For a good part of my life I used to worry excessively about things. When I was in college I worried about keeping up my grade point average and being able to complete Marine Corps Officer Candidate School; when I was on active duty I worried about doing my job well; when I started my law practice many years ago I worried about all the various thing related to establishing oneself in one’s profession. And there are other examples of worrying that I need not rattle off here. All of this worry, all of this stress, was largely self-inflicted.
I won’t go so far as to say that all worry is useless. In measured doses, worry serves an important function: it catalyzes the senses, focuses the energy, and prepares to body for struggle. It reminds us of important deadlines. It keeps us alert and attentive. Fear is a powerful motivator: we should not forget this. No species of animal is so irritating to me, so likely to induce contempt, than the carefree, happy-go-lucky slacker who cares nothing about his responsibilities. Such people need repeated kicks to the posterior. But even if some worry is good, excessive worrying is not good. It degrades the enjoyment of life, distracts us from accomplishing tasks, and warps judgment.
When a man takes stock in his life, he eventually comes to realize that most of the things he has worried about have never come to pass. I had this realization some years ago. I began to think about it, and I began to ask myself the question: why am I worrying about things in the first place? What is the origin of this impulse? These were the questions I was trying to answer.
Why Do We Worry?
The more I thought about this, the more I was led to this answer: we worry because we think we owe a debt. What do I mean by this? Let me explain. I realized that the vast majority of the things I was worrying about were things I had no control over. They were external factors that I could not influence in any meaningful way. Why was I worrying about them, then? The answer is this. I thought that by tormenting myself, I could somehow pay a “debt” to the universe. I subconsciously thought that my expenditure of “worry energy” might placate the god of Fortune, and make Her more favorably disposed to my predicament. I don’t think any of this is conscious thought: it all takes place below the surface of things. But it is there. It is an unconscious impulse.
This, for me, was the real reason I was worrying. I thought that I ought to worry. I thought that worrying would somehow help me. And I think there was another reason as well. I realized that I was addicted to the “high” of worrying, if one can call it that. We put ourselves in certain mental states because we enjoy the “rush” of feeling certain ways. We have conditioned our minds to fall into certain ruts of thought; and we like to return to these ruts and pitfalls, even if they are not healthy ones. So here are the two major reasons why we worry: (1) we believe we owe an emotional debt to the universe (or Fortune, whatever term you prefer); and (2) we seek the emotional satisfaction of burying ourselves in worry. The first reason arises our of fear; the second arises out of a desire for pleasure.
The problem with these twin causes of worry is that, with time, they take an emotional toll over us. They sap our energy and enjoyment of life. How can a man free himself from this monkey on his back? We must be realistic in the first place, of course. You are never entirely going to be free from worry, nor should you be. Any man totally free from worry or care would be a worthless derelict. Yet we can remove the worst of the tangle from the psyche’s underbrush. The first step comes from realizing that we will never be exempt from bad things happening to us. We must realize this first. Disasters, tragedies, and misfortunes will befall us: this is unavoidable. I was reading these lines a few days ago in Lucan:
Heu demens! Nullum belli sentire fragorem,
Tot mundi caruisse malis, praestare deorum
Excepta quis Morte potest?
And this means: “You crazy fool! What god except Death can guarantee a man he will feel no crash of war or avoid the world’s evils?” He is telling us that we are crazy to think that we will get through life unscathed. Bad things will happen to us no matter what we do. The secret is not in worrying about these things, or even becoming neurotic about avoiding them, but in taking action to solve them when they happen. In the same vein of thought, my friend Petrarch said this in a letter to Pope Urban V:
Sic est ergo: generosi animi pabulum ac delitiae sunt labores non propter se quidem, sed propter id quo non aliter quam per illos ascenditur.
This sentence says, “Thus it is: human labors are the nourishment and joy of the great soul not because of the hardships themselves, but because only through them can the soul achieve great things.” We need struggle as part of our lives, our identity, our very existence. Embrace struggle and handle it: do not seek to avoid it or worry about it. Worrying about it is both self-indulgent and craven. I say it is self-indulgent because, as noted above, it represents a selfish desire to seek pleasure; and it is craven because it seeks to pay a debt to Fortune that she is not owed. She will extract Her own debt from you, in Her own way. Have no doubt about this!
As I looked over so many phases of my life, I realized one inescapable truth: almost all of what I worried about never came to pass. It was all for nothing. It did not help me; in fact, it almost certainly harmed me. It prevented me from enjoying the moment. Worrying had been a thief, a pickpocket, a cheat: it had robbed me of life’s pleasures. And when life is short, you must savor the pleasures that you can. Your trials will come anyway, whether you want them to come, or not. So it serves no purpose to worry about what you think will be your problems. Fortune decides this for you: She has the final say, not you. Do not be so arrogant as to assume you know best. You know only about yourself.
Appreciating these things is the way to begin to release yourself from worry. It takes confidence in yourself and your convictions. But what choice to you have? Do you want to remain a craven-hearted man, groveling before Fortune? Are you addicted to feeling depressed or stressed out? Fortune punishes most those who grovel before her: remember this. So by seeking out challenges, and handling those challenges, your feelings of confidence will grow. You will wean yourself from your habits of worry, and begin to savor the feeling of taking on difficult things and dealing with them. And in time, you will perhaps begin to see yourself as Joshua, who, during the Battle of Gibeon, asked God to stop the sun in the heavens (Joshua 10:12), so the could keep fighting during the daylight.
Read more on ethics and conduct in my groundbreaking translation of On Duties: