We’ve allowed worrying to seep into the minutia of everyday life
As a species, we have to be top of the food chain when it comes to worrying
When it comes right down to it, I guess we really are those anxious meerkats. Photograph: iStock
I was on the bus the other day and noticed that the man up ahead had worry beads draped over his fingers. He didn’t play with them. He didn’t fuss over them. He just sat there chatting to the woman beside him while they hung from his hands.
I couldn’t help thinking that if you were actually feeling worried or anxious, it must be so cathartic to obsessively finger those strings of beads. So much better than resorting to the other giveaway activities we’ve developed over millennia like teeth-grinding or nail-biting.
As a species, we have to be top of the food chain when it comes to worrying. Other animals worry, I suppose, in that they’re aware that the world is a dangerous place. You only have to picture those meerkats standing on their hind legs, anxiously looking this way and that while their compatriots are down the burrow, doing whatever meerkats do.
But we’ve brought all that anxiety to another level. Setting aside actual life-threatening issues, we’ve allowed worrying to seep into the minutia of everyday life.
And that’s the kind of worrying that really has a kick.
Back when I was a child, worrying was linked to religion and, in turn, gender. And it was more or less a woman’s gig.
If you worried about something, you prayed for it not to happen and so the praying became a physical manifestation of the worrying.
My mother’s generation, in our town anyway, were great believers in a pilgrimage to Lough Derg when it came to exams. In a dubious enough pay-back, she and her peers wandered around that island, refusing to sleep so that their children would get good marks in English and Irish in the Inter Cert later that year.
Meanwhile, those of us actually doing the exams would bolt in from the TV on their arrival back, to plunder the stash of exotic English sweets purchased across the Border.
At one stage, I did some solo travelling around Asia. This was pre-mobile phones and I rang home, maybe every couple of weeks, or whenever I got the chance.
It’s hard to worry on a loose, general basis. Worrying needs some specifics. My mother didn’t know day-to-day or even week-to-week where I was or what I was doing. I have no doubt she worried but in a vague, nagging, unfocused kind of way. So it was that when I got back and at one point planned to get the bus to Athlone, she insisted I get one earlier in the day so I wouldn’t arrive in the town in the dark.
And in my smug, know-it-all way, I thought this was so very amusing. But looking back on it now, I can see that it was her way of taking control of the worry after months of it all being far too fuzzy and indistinct.
I’m pretty adept at worrying, myself and in my less rational and entirely superstitious moments, subscribe to that thing of worrying being a kind of chess game with the universe. If you worry about something, then the worst can’t possibly happen. You’ve taken the sting out of it, so to speak.
You’ve worried about it and therefore signalled to the universe that you’re prepared for what’s coming down the line. And the universe, always eager to ambush, to unexpectedly pull the rug out from under the complacent or the content, will shrug and lose interest and move on to someone else.
Chances are, on an evolutionary basis, we sweat the small stuff so as not to use up precious energy and resources pondering on the bigger things out there that we have little or no control over.
There’s Brexit for a start and whatever that will bring. And then there’s all that other stuff that our day-to-day activities would actually have some kind of influence over. But it’s all too difficult and overwhelming, involving as it does glaciers melting and climate changing and the mass extinction of other forms of life on the planet.
When it comes right down to it, I guess we really are those meerkats, anxiously keeping an eye on the small and the insignificant, just as much as the big and the ferocious, before diving back down into the burrow when it comes to anything else.
And to be honest, when it comes to that anything else, there really aren’t enough worry beads in the world to deal with it.