On meaningful worry

On January 7th, 2013, I wrote a single sentence in my journal. I think I’ll be an alcoholic.

I can’t remember if I’d read my own palm, or if I simply had a hunch. It was only a year and a half after my first drink. It was early to have a hunch.

When I re-read old journals, I am wrong about many things. My sexuality was not a problem. My body was not a problem. Having few friends was not a problem.

Drinking? Well, I was right about that. It was a problem.

In my life, I’ve made a career out of worrying about things that don’t matter. In fact, when it comes to worrying, I’m a bit of a workaholic.

(Worryaholic? It was low-hanging fruit.)

There’s a lot wrong with needless worry. For one, it robs you of serenity. For another, it makes you less available to others. And perhaps most importantly, it offers a convenient distraction from, well, meaningful worry.

I suppose if I were a different type of person, or at least a different type of writer, I’d tell you that meaningful worry is starving kids and sick people. I’d tell you it’s the fact that, according to the New York Times Coronavirus Briefing I read at 5:30am this morning, 52 thousand people have died from coronavirus thus far and 10 million people in the United States have lost jobs.

That's not meaningful worry. It's meaningful grief.

We've been tricked into thinking that worrying makes us good people. The more noble our worries, the better people we are. We get into philosophical, moral, and legal debates over which evil is the worst, which worry is the best, because we'd hate to be wrong. Worrying about the wrong thing = being the wrong kind of person. Right?

One of my favorite things I’ve learned in recovery is that we are defined, not by our words, and definitely not by our worries, but rather by our actions. I spent the better part of my life berating myself for not being smart, thin, pretty, successful, or good enough. I was 22 before I confronted a worry I could actually do something about.

Anna! Stop. Drinking.

In 2013 I knew I would become an alcoholic. In 2016 I did something about it. That’s three years I spent searching for a different answer.

There has never been a better time to start worrying productively.

Some people perceive AA as limited or selfish because it appears to be a way of living based on self-improvement. Being better, sucking less. By Step 12 you should suck almost not at all.

Certainly our religious systems have to be grander than this? Grander than not sucking? Where is the martyrdom, the drudgery of obedience, the misery made only marginally more tolerable by faith? Where are the swords and why aren't we falling on them?

Personally, I don't understand AA as selfish. When you really get into it, it's not even sort of in the same bent as most self-improvement books. (In fact, when I notice an author in this genre writing something sensible, I usually look her up to see if she's in AA.)

AA is a program of action. A program of meaningful worry. We change the things we can.

In the face of COVID, this guiding principle can seem incredibly directive, incredibly inadequate, and more likely both.

I don’t know where we’ll be in a week, a month, a year. I don’t know where my family will be. I don’t know how many more people will lose jobs, whether I’ll be among them, and I don’t know how many more will die. Whether I'll be among them.

I know this: the next right action is to hit “publish,” switch the laundry from the washer to the dryer, refill my coffee, and be as helpful as possible to my coworkers. I know the next right action is to think before speaking and to text the people I care about.

I know to accept and, if moved to do so, grieve the things I can’t change. I know to change the things I can. And these days, every day, I pray for the wisdom to know the difference.