2008-03-06 / Editorial Page

Dear Hearts and Gentle People

I am a born worrier. It runs in my family. My mother is a worrier, and her mother before her. It's a noble tradition. It is why everything we think, say, or do is prefaced with the words "What if?"

What if I hadn't said that? What if I had done that differently? What if I hadn't gone? What if I had stayed home?

What if, in the dead of winter, I wash my hair and have to go outside with it wet? Will I die of pneumonia? Will my hair freeze? Will the dog run and hide? Will the neighbors talk?

What if I eat fish and drink milk at the same time? Will I die instantly? Slowly? Or will I just throw up and smell like fish and clabbered milk all day?

I worry about stupid things like that and about things over which I have no control, like the weather.

It can be the most glorious sunny day outside but if my mother, God love her, the human equivalent of Dopplar Radar, calls and leaves a message on my answering machine like this: "There's a tornado watch out until nine o'clock tonight....wait!...no, they're saying it's a warning!" I am at once paralyzed with fear and heading for the basement.

Never mind that the tornado warning she heard about was in Kansas.

I phoned her from the basement. "Mama," I said, calmer now. "I've been sitting here a while now and the sun is still shining. Are you sure about the tornado warning?"

Now my mother will tell you in a skinny minute that she has lived through three tornadoes and all while inside the same house. And, to her credit (and my amazement) she absolutely refuses to leave that one-hundred year old house in inclement weather, not even to go to some place more substantial. Even more strange, she herself is not alarmed in the least by impending peril.

"I've lived through three of the worst tornadoes in Lincoln County history," she says, "and I lived through them right here, in this house, and I'm not about to start running from them now.

The Lord can take care of me right where I am, as good as He can in your basement."

Maybe when you're 85 and you've survived three tornadoes you figure, what the heck, I ain't going anywhere. I'll just make sure my kids are prepared for the worst.

My mother is a tough old bird. And, the truth is, she really has had to endure a lot of pain and heartache in her life. She just has a tendency, like I said, to sound a lot like Chicken Little on occasion. She is not alone mind you. Generations of our family have included several world-class worriers.

In other words, she can't help it. Neither can I.

Not surprisingly, I'm also a bit of a pessimist. I tend to see the glass halfempty. The freckle on my forearm is definitely skin cancer, yesterday was one less day remaining until my death and I wasted it, the patrolman behind me is going to pull me over any minute, if it's cloudy my day will be lousy, the escaped convict is headed straight for my house or, the worst, God will get me for this!

My husband, however, comes from a whole different breed of psychological stock.

He says he is neither optimist nor pessimist, he's a realist. A realist, says he, has no idealized version of life but just takes it as it comes, with not much feeling about it one way or the other.

I call that comatose.

Optimism is the way to go if you can possibly swing it. Its benefits are endless. You always have a positive outlook on life. You see a pile of manure and you're sure there's a pony close by.

You're certain that, although you don't look like Miss America, you're three times prettier than Hillary Clinton. Tomorrow will always be better than today, your dreams will be realized, and yes, your prince will come.

Optimists are just happier people and I'd give my eye teeth to be one of them.

And an optimist has it all over a realist. Consider the following scenario:

Your wife has just left you for another man.

Realist: "It's the end of my marriage."

Pessimist: "It's the end of my life."

Optimist: "It's the end of my credit card bills."

Just for the record, and to assuage myself of any guilt I might feel for having been born a pessimist, I have read that a woman is predisposed to worry even in the best of times. According to The Female Brain, a book by neurologist Louann Brizendine, we are twice as likely as men to suffer from anxiety. This is apparently because our brain circuits are designed to be on constant red alert, in case we need to rescue our offspring from peril.

Okay, Mama, you're off the hook.

Genetic or not, pessimism should not have to be a life sentence. And, yes, we are instructed in the Good Book to "Be anxious for nothing" and to exchange worry for prayer. Good advice if not so easy to implement.

I think I'll begin today trying to see, not the rain but the pot at the end of the rainbow. I'll try to be more like the woman in the story I received last week.

There once was a woman who woke up in the morning, looked in the mirror and saw that she only had three hairs on her head. "Well," she said, "I guess I'll just braid my hair today." So she did and had a wonderful day.

The next day she woke up, looked in the mirror and saw that she only had two hairs on her head. "Hmm," she said. "I guess I'll part my hair down the middle today." So she did and had a grand day.

The next day she woke up, looked in the mirror and noticed that she only had one hair on her head. "Well," she said. "Today I'm going to wear my hair in a pony tail." So she did and had a really fun day.

The next day she woke up, looked in the mirror and saw that she had not a single hair on her head. "Yippee!" she exclaimed. "I don't have to fix my hair today!"

I'm not so sure I'm ready for that much optimism yet. I think I'll just start with some advice from a beloved inveterate worrier, Charlie Brown, who said:

"I've developed a new philosophy. I only dread one day at a time."

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