moment I wake to the moment I sleep, there’s a whispering in my mind that rises intermittently to a soft, insistent buzz and occasionally becomes a palpitant, arrhythmic pounding. The cosmic background radiation of my universe is worry, barely detectable most of the time but very real and pervasive and all-encompassing once I focus on it, which is often.
I worry about my children and my wife and my parents and siblings and their children and whether everyone is OK and happy and healthy, and I worry about nuclear proliferation and melting ice and dilution of the Gulf Stream and fundamentalism and human trafficking and mutating viruses and economic attrition and the timing chain in my car and the weird way the heels of my shoes wear down and whether the conspiracy theorists might be right about everything and the rising cost of insurance and whether the swallows will make it back to South Africa and the decline of the honeybee and the rise of the gray squirrel and the disappearance of the corncrake and the barn owl. On and on the worries come, in sequent toil, each changing place with that which goes before. (Find out why it’s OK to worry—if you do it the right way.)
Dynamic Duo/Illustration Source
My son is a worrier, too, and so is my daughter, even though I’ve been scrupulous about never displaying or articulating worry around them. So it must be mostly genetic, I guess: granddad to dad to me to them. It probably stretches along our bloodline to ancient times. My son has existential angst, and my daughter worries constantly about other people. They’re very happy kids, though. They write their worries down and scrunch them up, and they feed them to their worry monsters—the greatest invention in all of Toydom and available in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Their faithful worry monsters digest their worries overnight, and when the morning comes, they’re gone. Thomas worried at first about where the worries could have gone and whether they could somehow come back. I told him they were turned to farts, silent, stinkless worry-monster farts, and he laughed so hard, he cried.
Around a year ago, I found that my time worrying was increasing and my time working (I’m a full-time writer) was decreasing in inverse proportion. My worries swarmed and swamped and dragged me down and down. I needed a worry monster of my own, a way to compress my fears, scrunch them up, make them disappear. A brilliant idea occurred to me, a way of allowing me to worry in an infinitely efficient manner. Instead of worrying about whatever happened to present itself to my consciousness at any given moment, and unless I had a specific and urgent worry to contend with, I’d restrict myself to worrying about gluons, tiny particles of matter. These handy little fellas bind the quarks that protons and neutrons are made of, and they govern subatomic spin. Gluons may eventually run out of energy. If that happens, the nuclei of all atoms will be destabilized and all visible matter will be destroyed. This probably won’t happen for billions of years or possibly ever, but it could happen at lunchtime today or some day next week or the day I sign a seven-figure movie deal, so worry about gluons is by direct and effortless extension worry about all things. Oh, the relief of it.
This new system served me quite well for a while. Until the day last month when the captain of the plane I was traveling on from New York to my home in Ireland aborted his landing at Shannon Airport because there was “a problem” with the landing gear. He was going to “call the guys at Boeing to see whether they can give us an in-air fix.” We circled for a while, and when the captain came back on, he announced that he hadn’t been able to resolve the issue: His instruments were still telling him that the landing gear would not descend properly, and the crew would now take us through the procedure for an emergency landing.
Dynamic Duo/Illustration Source
My mother’s voice was suddenly in my head: “In the event of an emergency, put your head between your legs and kiss your arse goodbye.” And I laughed inwardly at my mother’s joke, and I wondered why I wasn’t terrified, and I realized suddenly that for the first time that I could remember, I was experiencing a complete and total absence of worry: There was absolutely nothing I could do to change the problem with the plane; nothing I said or did or thought could change anything about this situation. And as the crew shouted “Brace, brace, brace!” and the Shannon tarmac rose to meet our plane’s sick underbelly and the firefighters raced to meet us, I felt a strange and beautiful calmness. And as the plane landed perfectly—because, as it turned out, the problem was with a sensor and not with the landing gear—and people cheered and hugged one another, I realized I wasn’t a worrier at all. The absence of worry I had just experienced was actually an absence of any possibility of control, a surrender to fate, a perfect sublimation of fear. So I’m a control freak.
And now I’m terribly worried about that.