Climate of Fear, Climate of Hope

Worryby Julie at ProgressiveKid

Webster’s defines worrying as mental distress or agitation, usually over something impending or anticipated. It stems from fear—fear of what could or might happen but hasn’t yet and quite possibly never will. Worrying can’t actually prevent bad things from happening, and it has a way of spoiling the mood of the worrier and everyone around him or her. What’s worse, worrying has a way of spreading, like stomach flu, and it begs for attention. When we are around a worrier, we usually either take on the worry too or feel compelled to reassure the worrier, neither of which is a very good time.

Why Worry?

If worrying doesn’t prevent bad things from happening and makes us unhappy, why do it? Since everyone worries sometimes, perhaps there are benefits to worrying. Voicing our fears can be comforting in the same way that watching movies about awful things can purge our fears harmlessly. Yet just as seeing violent movies can lead to violence, worry has a way of breeding more worry. For extreme cases, it seems to become a way of life, a reflexive response to day-to-day existence. Like many behaviors, worrying is often learned and conditioned, as in my family extending back through generations.

A Worrier’s Personal History

My being a worrier is no surprise. My mother is a world-class worrier, and so was her mother before her. They even have worry sound effects. My mother’s most striking worry vocalization, besides the ubiquitous “Oh My GOD” and “What in hell are you going to do?!” is a chilling deep-inhalation gasp of terror when she is (frequently and dramatically) startled from sleep. My grandmother’s vocal fretting was a birdlike warbling throat flutter starting with “Ohh” that played like a soundtrack whenever she was in the passenger seat with my grandfather driving. My father, too, is rife with worry, which comes out in ticks such as hand-twisting, rushing, and an overall aura of tension like a guitar string tightened to the brink of snapping. And it is quite likely that compulsive worrying was the reason his father chose to deaden his brain with steady and prodigious doses of booze. (Booze helps, but it creates another set of problems.)

And me? In reaction to the anxiety-ridden culture of my family, I internalized my worries as much as possible, teaching myself not to hand-wring, warble, or blurt. I tried to manage my worry by attempting to overpower and outthink it. I became relentless and unforgiving with myself, pushing through pain and exhaustion and controlling my experience through constant vigilance and ceaseless planning. Inevitably these strategies failed, because the emotions behind the worry were still there: fear, instability, lack of faith, helplessness. Instead of being wrestled into submission, my fear ultimately expressed itself through incapacitating back problems, a latent heart abnormality requiring surgery, and insomnia that brought me to the edge of emotional and physical ruin.

I had attempted to relegate my worrier self to a dark corner, but there it was, still there, still worrying, and more lonely and demanding of attention than ever. What did I worry about? It was the usual stuff: bills, foreclosure, illness, aging, professional failure, premature death, loneliness, loss. And as my pain, vulnerability, and sleeplessness increased, the worries began to become a reality, fueling yet more fear. It was time for the healthy, confident, positive-brain side of me to listen and learn or in essence perish. And so listen and learn is what I did, slowly and excruciatingly. I came to understand that some of my fears had come true and that I could live with it—was living with it. I accepted the things I could not change and the ways those things altered my life—back pain, financial fallout, physical limitations, altered relationships. And I changed some of the other things that I could do something about—my attitude, the ways I saw myself and others, the work I was doing, the people I chose to have in my life. Through a combination of acceptance and action, I found I didn’t have as much need, time, or patience for my worrying ways.

Climate of Fear

Once I became a mother, there was more to worry about but also more reason to trade worrying for more productive pursuits. I was determined not to raise my daughter in the damaging climate of fear I had grown up in. Along the way it became clear that for her sake and mine I had somehow to begin to confront one of my and my generation’s worst fears: climate change. At the time, I looked around me and saw widespread denial and apathy. Though most of the people in my life knew about climate change, no one was bothering to learn about it or act on it. Instead they worried in silence, choosing ignorance and passive anxiety over awareness and active change. I came to see more clearly than ever the facile indulgence of worrying, the convenience of it. By worrying, you can tell yourself you care without actually having to do anything. Worrying is a replacement for taking responsibility and action, a passive substitute for doing the brave, hard things in life.

Climate of Hope

My own work in the climate change action movement is not making climate change go away. A staggering number of species are hurtling to extinction each day, and we are fast arriving at a point of no return when irreversible biofeedback loops of warming and ecosystem destruction will occur. Yes, I am afraid. But I don’t spend much time thinking about those fears because it is no longer acceptable to me to choose passivity over responsible action. I believe there is much that can be done to heal our planet and reinvent our lives for the better. And I believe that each of us has a responsibility to do what we can. I don’t worry about what I will say to my daughter when she turns to me and asks what I’m doing about climate change. She already knows what I’m doing, and she feels proud of and empowered by it. She knows I worry about things, but she also knows that I care enough about her, about myself, and about the world we live in to set aside my worry and work to make things better. For all of us, there is too much at stake and not a moment to lose.

Julie Hall is the author of the new book A Hot Planet Needs Cool Kids: Understanding Climate Change and What You Can Do About It and the founder of the green online store ProgressiveKid

Image by Sean Mason, 2006, Creative Commons license

©2008 ProgressiveKid

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