When Bad Things Happen

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What happens to you in life is less important than the story you tell yourself about it before or afterward. Sit quietly with that for a moment, then read on.

Any moment, even day, in your life is merely a moment in time.  No matter how epically good or bad it was, it will pass; time always does. The only way to keep a moment alive is to talk about it, either to yourself or others.  Telling the story again and again keeps the moment alive for you, and keeps the emotions you felt in that moment alive as well.

William Shakespeare talked about the advance form of this storytelling (we call it worry): “Cowards die many times before their deaths. The valiant never taste of death but once.” Being afraid of something in advance feels almost as bad as when the event happens. It doesn’t make much sense to anticipate pain over and over in front of something that may never come to pass, but we do it all the time. It’s a bit like banging your hand with a hammer over and over again so you’ll be prepared for the pain if it ever happens.

Gavin de Becker, author of The Gift of Fear, writes this: “Remember, fear says something might happen. If it does happen, we stop fearing it and start to respond to it, manage it, surrender to it; or we start to fear the next outcome we predict might be coming. If a burglar does crash into the living room, we no longer fear that possibility; we now fear what he might do next. Whatever that may be, while we fear it, it is not happening.”

De Becker says that it’s important to understand the difference between anxiety or worry and real fear. Anxiety is a passive emotion; you can’t take specific action on something that hasn’t happened yet. You can, of course, take precautions to make sure it doesn’t happen, and you can also prepare for what you’ll do after it happens (if it does.) Both of these may be useful and helpful activities, ways to mitigate worry. But be sure you know the difference. De Becker writes: “Worry is the fear we manufacture—it is not authentic. If you choose to worry about something, have at it, but do so knowing it’s a choice.”

He also says that worry is a form of painful self-harassment that must provide some sort of secondary reward for someone to continue to indulge in it. Here are some of the rewards he suggests worriers may receive.

  • Worry is a way to avoid change; when we worry, we don’t do anything about the matter.
  • Worry is a way to avoid admitting powerlessness over something, since worry feels like we’re doing something.
  • Worry is a cloying way to have connection with others, the idea being that to worry about someone shows love.
  • Worry is a protection against future disappointment. After taking an important test, for example, a student might worry about whether he failed. If he can feel the experience of failure now, rehearse it, so to speak, by worrying about it, then failing won’t feel as bad when it happens. But there’s an interesting trade-off: Since he can’t do anything about it at this point anyway, would he rather spend two days worrying and then learn he failed, or spend those same two days not worrying, and then learn he failed? Perhaps most importantly, would he want to learn he had passed the test and spent two days of anxiety for nothing?

The story you tell yourself matters, because it creates a destructive cloud that makes it hard for you to see clearly what’s happening around you right now. You may very well overlook something delightful in the moment because you’re preoccupied with something frightening in the future.

“Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.” – Leo F. Buscaglia


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