I ran the equivalent of a full marathon on my worry treadmill the other night. I wasn’t really in shape to do it, but I did it anyway. I woke up about 3:30 a.m. and wondered whether all of my kids were home. Got up to check and they were all safe. Whew. But the treadmill had started and when I got back to bed I was already in a steady jog.
My son started college last week. How will he do? I have a response to a motion for summary judgment due soon. Have I missed anything there? I am about to launch a new business venture which will require a good size commitment of time and capital. What if it goes bust? And then there is the stock market, the overall economy, global warming, a festering issue with an employee, the knock under the hood of the car, and the suspicious mole on my arm that is quite improbably Stage 4 melanoma. By now I’m in a full sprint.
I cannot be the only one who thinks this way, can I?
Not according to John Milton, author of Paradise Lost who wrote: The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
My working theory is that if you don’t carry around an ample load of fear you are either an ignoramus or a sociopath or heavily medicated. A doctor friend of mine runs a sleep clinic. He has patients lined up out the door. He says that the overarching subclinical diagnosis in most of his sleep deprived patients is anxiety, worry, fear.
And why not? We love fear. We are surrounded by fear. Just turn on the news. We gravitate toward fear. Fear sells. Marketers find a greater buyer’s response to the downside associated with loss than the upside of gain. This is known as the loss avoidance theory. We operate based largely on fear.
I used to go on these midnight fear runs frequently but I had not been on one in a while. So I was ill prepared to meet it head on.
It took me awhile to work through my well worn remedies. Rote prayer, counting sheep and relaxation exercises have all worked in the past but were ineffective this night. I was hopelessly stuck on the self perpetuating track psychologists refer to as the “negative feedback loop.”
Then I decided to take the exercise to a higher plane. I started to look beyond the narcissistic fears that were holding me hostage and examine broader themes in my life. Am I living a life of conviction? Do I wake up with a purpose every day? Am I treating people fairly? Do I have a genuine concern for the well being of others?
And even if my fears come true, is that such a bad thing? Don’t we need adversity and trauma to reach higher levels of personal fulfillment and growth?
Below is a video clip of Conan O’Brien giving the 2011 commencement address at Dartmouth. No matter what you think about Conan, I strongly encourage you to watch this. Toward the end of his speech he tells the story of losing his show to Jay Leno. He was devastated and he spent the next year completely lost. And it turned out to be one of the most rewarding years of his life. He has a great quote: There are few things in life more liberating than having your worst fears realized. Talk about perspective.
The bottom line is this. You are not afraid because you think your son or daughter is ill-prepared for life. Or because your retirement account has taken a beating. Or because of Hurricane Irene. Those are mere distractions from the real issue. You are fearful because you are not living the life that you had imagined for yourself. You are not embracing challenges. You are operating out of loss avoidance rather than gain potential. You are not asking the tough questions.
Unfortunately a word of caution is in order. Asking these tough questions doesn’t mean you will get to sleep any faster. In fact these may cause you to sleep less. But at least your thoughts will be constructive and hopeful rather than destructive and petty. And if you need someone to help you work through some of these issues, give me a call. I’ll probably be up anyway.