To be alive is to solve problems — both real and imagined
Lately one of my favorite leisure activities is to lie awake for several hours worrying about everything that is wrong with my life, which, currently, is almost everything. I like to set aside some time each day for this pastime — from, say, midnight ’til two or three in the morning. I reminisce about things I did in the past that I wish I had not done, and things I did not do that I wish I had. I like to visualize unpleasant things that are going to happen to me in the near and distant future, from having to move at the end of the month to my own death.
I happen to be going through an unusually stressful time in my life right now, but I understand that my late-night worrying is a common, even popular hobby. My mother does the same thing. One difference between my mother and me is that she is currently 83, her personal finances have been taken out of her hands, and she lives in an assisted-living facility with a personal aide 12 hours a day, and so has no actual practical problems at all, except for Parkinson’s Disease and old age. Among Parkinson’s symptoms are dementia, delirium, and paranoia, so in lieu of real problems my mom has a lot of imaginary ones, which she worries about incessantly. Lately her idée fixe is that she has made a killing in imaginary investments and is very concerned that unspecified persons are trying to get their hands on this money by dividing our family against one another. I have learned that the one thing you do not do is tell her not to worry about it: this only proves that you are a naïve, gullible pushover and that Mom now has to worry twice as much because you refuse to take this problem seriously.
Our big clever brains evolved to preemptively imagine problems that might arise and try to solve them as a survival strategy, so that is what we do, restlessly, vigilantly, even in the absence of any immediate threats. If you’re like me, you have a mental checklist — maybe even, if you’re more organized than me, a written one — of all your problems, ranked by severity/urgency, from getting a new glasses case to how to dispose of your own corpse. (In a Do-It-Yourself Guide to Antidepression in her ‘zine Doris, Cindy Crabbe advised making a physical list of your worries so that, as soon as the cycle of worry begins, you can refer to the list to remind yourself that you’ve already worried about those things — you’ve got it covered, so go to sleep.) And somewhere in the back of your mind is the unexamined assumption that eventually you will, one by one, solve all of the problems on this list and then, at last, once your shit has been gotten together and things successfully gotten atop of, you will have no more problems, your life will finally be in order, and you will at last be able to stop worrying and be happy.
In reality my actual strategy is to address these problems from the bottom of the list up, so that I am, e.g., very preoccupied with trying to eliminate the cryptic extra $9.00 monthly charge on my phone bill while not dealing with the fact that my septic system needs to be replaced at a cost of $10,000. Lately, as my problems have become more serious and pressing, my approach is even less constructive: I prevent myself from thinking about any aspect of my life at all by distracting or anesthetizing myself every second of the day until the moment I go to bed, when my earnest, helpful brain, with the alacrity of a student reminding the teacher she forgot to assign homework, presents me with the complete list for my consideration.
There is currently much to worry about. I suppose if we had a national to-do list magneted to the fridge of state, it would read something like:
- elect grownup
- campaign finance reform ( + end gerrymandering, electoral college[?])
- health care (???)
- mass incarceration/educational apartheid
- CLIMATE CHANGE 😦
As with personal to-do lists, I’m probably forgetting something important. (Plus the spouses in our unhappy national marriage have different lists whose chores and errands cancel ours out.) These larger worries also carry the corollary delusion that, once we fix this quick checklist of issues, we’ll be able to relax a little, have a well-deserved beer, and go back to doing whatever it was we used to do before it felt necessary to monitor the news every hour to make sure America still existed.
Hope — like faith, like love — is an emotion felt most keenly in its absence.
I lived through the administration of Dick Cheney, when we hastily repealed a lot of the Bill of Rights and first invaded Afghanistan (a losing proposition since Alexander), and then Iraq (for reasons that were, as was obvious to everyone except Hilary Clinton and the national press, totally made up). I spent most of that decade as a political cartoonist, drawing caricatures of that comic duo George and Mr. Cheney and going to rallies and marches to protest those wars, all of which accomplished nothing. It was a horrible time — talking sense was treason, truth passé, compassion faggy. And yet it was also, in a way, exhilarating: there was a desperate giddiness to it, like uncontrollable laughter at a funeral. I remember one of the songs I listened to on repeat to keep my spirits from withering in that time was “Land of Hope and Dreams” by Bruce Springsteen: Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine / And all this darkness past. That promised light was never brighter than when it still lay in the distant future, when it had to be imagined. Hope — like faith, like love — is an emotion felt most keenly in its absence.
Our current era of darkness really isn’t as bad as that one, in some ways — Donald Trump is admirably squeamish about armed conflict, and so far his body count is relatively low — but in other ways it’s worse, because it feels as if the entire government is in collusion, as if the institutions of democracy have failed. I’m not pretending that any of us are enjoying these years — I cannot wait for the first full day that passes without mention of our mercurial toddler-king, when we are spared the sight and sound of his bawling maw — but I do think we’ll probably bore our children and grandchildren telling stories about them: how bad it was, the smirking bigotry, the strutting stupidity, the lies, the nonstop open shameless lies, oh you kids don’t even know. Robert Stone writes about the “dreadful nostalgia” that inevitably crept into conversations about Vietnam among people who’d been there; Michael Herr ends his nightmarish memoir of that war, Dispatches, with the benediction, “yes, never mind, there were some nice [days], too.” Lots of soldiers have trouble readjusting from the sharp-edged hyperreality of war to the duller, fuzzier existence of civilian life. I secretly prefer crises to the tedious slog and ubiquitous bullshit of everyday life, because at such times things at least feel briefly real; life shows its true face. Nobody talks about this now, but the weeks after 9/11 were, in a way, a beautiful time to be in New York: people’s subway faces were torn off, their bare emotions flinching at the air; they were reminded that they were alive.
I’m not saying that none of our current worries matter, or that we shouldn’t try to solve our problems. Even my own problems, which are 100% luxury problems, are real and pressing. And most people’s problems are a lot more urgent than mine, lower on the Maslovian pyramid: they’re worried about their health, their kids, how to pay the bills. I can hardly bear to think about how infuriatingly unnecessary most of our present problems are, how obviously soluble, how maddeningly possible utopia is. I long to live in a functional country like New Zealand or Norway, where you don’t need to worry about going broke if you get sick or your kid getting shot during Phonics. This seems hopelessly utopian, even though it matter-of-factly exists right this minute about a four-hour drive from where I’m writing this. I just want better problems.
But problem-solving isn’t the same as worry; in fact, it’s pretty much the opposite. But let’s not imagine that what we want is to have no more problems. This notion that we’ll ever be able to cross everything off the checklist and crumple it up is a delusion. Not only will it never happen; we wouldn’t be able to stand it for long if it did. Being freed — or deprived — of all worries is not some idyllic, porch-swing retirement, and we all know it, whatever we may try to tell our elderly parents: it’s an insult and a prison sentence, a vacuous, cushy hell. These years of late-night worry, mind-killing stress, excruciating decision-making and multiple-front crises: these are the good years, the ones we’ll remember, because there are still problems to solve, choices to make, a future to dread.
In the absence of any reasonable object of worry, our brains invent hypothetical or wholly imaginary ones.
My girlfriend, who is presently obsessed with a video game, just this moment said, in a voice of steely resolve: “I’m going to beat this game so that I will never have to play it again.” This is the essential fallacy of worry: that it is goal-oriented, and that the goal is to eliminate the causes of worry so that we never need worry again. But worry — like any institution — does not want to obviate itself. My girlfriend is not playing this game so that she never need play the game again; she is playing the game because she enjoys the game, even if that enjoyment takes the form of endless frustration. Everyone thinks that what they want is to win, but no one wants the game to be over.
We don’t love to worry, but solving problems is what our brains are designed to do, and we love to do what we’re made for, the way our bodies love to run, or sleep, or fuck. In the absence of any reasonable object of worry, our brains invent hypothetical or wholly imaginary ones. Which is why my mom’s brain is now frantically counterplotting against nonexistent plotters. I have a friend who used to suffer from insomnia during particularly stressful periods of her job. It took some time and experience to accept that this stress did not mean that things were going catastrophically wrong at work, or that she was incompetent or about to get fired: her job was just inherently stressful. She doesn’t love the stress, but she does love the job, of which the stress is an inextricable part. We don’t love our worries, but worry is a part of our lives; to paraphrase Santayana, only the dead have seen the end of worry. I once read a book by a mortician, whose advice to people who wanted to micromanage their own funerary arrangements was: Kick back. It’s not your problem anymore. Let someone else worry about it for once. You’re done.