Many years ago a friend who is a trauma therapist said to me, “you know, not everyone lives as though the next disaster is just around the corner,” to which I reacted with disbelief. “How on earth,” I responded, “does anyone plan for the future if they aren’t assessing every possibility?” I wasn’t being disingenuous either, at that point in my life I believed that my anxiety and constant worry were totally normal and in fact, admirable. Didn’t it make me a good planner, ready for any disaster, more competent at life as a result? I just couldn’t see how it was harmful to live in that state. Problem was, I also couldn’t see that I was suffering through a debilitating period of depression and social anxiety, as my experience had primed me to inhabit that state so naturally and seamlessly, it had just crept in without my noticing.
I come from a family of worriers. Both my parents are anxious much of the time – my mom on the depressive side, my dad on the neurotic/obsessive – which is not to blame them for my condition, but to say that I come by my anxiety honestly. It’s a bit of a backdrop for everything that happens in my life, really – I get in my car and I visualize what kind of accident I am going to be in, I say good-bye to my husband as he leaves for a work trip and I think how sad he would be if I died in his absence, I send my boss an email and if I don’t hear back in 24 hours I’m sure they are planning my layoff. Pretty much everything triggers a worry. Though I don’t dwell on them very long, they are a persistent, negative visualization of my life.
Fortunately I am not one of those people who believes in The Secret or any other law of attraction nonsense so I’m not anxious (really) that I am sabotaging my life through my thoughts. Unfortunately I am one of those people who believes that unnecessary stress can lead to health problems such as the aforementioned depression, heart problems and so on. Also, being anxious all the time is exhausting and it makes me not much fun to be around. Ultimately anxiety is fuelled by the delusion that life, and the happenings of life, are in our control and the anxious person (me) is engaged in some kind of an arranging event to ensure that everything goes smoothly (and that we don’t die).
Last year I picked up a book by William B. Irvine called A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy where I was introduced to what he calls “negative visualization” but what was actually called praemeditation malorum (pre-meditation on evils) by the Stoics. Oliver Burkeman in The Antidote describes the motivation and practice thus, “For the Stoics… our judgements…. are that we can control, but also all that we need to control in order to be happy; tranquility results from replacing our irrational judgments with rational ones. And dwelling on the worst-case scenario…. is often the best way to achieve this.”
As we started our semester with Hadot and the Stoics, I took this lesson up once again and alongside my meditation practice (which has served to highlight my anxieties), I have been trying at intervals to ask myself of certain worries that arise “What is the worst that can happen in this instance?” in order to release them of some of their power. Investigating worries also has allowed me to recognize how many of them are not in my control at all.
Taking the example of the car accident worry which I have pretty much every time I get in the car, I might first note that whether I get in an accident or not is only partly in my control, but not very much given all the circumstances that can lead to a crash. But then the worst thing that can happen to me? Well, I could die, but I wouldn’t know about it and none of us get to choose our death anyway. I could kill someone else, which might only highlight for me to be mindful when I’m driving, but also if that were to happen I would have to find a way to live with and atone for it. I could end up injured, but again, I would simply have to go through the process of healing and thankfully we have a free medical system. And so on.
For my much more mundane worries like “There will be no one at the retreat centre to meet me” or “They won’t have my reservation for Saturday night” which are only some of the things which occurred to me on my journey to Rivendell, the “What’s the worst that can happen” question reveals how trivial those worries really are, and also that I have no control over them in the first place so worrying about them is utterly pointless.
Practicing with this question for the past two months has allowed me to step back and evaluate those worries as they come to the fore of my attention, and drop them just as quickly so I can move on to other things. What’s also true is that by meditating on the worst case – such as never seeing my husband again due to some misfortune on one of our parts – I can focus on how much I appreciate him in the immediate moments we have together. Moments that I can never be sure will follow the present ones. In the event my worries are grounded in something real and controllable, I might note what action to take in order to forestall inconvenience and alleviate future concerns. For the most part it’s only the thoughts I can take action on, and I’m left with the question of how to further develop my outlook so I can avoid some of the needless worries altogether.