Comedian Ron White tells a funny story about flying from Flagstaff, Arizona to Phoenix. Shortly after takeoff, the plane experienced engine problems and had to return to Flagstaff. According to Ron, the guy seated next to him was losing it because “apparently he had a lot to live for.” The nervous passenger asked, “How far can this plane fly on only one engine?” Ron calmly answered, “All the way to the scene of the crash!”
The plane landed safely, and the only casualties were the inconvenience of an unplanned travel delay and a few vandalized seat cushions. But I’m sure there were some tense moments onboard, especially among those seated in the back of the plane. Few things are more nerve-wracking than going through a potential emergency where you’re only along for the ride.
Worry is a natural reaction to situations where the outcome is unknown and potentially unpleasant. There’s not a person alive who can honestly say they never worry about anything. We’re all guilty of letting fear and uncertainty take control of our thoughts, at least to some extent.
My pastor is probably grinning as he reads this, because it’s proof I didn’t sleep through last week’s sermon. And as he spoke, I realized this is a topic that absolutely has to be covered in the context of health and humor, because laughter is the natural enemy of fear. The two don’t exist very well together, and when you put the two head-to-head, laughter usually wins. At least for the moment.
In his sermon, my pastor said worry is the advance interest we pay on troubles that seldom come. That’s a powerful statement. Other people have modified that to say worry is advance interest paid on a debt that’s never collected. Either way, the meaning is about the same. It’s energy spent dealing with a reality that may never come to pass. So why do we do it?
First of all, because we’re human beings with a brain that can process a scenario as it unfolds and recognize the possible consequences. Even animals worry. Take dogs, for instance. With most dogs, you can tell just by the way they act that they’ve done something wrong. It’s not a guilty conscience. It’s anticipation of the inevitable consequences for what they did.
We had a dog years ago that had a bad habit of leaving unwanted “gifts” around the house. He knew he would get in trouble for it. So he started learning to hide it. For a while he tried hiding it behind the couch. Then he learned to hide it behind a door. Smart, huh?
So one night we put him in our room and shut the door, thinking he’d wake us up if he had to go. No, he went behind the door. The closed door. The door that I had to drag through his pile of you-know-what so I could get to the bathroom for a roll of toilet paper. Before I even got out of bed, he was hanging his head with his tail plastered against his belly. He knew. And his worry was well justified, because Daddy collected payment on that debt.
Sometimes worry can’t be avoided. Like when you’re waiting for the results of a biopsy. Telling somebody not to worry about their health is like telling me to just reach down and pet that nice little rattlesnake – it won’t bite. And the truth is, maybe it won’t. Well, in my case I’m sure it won’t, because I’ll be somewhere in the next county. But it’s about impossible to wait for test results that may indicate a potentially fatal disease, and not worry.
So yes, there are times when worry is justified. But that doesn’t mean we have to welcome it like a long-lost relative. I’ve known people who just aren’t happy unless something could possibly go wrong. “What if we have a flat tire?” We’ll put on the spare. “What if it’s flat?” Then we’ll walk. “But what if it’s raining?” Which is a perfectly reasonable question coming from somebody who goes through life with a dark cloud over their head. For some people, it’s always raining.
But for others, you wonder if it ever rains. There was a woman in my church who had terminal cancer. But to look at her, even to talk to her, you’d never know. Della had been through a rigorous round of chemotherapy the previous year, and had decided to accept her fate graciously instead of going through that a second time. I can’t say I blame her.
Any time you asked how she was doing, she’d smile and tell you things were going pretty well. I still remember her telling me that the doctors had told her she wouldn’t live more than a few months without chemotherapy, and she felt better now than she did then. “So what do they know?” She was just the kind of person who cherished each day as a special gift.
One night last year I was turning my motorcycle around in a parking lot and lost my balance. It fell over on my right foot, causing two fractures and a nasty sprain. My ego was as bruised as my foot. A couple of days later, I got a card in the mail from Della, wishing me a speedy recovery. I never got to thank her for that card, because two days later she went into Hospice and the next week she was gone. And I’ll never forget that in her final two weeks, she was more worried about my foot than her own health.
I watched my own mom deal with terminal cancer, and I can honestly say I never saw her worry about what was coming. She was concerned for us, that we’d get through it okay and that we’d stay close as a family. But for her own welfare, she rarely showed any fear.
Less than a month before she passed away, we went camping for the first time as a family. That night we had some vicious thunderstorms, and then the tornado sirens went off. As we were rounding everyone up to go to the shower house, I offered to carry Mom to my truck. She said, “I’m staying right here. What do I have to be afraid of?” She had a point.
It’s all a matter of perspective. Like my pastor said, worry is the advance interest we pay on troubles that seldom come. Should we pay attention to weather warnings? Absolutely. Should we be concerned about medical tests, bills that can’t be paid, or a child who’s having problems in school? Without a doubt. But it’s important to give those concerns just enough focus to allow us to take the appropriate steps to minimize the risk. Anything more is counterproductive.
Instead, ask yourself three simple questions. First and foremost, “Can I do anything to change this?” If the answer is no, move on to number two. “What is the worst thing that can happen?” Be realistic. This isn’t the time for doom and gloom. And finally, “Have I done everything I can to minimize the impact if the worst does come to pass?” Just by answering those questions, you can begin to relax.
We all worry. The key is not letting worry so completely consume your life that you forget to live. Bad things will happen, and sometimes there’s little we can do to change that. But more often than not, all the worrying in the world won’t keep them from happening. All it does is cloud our senses and make us less prepared to deal with the outcome.
Remember that laughter is the natural enemy of fear. And laughter can be hard to find when you’re worried, but that’s when you need it the most. So make time to put worry on hold. Watch a funny movie. Go out with a friend. Play with the kids. Work in the garden. Take a swim. Cuddle with somebody special. Anything to give your mind a break.
Laughter won’t make your problems go away, and it won’t keep you from worrying. But it does make those problems easier to face. And sometimes, it’s just the little extra boost you need to put you back on top.
Copyright 2011 – Dave Glardon