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Worry Tomorrow

"Worry about it tomorrow.” ~Uncle Pete

One of my most vivid recurring memories from childhood was seeing my father laying down in my parents’ bedroom on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. He would typically say he was going to lay down for a nap but instead of sleeping, I got used to seeing him staring at the ceiling with one hand on his forehead in what looked like a half-hearted salute, but was instead a prolonged gesture of trying to figure out a complex problem in his head.

Sometimes he would ask me to come in and lay down beside him and then he would start talking about things he was worried about. I remembered from when I was even younger when one time I asked him what those wrinkles across his forehead or as I called them at the times “those lines across your forehead.” My Dad said those were his “worry lines” and I would have them when I grew up one day too.

My Dad would talk about worries he had with his work, or money, or my sister, his mother, and a variety of different things, but each time it was generally focused on one particular worry at a time. I got to thinking later of those as “Dad’s worry of the day.” I remember asking innocently if it was possible if there was a chance that the thing he was worried about might not actually happen the way he was worried it would. He would say “well yes that’s possible” but then immediately give me reasons why it was still bad and all the things about it he was worried about. I also remember asking if it was definitely going to be as bad as he said and he would have to deal with it anyway, then why didn’t he wait until it happened to worry about it so he could not have to worry about it right now.

I asked those questions because the way my father worried was in stark contrast to the way my mother lived her life and never seemed to worry. I noticed that my mother and all four of her brothers had this immediate response to bad news or something bad happening to say: “Worry about it tomorrow.” They would ALWAYS say that, and it made me realize even at that young age that tomorrow was never going to be today. I even remember one time moving a pile of firewood with my uncle Hammond and when a log banged my finger and I yelled out in pain he said casually without even looking at my finger: “Worry about it tomorrow.” It was like a mantra for my mother’s whole family.

I came to realize later in life that the primary difference between my mother’s family and my father’s family was that my mother’s was one of deep spiritual faith while my father’s was more of what my mother’s family would have referred to as pagan in being not the typical Christian family as was more broadly the norm in that time. My mother taught me about a particular scripture in the bible where it said that we should not worry about tomorrow because worry has no ability to add even a single hour to our lives and that we should not worry about tomorrow because “tomorrow will worry about itself.”

Realizing that there was scripture about it not being helpful to worry makes me realize that apparently people have been worrying for thousands of years. That hasn’t changed in more recent times despite all the advancements in our technology and modern comforts of life. In his 1948 book, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnegie wrote: “Those who do not know how to fight worry die young.” Since the time Carnegie wrote those words there has been an accumulation of research proving his thesis.

Psychological distress from various sources such as worry can complicate physical health and result in a shorter lifespan. Frequent worry can grow into more significant conditions such as general anxiety. Long-term unresolved anxiety has a higher risk of later resulting in depression and along the way there is a strong correlation to many physical complications such as lower back pain, development of allergies, respiratory complications, and gastro-intestinal disorders. Realizing all the things we can risk exposing ourselves to with worrying too much certainly begs the question then on why we worry.

Our worries can be focused on many things, and these tend to reflect the order of things psychologist Abraham Maslow outlined in his “hierarchy of needs” pyramid. In this hierarchy our basic needs like food and shelter form the foundation of our physiological needs and then elevate through needs of safety, love and belonging, esteem, and ultimately self-actualization. I find that most of my work in psychotherapy tends to fall in the part of that pyramid where people feel insecure about their love and belonging or esteem needs. Problems of this sort may include things like difficulty with friends, family, or a life partner, to worry about how we believe others may think of us or if we fit in at work or in our social circles.

The age of social media and smart phones has jeopardized that part of the pyramid on love, belonging and esteem in ways I’m sure Maslow could never have imagined. Look around in any social gathering and you’ll be sure to see plenty of people scrolling away in seeming isolation on their phones, taking in images, posts and “likes” from those they compare themselves to multiple times throughout the day. The more time they spend doing that, the statistically less well they will feel about themselves overall.

Maslow’s explanation on self-actualization which is at the top of his theoretical pyramid is achieved when we can stop focusing on unmet needs or worries over such things as what others think of us, and instead we can focus on developing ourselves into more engaged, confident, and empathetic people. I have found that this focus is actually one of the best ways to combat daily worry.

To put that self-actualization into practice then we can confront our worries with the opposite of whatever it is that is causing us fear. If for instance we feel we don’t have enough money, we can find ways to be more generous and philanthropic and give some money away. I realize maybe that sounds crazy at first thought, but the reality is that unless someone is struggling to survive at the poverty level, most people who worry about money are doing so out of proportion to the reality of their situation. If you don’t believe me and you are one to worry about money, find an opportunity this week to be generous to someone financially and compare how that makes you feel to your otherwise routine worry about money.

If you worry about what others think about you, find an opportunity to do some volunteer work and start meeting some real people you might not otherwise encounter in your normal life routine. Get to know some new people and let them get to know you and see how you end up focusing more on them and less on yourself and what you perceive others are thinking of you.

One of the most powerful ways I have found personally to combat worry is to be careful about those I choose to spend my time with. Emotion is quite contagious between people, and I believe that’s why it didn’t take me long in my early years to realize that listening to my father worry all the time put me at risk of viewing the world through doomsday lenses. I think if I had really spent too much time allowing my father’s worries to occupy my own thoughts, I might have developed a pessimistic and negative worldview. Instead, it was clearly more fun to be around my mother and my uncles who all said: “worry about it tomorrow.” They always seemed to have more fun in life, to laugh innocently instead of sarcastically, and to be more kind to people than my father and his family did.

I’m thankful to have proven my father wrong in not having developed those worry lines on my forehead as he once predicted I would. I credit my mother and her brothers for having influenced me to “worry about it tomorrow” and to realize that worrying didn’t offer any benefit to today. I think all that talking to my father in those early years about alternatives to his worrisome thoughts might have been something that contributed to my later decision to become a psychotherapist.

I’m always inspired when the people I’m working with learn how to stop worrying so much and start living with more daily joy and happiness in their lives. I suppose me becoming a therapist then is a positive thing that came from my father’s worries. It’s why I’m a firm believer that we can always find opportunity in a crisis or hope in the face of despair.

My challenge to you then if you find yourself worrying this week, is to find a way to move the focus away from yourself and onto someone else around you. Be generous to someone, or engage with someone in a new activity, talk to a stranger in a kind and interested way, do something thoughtful for someone, and see how you feel after doing any of those things. Compare how you feel afterwards to a worry you had before and decide which way you would rather spend most of your time in the future, because life is too short and tomorrow will worry about itself.

So if you find yourself worrying this week, then “worry about it tomorrow” by helping someone around you find joy, and see what you end up finding for yourself!

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