Newsletter - November 2023
What’s Worth Worrying About?
Nothing. Well, that’s a short answer—and not a very useful one. So let’s open it up a bit. Most of us would agree we spend a certain amount of time worrying. The question is: Is it worth it? And, given the nature of this newsletter, another question might be: What’s this got to do with the Tao Te Ching?
There’s a saying “Over 90% of the things we worry about, never happen. Which proves worrying really works!” Well, if that’s true, then worrying is definitely worth it. The trouble is it isn’t true. Things either do or don’t happen not because we worry about them, but because they were going to do so anyway—unless they became more, or less, likely to happen because of something we did about them. And doing something is very different from worrying.
Time for a definition. So here’s mine. “To worry is to dwell on difficulties or troubles one can do nothing about.” Many definitions are more general, and refer to anxiety or “mental distress or agitation resulting from concern usually for something impending or anticipated.” Mine is more specific because I put the burden of proof on the worrier that there is indeed nothing he or she can do about the source of the worry.
Why do I do this? Because to worry is to spin wheels and get nowhere—you’re stuck. But to take even the smallest step towards some improvement in the situation gives you traction. In that instant, you are no longer stuck. You may not get where you want to be in one step, or even in many steps, but at least you’re moving. How so? Because you’re doing something about it. And, as I noted, doing is very different from worrying. So that’s why I like my definition.
(By the way, doing something about it can include not only actually fixing a problem right now, but also reducing the chances of it happening in the future, or even merely planning to do so. For me, all are examples of taking action—they’re not “worrying.”)
What does the Tao Te Ching have to say about this? Here’s one quote. “Stop thinking, and end your problems” (chapter 20). Well, I’m not sure how practical that is. As I see it, doing something about a potential problem involves at least some thinking. What’s more, everyday living calls for a certain amount of thinking whether we like it or not, e.g., buying groceries, paying bills, getting to the airport on time, building physical structures that don’t fall down, writing sentences that make sense to readers—but I’m getting carried away here. I think you get my drift.
Lao Tzu admits thought does have its place. “Prevent trouble before it arises. Put things in order before they exist…” (chapter 64). Both these involve thought. But here’s a key observation “Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity” (chapter 9). I think worry starts when either we don’t do our work, or when we don’t step back. Instead, we just stay there, do nothing, and keep worrying.
Let’s go back to the question: What’s worth worrying about? Steven Covey suggests imagining three concentric circles. He calls the inner one the Circle of Control (things you can control); the middle one the Circle of Influence (things you can influence, but not control); and the outer one the Circle of Concern or No Control (things you can do nothing about).
Things you can control include your own thoughts, words, deeds, and decisions or choices. Things you can influence include other people’s thoughts, words, deeds, and whether your actions are likely to have the outcome you intended. Things you can neither control nor influence include world peace, what’s in the news, the economy, conspiracy theories, natural disasters, and other people’s driving habits.
Why is this framework useful? Because it asks: Are you responsible for your actions? (Hint: the answer is always yes.) Are you responsible for the outcome? The answer is yes if it’s something you can control, and no if it’s something you can only influence. What do you do? In both cases, you do what you can, then step back—and stop worrying.
If the answer is that it’s in the outer circle, i.e., something you can neither control nor influence, then there’s nothing you can do—so you might as well stop worrying. Why? Because there’s nothing you can do to make a difference. But what matters is that you first honestly check there really is nothing you can do. If there is then do it. If there isn’t then let it go.
I think we sometimes pretend something is beyond our control or influence so we can avoid the responsibility of looking to see if there’s anything we can do about it. What do we do instead? We just worry—and that’s when the wheels start to spin.
Yes, these are stern words and I should say I am speaking for myself. I know I often fall short. That’s why I think it’s always useful to ask: Is this something I can “put in order before it exists”? Can I make a positive difference? If the answer is yes, then it’s my responsibility to do what I can. If the answer is no, then it’s my job to let it go. Either way, it’s my job. And, for me, I’d like to think that worry is not one of the options (although I know I choose this option from time to time).
I think Lao Tzu refers to this when he says “The Master does his job and then stops. He understands that the universe is forever out of control, and that trying to dominate events goes against the current of the Tao” (chapter 30). In other words, it’s pointless to try to dominate events as if the universe were ours to control (when it’s not), when all we can do is influence. And I think it’s also pointless to do nothing when there is some difference we can make, however small. Either way, the Master does have a “job” to do. “Therefore the Master takes action… He remains as calm at the end as at the beginning” (chapter 64). Note his calmness. It seems that worry is not one of the options he chooses.
So, what has this exploration shown us? Lao Tzu and Steven Covey are 2,500 years apart but I think they’re both referring to the same thing. It’s when we neither do what we can, nor let go of things we honestly cannot do anything about, and don’t step back, that we start to worry. As the Serenity Prayer reminds me, what I need is “…the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can change, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
What’s worth worrying about? I’ll go back to my first answer: nothing. And I’ll refer to another well-known modern sage, Yoda, who said “Do or do not. There is no try.” I believe that once we’ve honestly done that, there really is nothing to worry about.
What do you find you worry about? If you look hard, is there really nothing you can do about it? How easy do you find it to “do your work” and then step back?
If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, you can get in touch with me by:
replying to this e-mail
reaching me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/FrancisPringMillAuthor
using the Contact page on my website www.inharmonywiththetao.com
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(In Harmony with the Tao: A Guided Journey into the Tao Te Ching is available as an e-book, or as a paperback or hardcover from your nearest independent book store, or from Amazon.com, or from Amazon.ca.)