The Secret Side of Fear

I am currently pretty distressed about something specific happening in the next few weeks. This thing will almost certainly not happen. But I am worried nonetheless. Why? Because this utterly remote possibility, if it were to happen, would completely change my life. But it won’t happen. In all likelihood, it won’t happen.

Why worry then? In my rationalizations, I say to myself just what I said above. I worry not because this event is likely, but because it would be completely life-altering. This, I think, is a lie. There are all sorts of potentially life-altering events that are possible, but unlikely, but it makes no sense to walk around worrying over whether a terrorist attack will hit your city, or lightning will strike you, or you will contract some terrible disease. Yet, I am not alone in my pathological worrying.

My pathology with my own unnamed worry makes me think of a psychological study that was done on youngish (20’s-40’s) people just after the Cold War. During the Cold War there was a constant, pervasive worry that the earth would soon be wiped clean of the whole of humanity by a nuclear war. Fallout shelters were built, families stocked up on non-perishables, and children were taught to seek shelter from the impending holocaust under classroom desks. It was a unique time it seems.

But about the study. The study was on the psychological after-effects of the Cold War mentality. While this “war” officially ended after the collapse of the Soviet Union in ’91, this pervasive doom-and-gloom idea that the world was about to be destroyed had faded out well before that time. The study then looked at the psychological states of people, who had recently believed the apocalypse was immanent, after it became clear that the future was quite a bit brighter. Oddly, what the study found was that, across the board, people were, subjectively, much happier when they thought the end was near than they were after they realized life could go on as ‘normal’. In fact, levels of depression shot up quite noticeably after the “war” ended, and it seems to have had no connection to anything else (like economics). The conclusion? People are actually happier when they think that some drastic shift in the foundations of their existence is about to happen, even if that shift is clearly for the worse, than they are when they perceive life to be rolling on as usual.

Why is this? I don’t have much of an answer other than maybe an obvious one: life-as-usual for most people means boring, and boring sucks. It seems like an overstatement to say that people would rather think the whole earth is about to be consumed in flames than think that they’ll still be going to their jobs come monday, but maybe it isn’t. I have to admit, life in a post-apocalyptic world was one of my favorite childhood fantasies (and I’m still pretty childish in that respect).

To bring it to my case though. It’s interesting to note that these people really did worry their faces off about the world ending. They lost sleep. They cried at night with their spouses after tucking their soon-to-be-ashes children into bed. But that life was, on the whole, more existentially satisfying than a life characterized by regularity and banality. So, I lied, I do have an answer for why that’s the case: A life lived within the tension of the possibility of drastic change is more satisfying because it provides a sense of drama. I don’t mean drama in the negative, you’re-such-a-drama-queen sense, but drama in the sense of Grand Drama – the drama that makes life worth doing. Drama, in this grand sense, provides a venue in which our values matter. We value our children, our lovers, our sense of nobility, our ability to withstand the terrible, and a thousand other things. Your nine-to-five job might pay your bills, but it doesn’t provide any avenue to express, or, more importantly, to experience those values deeply. But an impending holocaust does. You can plan and build your bomb shelter, worrying over how to save the ones you love. You can tuck your children into bed with a newfound desire to cherish every simple moment. Even shopping gains dramatic significance. Which items will last the longest? Feed the most? Take up less valuable space?

This, I think, is why we worry. Not because we’re sorry, masochistic sinners, but because worry is a type of care, and when the world grows so monotonous that we have little to care deeply about, we take every chance we can to write our own stories, in our heads, about a world where there’s something to care about. Even if those stories don’t jive with the statistics.

But, I still hope that my worry doesn’t come true.

  1. #1 by anonymous on 2.8.10 - 10.26 pm

    I told you to keep that thing in your pants.

  2. #2 by Michael Glawson on 2.8.10 - 10.40 pm

    Ha. Whatever is in my pants (hopefully) has nothing to do with my dad’s blood clot dislodging. Who knows though?

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