I’ve been feeling fearful lately. A small snowball of anxiety (I can’t even remember what the initial worry was) seems to have triggered an avalanche of dread.
I find myself going about my day, talking to someone about something harmless like what I might want for dinner, when I become vaguely aware of another conversation taking place in my subconscious; voices mumbling about something bad that’s about to happen.
If I stop what I’m doing to address the voices, sometimes I can hear what they’re saying—the fears will move to the forefront of my mind and I can identify what’s troubling me. At other times, the voices are nebulous—just low whispers swirling around making me feel edgy. Whether I can put my finger on the fears or not, they make me feel like I’ve been invaded. And I don’t like it.
A number of years ago, an acquaintance of mine asked if my husband and I would care for her young son while she traveled for a family emergency. It seemed like an odd request—I really didn’t know her very well, but she was in a bind, so I agreed.
Justin was an imaginative little guy who didn’t yet speak very clearly and he was at that age when children ask a million questions. We struggled to understand what he was saying. Over and over he said something that sounded like “wapano.”
“Wapano” always began a sentence, such as (while pointing sky-ward) “Wapano those birds come down and bite your dog?” or “Wapano I wash my hair with chocolate pudding?” or “Wapano I put on my Batman pajamas and jump off your roof?” My husband and I were stumped, but after two or three days it finally dawned on us that “wapano” was a contraction of “what happens if?”
The week Justin spent with us was challenging, but fun. And “wapano,” his child-speak, made-up word (which we like to think sounds native-American) has become part of our
family lore; it amuses us. But the real “what happens ifs” are not amusing at all. The real “what happens ifs” steal our peace and keep us from living in the moment.
Mark Twain once said; “I’ve been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”
I think this statement is probably true for most of us. Apparently, we don’t need to have imagination on par with Mark Twain’s to be able to conjure up negative scenarios so realistic that we end up buying into them—hook, line and sinker.
So yesterday, with Mr. Twain’s words nudging me, I made a list of all the fears I could remember having lost sleep over. I’m sure I only scratched the surface, as I have quite a few years of worrying behind me, but based on the fears I could remember, I realized that very few of them ever actually ended up happening.
To be sure, a lot of bad things have happened in my life, but I’ve always had the strength to deal with them. (Probably because I didn’t see them coming, so I didn’t use up all my energy worrying about them ahead of time!) The few things that I worried about that did end up happening? Well, the advance worry didn’t seem to help lessen their ill effects at all; it just made me live through them twice instead of only once. Dumb, huh?
I’d like to stop worrying; I really would.
But telling myself not to worry is kind of like telling myself not to breathe—both come naturally and are almost impossible to stop.
I’ve come up with a strategy, though.
When I begin to hear the invasive voices, I’ll give them my full attention to see if I can make out what they’re saying. If the unpleasant imagery they’re laying out for me is something I have control over (like choosing whether or not to put on my Batman pajamas and jump off the roof), I’ll tell those voices that I make good decisions and they should mind their own business.
If the fears concern something random that I don’t have any authority over (big birds do occasionally bite small dogs—trust me, it happens), I will say to the voices, “I have no control over that and I refuse to discuss it with you further.”
If the voices are of the free-floating variety and won’t let me discern what they’re saying, I’ll tell them they are cowards and they should put up or shut up!
They keep talking to me; I may as well start talking back.