Sunday, November 7, 2010

Worry Not

Hello NIP,

            Are you a worrier? I used to be. And it seems the more I talk to others about this topic, the more I discover that we are all worriers in some capacity or another. Over time, however, I’ve learned to not worry—especially about the things over which I have not one iota of control. The title of this letter comes from a song of the same name by Sage Francis. In it, he cautions others to “worry not/keep your stress in check/anxiety’s a disease/you gotta learn to live with it.” While I tend to agree with this sagacious advice—particularly the first two lines—I do think anxiety can be cured, or at least lessened to the extent that it doesn’t occupy the forefront of your mind and affect your life in a negative way. I have learned over the last couple of years that the more control one is able to exert over the mind, the capacity to worry-by-default diminishes. As I tamed my mind, I also wrangled the seemingly out of control circumstances around me by deliberate choices. As I mentioned in the “Decisions, Decisions” letter, our ability to choose—even in how we react to certain situations—is perhaps our most powerful faculty. Without mental discipline, we allow ourselves to be subjected to the negative thoughts that not only stifle our personal development, but in time mount up into a pile of needless worries.

            Let me give you an example of a needless worry. I used to be plagued with them. One of my long standing needless worries was about how others thought of me. Initially, this manifested itself as a weight issue. I lacked confidence in myself and my abilities because I was so concerned with my appearance (i.e. people will judge me for being “fat”). The most absurd part of this thought process wasn’t that I was overweight—that bothered me somewhat, but I was clearly okay with it because it took me years to make that initial change—the most absurd part was that I let my perceptions of other people’s thoughts keep me and my ambitions, dreams, and hopes in check. How did I know what other people were thinking? I didn’t then and still don’t now! The only difference is that in reality, it doesn’t matter. I can’t control how other people view me, whether good, bad, or indifferent. What I can control is my own mind and, subsequently, my own choices. The more I learned to accept that which I cannot control, the less I started to worry in general.

            We all have needless worries, NIP, but for you they may be different. The key to putting a stop to them is realizing that they are products of your own mind. And much like any other product of your mind, they can have all the importance or insignificance you want. The dangerous aspect of this is that for a mind that lacks discipline or focus, we have a tendency to play down our dreams and play up our worries. Those worries begin to pile up and loom larger and larger, and eventually they will become anxiety, a dreadful cloud that dampens the spirit. To combat this, I would suggest you be honest with yourself and write down a list of your worries. Try to begin with the most insignificant ones, too. Something like mine is good, if you too worry about what others think of you. I should perhaps temper my statement by stating the obvious: not worrying what others think about you is not the same as saying not to respect what others think of you. There are people who genuinely have our best interest in mind when they try to steer us in the right direction. Parents, teachers, and bosses may be trying to help you with constructive criticism. Don’t disregard them, especially if they are saying something that deep down you know to be true but are unwilling to admit out of sense of defiance.

            The other hallmark of needless worries is that 99% of them will never come true. What’s ludicrous about them, though, is that we make them our reality by letting them run amok in our mind. Last year, in my letter to my AP Human Geography students before they took the culminating exam I told them this:

If I had any final words to prepare you for the test, they would be these—don’t worry about the test. It’s just a test. But you know what else is? Life. Life is a test. The most important one you’ll ever take and the one you least worry or even think about… To put it as succinctly as possible, most of the things you think that matter and worry you, don’t; most of the things you take for granted and that never worry you, do.

What I mean by those two lines is that we have a tendency to fixate on the microcosm of our lives (which tend to be filled with needless worrying) rather than the macrocosm of life. The minor worries that we play up in our minds are truly insignificant when compared to the gift of life we have all received. We don’t worry about getting into a car accident as we drive to work, something that has the potential to deprive us of life itself; we will fret endlessly, however, over silly thoughts that have no real bearing on our lives. I can’t control what others think of me. I know that now. All I can do is consistently and continually give my best and hope that my actions speak for themselves. Others around me may be inspired by my initiative, whereas other people may grumble and call me an overachiever. Either way, I can’t let it affect or define me. Nor should you. I am who I am because of my unwavering mental discipline, which takes time to nourish but is not impossible to do.

            As we shift our focus away from worries and self-doubt, we become more confident. All it takes is inching out of your comfort zone. One of the most effective methods for me has been to invert my needless worries. I was never one to take my shirt off, for instance, when I was younger. Obviously embarrassed by my weight, I was plagued by thoughts about how others viewed me due to my heft. In some ways, this stigma has stayed with me. While I have no qualms about taking my shirt off around others for the most part, there are moments when I have an inexplicable apprehension to do so. I think this is because there will always be that part of my psyche, some lingering part of me will always be that “fat kid.” In moments like those, I usually snap out of it and end up taking my shirt off after realizing that: 1) it doesn’t matter what others think of me, they can accept me for who I am or not—either way, I have no control over the thoughts and feelings of others; 2) the control I do have is over my choices, including allowing my worries to shape me as a person. By making a conscious decision to not let needless worries take root in my mind, I have found that they spring up less and less.

            As I mentioned earlier, most of our worries will never come true. Usually if they do, it’s because they’ve become a self-fulfilling prophecy for that person. The worries literally manifest in that person’s life because they are constantly being mulled over. Eventually, we all project into our lives what is in our minds. If it is personal development and excellence, it will come to fruition; if it is personal devolution and mediocrity, that outcome shall be so. By training our minds to focus on our dreams, our strengths, and our principles, we have the ability to transcend worry. It’s not to say that they don’t exist, but our (or at least my) worries don’t ever phase us when we maintain our focus. In many ways, I feel worrying is the byproduct of an unfocused mind. If we learn to focus with laser-like precision on our priorities—especially becoming a better person—we have no time for worries. Worries are part of a past we can longer alter or a future that is not even our reality. But we treat them as if they are real. They are not. They are just as insubstantial as any of the other thoughts flying around up there in your head. But I would be remiss not to say that they don’t have the potential to be real. The thoughts I choose to make manifest are the ones I know will aid me in my ceaseless quest to become who I am capable of being—a better person. While some people argue that change is difficult or worse yet, impossible, I would parry with “it’s necessary.” Moreover, if you really think about it, change is all we have. So if you’re looking for change I would start with being honest with yourself. Think about or perhaps even write out some of the things you constantly worry about. Are they worth your time? Your mental energy? You’ll probably find that most of them are not. There is no point in worrying about anything if it’s not part of your immediate, physical reality. If it’s not happening now, it’s not happening period. In time you’ll find that as your mind becomes more resilient, your productivity will increase and you’ll be chasing down that better version of you that you know exists. And once that starts happening, you’ll just be too busy and focused on personal growth to even have time to worry about anything else…

There’s really nothing to worry about, NIP!

All the best,

- Ryan


  1. "we have a tendency to play down our dreams and play up our worries."

    nice, good quote.

    "All it takes is inching out of your comfort zone."

    -In order to be comfortable...all you need to do is be uncomfortable! :)

    Sometimes I worry that my delusions of grandeur are not grandiose enough. I'll have to work on that.

    good read.

  2. Also, how did I not read this already?

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  4. Hey, D. Not sure, to be honest. Thanks for the kind words, though. And I'm telling you, it's true about the comfort zone thing. There are things I do now that I would have never done 5 years ago. They may be of a quotidian nature (I've had that word stuck in my head from a Jeopardy! episode a few weeks back), but they feel like impressive feats to me.