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What do you have to worry about?

One of my favorite cartoon-strip characters is the Woman Who Worries in Nicole Hollander's "Sylvia." This woman worries about everything, from the hole in the ozone shield to whether it is proper to wear white shoes after Labor Day. It doesn't matter how serious or trivial the issue is - whatever it is, she worries about it.

I have always been a worrier, which is why I like this character so much. Her exaggerated worries help me to put my own worries in perspective. I feel a sense of kinship with this primal worrier, who will let no ill go unworried. At least she understands the responsibility of those of us who worry -we feel as if we have the burdens of the world on our shoulders. Without our worrying, how would life go on? Without anticipating all of the possible calamities that could befall us, how can we be prepared for the future?

It is people like the Woman Who Worries (one of my alter egos) who Jesus had in mind, I think, when he said: "Do not worry about your life and what you will eat, or about your body and what you will wear" (Luke 12:22). These kinds of worries, he said, distract us from what we need to be doing, which is to seek the kingdom of God. Yet I can hear the Woman Who Worries inside me responding: "Easy for you to say! If I don't worry about the ozone layer, whether I will get audited by the IRS, or whether my dry cleaning will be ready, then who will? How can I be prepared for everything and anything that might happen? What is this `kingdom of God' stuff? I'm talking about real life."

Being an experienced worrier, I can distinguish among various levels of worrying and the energy they require. Some worries are quite near-term and specific. Is the leak in the ceiling going to mean a major repair bill? Will our aging car last another winter? Some other worries go a little deeper. Will a thoughtless remark harm a friendship? Am I being fair to my co-workers?

And then there are the serious worries. Will my friend's cancer remain in remission? Will our parents be able to continue living independently? The Woman Who Worries inside me might well argue with Jesus that worrying about these things (real-life things) takes precedence over seeking the kingdom of God.

And even beyond my own sometimes petty cares, there are those who have quite serious reasons to worry. Those in war-ravaged Bosnia, for example, have good reason to worry about surviving a trip across the street to get water. And closer to home, those in neighborhoods not all that far from mine ought to worry whether their children will survive the walk home from school or whether there will be food on the table.

Jesus even has the nerve to suggest that we think about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field rather than worry about food or clothing. If God provides even for them, God says, how much more will God provide for us. So don't worry! "Seek God's kingdom, and these other things will be given to you besides."

But the truth of the matter is, God doesn't always provide. Children die of starvation, are killed in drive-by shootings, and many more people than we would like to admit don't have the basic necessities of life. It would seem that worrying about food might not be such a bad thing to do. And, in fact, throughout the gospels, Jesus does seem to have a concern for people receiving what they need to survive. So what does it mean for a worrier to seek the kingdom of God? And how is it that worrying gets in the way?

When we worry, we are profoundly aware that we are not in charge of everything; worrying is one way a control freak can cope. So by worrying, we are able to keep alive the idea that we can control some things: our reactions, our focus of attention, the way we spend our time. For us professional worriers, imagining all of the possible things that could happen is a way of controlling the future. What if this happens? What if that happens?

When a worrier contemplates the future, she is sketching out all of the things that could happen (most of them bad; there is a real pessimism in worriers), so that when they come, she is not surprised. She will still be in control since she has already thought of this happening.

There is a positive dimension to this kind of worrying, to be sure. If we are able to recognize the things that we can control, we can take responsibility for them, and act accordingly. We can be on time for work or school, carry through on assignments, be good and responsible citizens. But there is a downside to this worry about control as well. If we take the time to consider all of the possible outcomes to something, we will be completely paralyzed.

It would be impossible to leave my house each day if I were to think of all the possible bad things that could happen: a burglary or fire, a car accident a tornado. This is what is so humorous, and also so recognizable, about the Woman Who Worries: she can find things to worry about that I have never even thought of!

Jesus' words in part address this issue of control: "Can any of you by worrying add a moment to your life span?" The birds" do not sow or reap," and the flowers "do not toil or spin." Neither, I suppose, do they worry. But the point here is not that birds or flowers sit around expecting that life will simply come to them. Birds and flowers spend their time going about the business of being birds and flowers- getting worms and insects and soaking up the rain and the sun. They don't sit around agonizing over which worm to pull or whether to bloom today or tomorrow. Anyone who observes birds knows that they do not live lives of leisure. And they certainly live in the Real World. So Jesus' point is not that we should be passive, but that we should not waste our time worrying as we seek the kingdom of God.

So what does the kingdom of God (or, as my feminist consciousness might suggest, the kindom" of God) have to do with all of the things that we worry about, big and small? Quite a lot, in fact. Throughout the gospels, the kingdom of God is no pie-in-the-sky dream, but a reality in our midst. It has to do with getting our priorities straight, as in the story that precedes Luke 12:22-where the rich man tries to ensure his future by building bigger and bigger barns to hold more and more grain and goods-and by attending to those among us who require our help. What it doesn't mean is sitting around fretting, stewing, and obsessing. Such thinking is usually self-centered (what will happen to me?) and thus inattentive to all of the things that need to be done. I know-from long experience of seasoned worrying-how it can destroy many a night's sleep and distract me from more important concerns as I think, "Oh, what if, what if,.."

What seeking the kingdom of God means is an awareness (and acceptance) that not everything is under our direct control and, at the same time, an attentiveness to what needs to be done. Rather than worrying, we need to get enough sleep so that we can seek the kingdom of God with all of our energy the next day. At least when we sleep, we can let God do the worrying.

That acceptance of our lack of control, and thus our need to trust in God, is what theologians call providence.

When my husband and I were planning our wedding, there were many uncertainties: at that time, he didn't have a job; I was starting a new position; and neither of us (both over 40) had been married before.

We felt that we were leaping into the unknown (how right we were!), and to express this, we chose Luke 12:22 as the passage for our wedding. It meant then, as it continues to now, that we are entrusting our future to our love for each other, our families' and friends' love for us, and our faith in God-in short, to providence. Since then, we have had plenty of occasions for worry, and both of us (since I also married a worrier) struggle to keep the demon of worry at bay. (It's not for nothing that we pray to be saved from useless anxiety in our liturgy.)

But this passage has served as a helpful reminder that obsessive worrying will not solve our worries, and that getting about our business, being attentive to what needs to be done, will serve us much better.

The passage that follows Jesus' admonition not to worry speaks about watchfulness and attentiveness. I like to think that Jesus had in mind us Women (and Men) Who Worry by suggesting that we be alert and awake to the coming of the kingdom of God.

We worriers are also good observers, quick to see new possibilities (often, unfortunately for a possible disaster). Being watchful and attentive is a way of putting our worrying talents to good use. Rather than worrying, what if we were to think of ways to alleviate the conditions that give rise to worry? Rather than endlessly replaying our fears and our errors, what if we were to work as hard as we could and to seek reconciliation when it is needed?

The lives of birds and flowers are no picnic, but they can teach us some important lessons: to work hard each day, but to take time to sing, be attentive to worms, present yourself in all your beauty each day. Not a bad way to live.

One of the translations of the Beatitudes is "happy are they..."-happy are the peacemakers, happy are those who are persecuted, and so on. Those who seek the kingdom of God, Jesus says, will be happy. Now this may sound like a worrisome kind of happiness. But I would like to think that in God there is a Woman Who Worries for us. So we can leave the worrying to her and be happy.
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Author:Ross, Susan A.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Oct 1, 1995
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