Below My Feet: Appreciating The Benefits Of Worry

“Would you walk across that?” Kong asked, pointing to the scaffolding above the roadway.

“Sure,” I replied. “If I had a harness.”

“Really, though, it’s not that difficult—look,” he explained, hopping onto the edge of the sidewalk, “It’s the same width as the curb. Just as easy. It’s our perception that makes us think we can’t manage it.”

He’s right: if we did not allow the danger of the fall to cross through our minds, the majority of us would be able to cross above such perilous heights easily.

But as I continue to fall off the curb with my every attempt, I wonder about the anxiety perception can cause—in particular, when anxiety results from scenarios that don’t necessarily pose threats to our well being. How many times have I misinterpreted the words of another and driven myself into a tailspin with conjectures as to his intent? How often have I found myself pulsating with anxiety at the thought of a paper that’s due in an hour?

I’ve heard many people quote the aphorism: “Most of the things you worry about never happen.” I agree with the statement, but not with its implications: one, that if we were never to worry about these “things,” they would still fail to occur; and two, that worrying is a negative behavior. Worry can drive us to preventative action so that certain events don’t occur. In this way, worrying becomes a tool, a positive addition to one’s lifestyle. But, regardless of whether worry prevents such dreaded events, I believe that it’s important. In fact, it can be fulfilling.

Worry can serve as a means to appreciate the nuances of the world around us. We like to feel as if our lives are important and packed with action, and in order to fulfill this desire, we allow fantasies of complex interactions and nuanced intentions. We create trouble by procrastinating or underperforming, so that when we produce the tremendous effort required to compensate, we feel as if we’re capable and strong, and perhaps somehow superhuman. Although our lives do have meaning and depth, those qualities naturally exhibit themselves less explosively than we can readily appreciate; our lives are as complex and beautiful as we wish them to be, but we represent them differently so that they match our understanding of what is desirable—what is dangerous.

A starkly different approach involves viewing the world in its subtleties without the aid of worry (hypothetically speaking). There is excitement in the natural world and the simple details of the lives that intermingle with ours. We could allow ourselves the calm of detachment from anxiety. We could realize that it is unnecessary, for we can only do what we do, and some events remain outside our control regardless of how much we worry.

I say “hypothetically” because I haven’t known that peace or detachment. In fact, I partly fear it. I don’t want to calm down; fear is exciting. I enjoy the rushing, wave-like momentum of the day progressing at a breakneck pace. When I consider the day as a whole and realize that I’ve lived out the equivalent of a week in my past life, I feel especially pleased. Worry is the energy drink that your parents don’t want for you and your doctor warns will give you heart attacks—taken to extremes, it can harm you. But in moderation, it’s a flavor worth tasting. It’s not a domesticated animal, and therein lies its lure.

The French philosopher Montaigne believed that danger was crucial to educating youth. He in turn quoted Horace: “Let him live beneath the open sky and dangerously.” Although the danger to which he referred was largely physical (“It is not enough to toughen his soul—we must also toughen his muscles.”), I argue that the perception of danger is often powerful enough to replace that of danger itself. Because the danger is largely false, the physical safety of the individual remains secure. This virtual reality should suffice to educate us.

Anxiety can be an asset to our lives. As long as we don’t allow ourselves to run to extremes—e.g. growing so overwhelmed and sleep-deprived that we entirely rid ourselves of the ability to speak coherently, walk, and so on—we should appreciate the benefits that it allows. Reacting negatively to anxiety only brings about a paradoxical stress that builds as one attempts to annihilate anxiety altogether; in attributing too much weight to worry, we allow it to suffocate us.

I suggest taking the curb as if it’s the scaffolding above the roadway. Thrill yourself with the thought of the danger that lies underfoot, so that you awake to the complexity of your surroundings. And when you step, victorious, onto firm ground once again, congratulate yourself. You’ve conquered this challenge—even if you created it for yourself.

Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphics