From worry to wonder

by Brian on May 23, 2020

in Cancer,Health

Regular readers know that I’m a worrier. Last year, when my wife, Jody, flew to California to visit her parents – well before COVID-19 travel restrictions were even a twinkle in a health planner’s eye – I stayed back in Jerusalem … and worried.

I worried that I would break a leg and there would be no one able enough at home to walk the dog.

I worried that a water pipe would burst, and I’d be thrust into the world of Hebrew-speaking repair people who would growl heatedly in a language I still struggle to understand. 

I didn’t worry that a killer virus would sweep the planet and change life as we know it, although maybe I should have. 

Most of my typical worries now seem, in retrospect, pretty trivial compared to the Big Worry: the return of my cancer nine months ago (and my subsequent at-risk status for COVID-19).

Amber Rae knows all about worry. And she has a mantra for getting past the worst of it: “choose wonder.” That’s the name of her 2018 book, in fact: Choose Wonder over Worry.

Rae explains that there are two types of worry – useful worry and toxic worry. 

Worry can be beneficial when it protects us. It’s evolutionarily coded into our essence: You’re hiking up a mountain and your brain rightly tells you, “Don’t step too far over the edge.” 

Useful worry also prods us to meet our deadlines, lest we step over a ledge of a different kind. 

But worry can easily become toxic “when the beliefs we’ve chosen to buy into begin to paralyze us and prevent us from taking action or moving forward,” Rae says. 

In her book, Rae quotes Stanford neurosurgeon James Doty who says we spend up to 80% of our lives either with regret about the past or anxiety about the future. In other words, we spend 80% of our time worried. 

And yet, according to a study cited in Robert Leahy’s book The Worry Cure, 85% of the things we worry about never actually happen. Our evolutionary coding no longer seems to be serving us so well.

Instead of worrying, Rae asks, can you approach a difficult situation with a sense of wonder? 

Wonder asks the questions “that tug at your heart,” Rae writes. “It’s getting curious about the parts of our lives that feel scary through a spirit of inquiry and a lens of compassion.”

If worry is your inner critic, then wonder is like “an investigative sidekick that looks at worries and asks, where did that come from?” Rae suggests. “What were you thinking about when you felt that? What story were you telling yourself?”

Rae quotes Plato, who once wrote “all creative efforts, all discoveries and all masterworks are born from wonder.”

Of course, willing wonder over worry is easier said than done. It’s not like you can just slip on a new personality, certainly not after 59 years of going through life with a particular affectation. The best – perhaps the only – way to get there is through practice. 

“Your brain makes anything you do efficient by repetition,” explains Dr. Margaret Wehrenberg in Psychology Today. “You must consciously decide to change habits [like worrying] or they become your default.”

One helpful habit: practice making “wonder statements” whenever a worry arises. That has another benefit: It can short-circuit downward negative spirals. 

“Isn’t that kind of what you’ve been doing over the past two years?” my therapist asked as we were discussing worry and wonder in a recent session.

“What do you mean?” I replied. I wasn’t quite sure where she was going with this.

“You’ve gotten depressed in this room, to be sure,” my therapist continued. “But you’ve also used your cancer as a springboard to explore other topics. To get deeper into questions of meaning and mortality, into how the brain works and how culture and religion shape a society’s responses to illness or sharing bad news.”

That’s true: People expect someone with cancer to present a woe-is-me attitude. Instead, I seem to have “become more willing to dive into the frightening stuff, to embrace vulnerability,” my therapist said. 

I was thrown off guard for a moment. I had been so caught up in the cognitive, intellectual processing of my illness that I hadn’t realized that I’d been changing emotionally. While I was Googling symptoms and side effects, wonder had steadily been replacing worry.

I wonder what my next treatments will be and how I will respond?

I wonder whether this new pain is something I should get checked out or if it’s just a natural part of getting older?

I wonder how I’ll feel when my time comes, however and whenever that will be?

My wonder statements, I realized, too, were just as relevant to COVID-19 as they were to cancer.

The key verb to empower wonder, says Amber Rae, is “choose.” 

With wonder, she writes, “I open my mind, question the stories I tell myself and can choose different ways of thinking and seeing.”

“I wonder what I’ll eat this week,” I thought to myself, when Jody was still a week into her California trip. “Maybe I’ll make a point of eating out in all the hamburger joints that my vegan wife wouldn’t accompany me to.” 

That was BC – before corona – of course. But we can still order in. Sushi works wherever you consume it. 

I smiled. That would make for an interesting, exciting, dare I say, wonder-full adventure, now wouldn’t it?

I first worried and wondered at The Jerusalem Post.

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