Sunday, May 02, 2010

What, Me Worry?

'Why do you worry so much about things that are not in your control?', my friend Dennis asked as I was complaining to him about the possibly insufficient 50-minute layover in Atlanta on my Argentina trip. My immediate, gut feeling response was (and is, and will be), 'That's precisely why I worry, because it is not in my control; if it was, then I wouldn't waste my time worrying and would try to fix what was bothering me instead.' He didn't quite agree, and we argued for the rest of the car ride; the scope of our discussion kept getting wider as we went back and forth until we had to stop because we had reached our destination.

But clearly we both felt we had more to say, as evidenced by this subsequent email exchange (Dennis' messages are in red, and my responses in blue).

You know, the whole conversation could have been skipped if you had just said what you said at the end at the beginning. My comment that started the whole thing was something like "You know, you worry way too much about things out of your control" (in response to you worrying about your flight). If you had just said, like you did at the end, "I'm the type of person that does worry too much, but I don't really intend to change that" The conversation goes down a different path.

Yeah, I agree. But I do think some other interesting points came up in the argument. For example, suppose a close friend or relative is really sick and in the hospital. I have done everything in my power to help them, but the situation is now completely out of my control. Speaking completely rationally, it would be totally wasteful to worry any more. But I think if I wasn't consumed with worry, that would make me a horrible person. If I said OK, I have done everything I could, now it's out of my control, so there is no sense in worrying about this any more, that would be terrible. Just like, if I was sick, I would want my loved ones to be worried about me even if the situation was out of their control.

I think this occasional choice of emotion over rationality is one of the things that makes us human. I think I was trying to argue against the point that all wasteful emotions should be eliminated. In this case - worrying about a sick loved one may be technically wasteful, but I don't think we want humans to be rational to that extent.

I would not consider that wasteful because there is always more research, there are things that one can always do. You may not be able to prevent death but can do things to assist your loved one, make them feel better. Again, worry in this instance, not completely wasteful because it affects your decision and course of action.

Maybe it's our definition of "wasteful". I am not suggesting getting rid of all emotion, nor do I expect everyone/anyone to be able to control all emotion. However, emotion that has no benefit on any scale, should be minimized or one should try to minimize them. The only caveat would be that the effort put forth to minimize them causes more strain than one would gain eliminating that useless worry.

I do agree that part of our argument stems from the difference in our interpretation of the word wasteful. However, going by your statement that 'there are things that one can always do', there would be almost nothing that could be considered truly wasteful.

For example, in my case, because I am worried that my 50-minute layover may not be enough time, I will take a number of steps: I will try to get a seat in the front of the plane (as suggested by you); I will make sure that my carry-on bag is not heavy or bulky; I will do some prior research to make sure that I am familiar with the airport and the gates so I know exactly where to go; I won't go to the restroom during the transit unless absolutely necessary; I won't stop to get any food or a snack even if I am hungry... etc. This list is important because I wouldn't have to take any of these steps if my layover was, say, 2 hours. So I am minimizing the risk of missing my connection as a direct result of my worry, and thus it has value to me. The word 'minimize' is key here - I could never completely eliminate the risk of missing the connection, so that effort would be futile.

So, going by the 'there are things that one can always do' thought process, I am truly at a loss to think of any situation at all where worrying would not lead to at least coming up with some steps that would minimize the risk of an undesirable outcome.

Of course, if your point is that 'Simply worrying about anything without actually making any effort or taking any steps to try and solve the problem & minimize the risk is wasteful', then I am completely in agreement. However, it is still true that there will always be people who tend to over-worry and will do so even when they realize that it is counter-productive - and for whom the effort to stop worrying will actually cause more strain.

Update: Nothing went wrong with the trip. My flight from SFO to ATL was late, but I still had just enough time to get on the plane to EZE; my passport was almost stolen on a very crowded Subte (underground train) in Buenos Aires; and US airport security didn't allow me to bring back a small bottle of coconut milk I had bought in Argentina. But other than that, everything was quite hunky dory.