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On Worrying

On Worrying

Elizabeth Stone writes, “Making the decision to have a child—it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” When another human being matters to us this much, it seems inevitable that we will worry about his or her welfare, at least sometimes. Especially when our children are in their tender years, so vulnerable, so innocent and inexperienced and thus particularly susceptible to harm, parents may spend a good part of the day anticipating calamities in order to avoid or prevent them. After a while, a certain kind of worry-thinking can set in, and while this is understandable, it also can take a toll on sleep, mood, and overall emotional and even physical health. When a link is made between love and worry, parenting becomes much harder than it has to be.

The assumption that love entails worry is open to question in a way that we may miss by failing to discern the subtle but crucial difference between worry and concern, a difference similar to the difference between, say, fear and a respectful caution in the face of potentially harmful conditions. If you’re walking down a street and a strange dog comes out of nowhere and starts growling at you, you likely will experience a momentary fear reaction, because the dog represents a sudden and potential danger. You’re startled, you have the typical adrenaline response signaling fight-or-flight, and you give the animal a wide berth, perhaps even backing off to the other side of the street, whereupon both you and the dog can go your separate ways. Within a few minutes, your heart rate and blood pressure return to normal, and perhaps the same is true for the dog. If, however, based on the experience or even several like it, you assume that your safety when walking down streets depends on this fear-response, you would be taking the initial fear-response too far, and your belief would predispose you to suffer an intense physiological reaction when in truth prudent awareness and caution are all that are needed.

One can observe this kind of “level 10” reaction in overprotective parents. Sadly, they do not realize the profound truth of the Native American saying, “What you protect, you make weak.” Providing healthy safeguards to ensure a child’s well-being is one thing; overprotection is something else. We do not need to fear what we are wise enough to respect. Because we recognize the potential hazards of fire, electricity, gravity, sharp knives, driving cars, and a thousand other things, we need not fear them. Following this logic of appropriate responses, we may come to the liberating understanding that loving our children requires us to exercise certain cautions in their behalf based on their development and the conditions that are at hand or likely to be, but also that caution is not worry. Where we recognize potential danger and respect it, we do not need fear or worry. And we must never forget that we are always role-modeling for our children, that our responses are messages that we send them without words. If we fear the world, we are sure to teach them to fear it, as well.

There will, of course, be times when worry gets the best of us, or rare occasions when we’re facing an extreme and worrisome situation. That said, a little honest refection makes it plain that most of the things we worry about never come to pass. Life seldom follows our imaginings for good or ill, but seems to unfold along an unpredictable course with its own priorities and timing. Overreactions are not the best we can offer our children or ourselves. Less is more, as the saying reminds us. And respect for the world is a far better legacy than fear and worry to pass on to our heirs.

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