Models Monday: Fear and Dread

Sonya Richards-Ross of the United States wins gold at the London Games. Chang W. Lee, The New York Times

Just in my casual reading this weekend, I came across two articles dealing with the subject of anxiety, Madeline Levine’s “Raising Successful Children” and Shaun Groves’s “Parenting A Child with Anxiety.” They were both attractive articles to me because I have spent a good bit of my life worrying. In fact, when I was a child, my mother decided that it was best not to even bother punishing me because I spent so much time punishing myself with worry and fear that she thought her time would be better spent helping me to calm down. While I’ve gotten much better, my Mom still thinks that I’m too hard on myself.

What I’ve gotten better at is not surrendering so much time to fear and dread. I used to stew in worry. I was someone who was always aware of being afraid and worrying and I would talk about my fears or play them out in my head. Paying attention to my fears enabled me to articulate them to myself. Interestingly, once I knew the root of my concerns, I could actually move on, but I would only move on to new fears and concerns. The insights, however, always mattered and one of the chief ones has been that worrying can take up a lot of time. Time has always been precious to me. I think of time like many Americans think about money–I practically worship it. Time has to be the one thing that I have always wanted most to control and to preserve. When I realized how much time was better spent on concentrating my intellectual energy on other things, I kicked myself out of the fixed grooves of anxiety.

Playing sports was the one thing that brought the most consistent dread into my life. To this day, my one recurring nightmare involves me dreading the starting line of the 400 meter dash. In the dream, I never actually stand at the starting line, instead I am usually walking around trying to think of a reason that might convince my coach to withdraw me from the race. The pain of running the quarter is so great that I used to wonder if being capable of running it was a curse and not a talent. The fire that blazes in your lungs and the heat that settles into every possible muscle in your body and weighs it down, crushing it, pains me to even think about! I have such tremendous respect for Sonya Richards-Ross. I have always pulled for her and I was more than delighted to see that she won the gold medal in the 400 at the London Games. Her poise masks the strenuousness of her event.

I can’t help but recall how much emotional and physical pain running brought me whenever I watch track and field. Overall, I derived very little pleasure from being a competitive athlete. I never liked competition–EVER. Even as an observer, I only really enjoy it when I don’t have a serious investment in the athlete or the team. If I’m invested, then it’s best for me to watch the contests pretty much like I’m watching the Olympics, which is to say by knowing the outcome in advance; reading about it. I like a sure thing. Michael Jordan was a sure bet. Michael Jordan made me believe that you could count on something in sports and that’s why he ranks as my choice for the greatest competitor of them all.

Aside from ending my athletic career, the other thing that has helped me to manage anxiety is surrounding myself with people who are very good at playing the cards they are dealt. My mother is the Michael Jordan of playing her hand. When I shared my concerns with my mother about handling my father’s impending death, I remember at one point saying that I just didn’t want to deal with the emotional toil and the logistical matters that come with attending to death, and my mother’s response was to say, “well, you’re going to have to.” And she was right. I did have to. It was clear from what she said to me that there was nothing to brood over. While I think it’s important to have people in your life who will listen to you cry, you also need people who will help you move past those tears because to my mother’s point, living requires that attention be given to the inevitable despite what you might want.

Recognizing life’s demands and some of its inevitabilities, I have learned to be much more discriminating regarding how I make choices. I realize now that so many of my earlier choices were based on my failing to fully examine the reasons for my involvement. Thus, I became a competitive athlete because I was good at it and so of course you should do something if you’re good at it. I’ve joined clubs because everyone says that membership would look good on your resume. I’ve gone to parties because it’s something that people of a certain age just do. I have since stopped making choices that involve the conclusions other people have reached for themselves. Now, I think about how I want to spend my time and decide whether or not making a particular choice will prompt anxiety or contribute to inner-peace. Knowing how to think for myself has brought me comfort and has added serenity to my life. Surrendering your life to someone else’s conclusions may just lead to anxiety, fear, and dread but knowing how to derive your own conclusions and craft your own terms for living can relieve you of that weight.

As the summer vacation nears its end for many American children, this charge to think for one’s self seems particularly relevant. School becomes important in this context not only because it helps to prepare young people for the world of work, which is what gets stressed, but because it helps them learn to use their brains. Forget the subject matter, learning to think over content matters for the quality of one’s life. If nothing else, learning how to think and disciplining one’s mind suits one for resiliency, which is something that the inevitabilities of life requires.

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