HEEDING THE WATCHMAN’S RATTLE

WorryThe Age of Worry by John Mayer (click to play)

Worry is a thief

marauding, it robs the peace

from jaded mind

the joy from outstretched heart

the sleep from fitful nights

despoiling middling intentions

permeating consciousness infiltrating

the spiraled web of thoughts

hopelessly tangled

Granted, worry

is a giver benevolently

bestowing frown lines

panic attacks     bleeding ulcers

but mostly worry

takes, pillaging

the depths of vulnerability pouncing

upon the underbelly exposed

it wipes the shine

off determined sparkle

the twinkle from beseeching eyes

the gleam from wistful smile

leaving debris of smoldering

angst that slowly blankets

a silky ashen coat

silently smothered

Worry is a companion

unwelcome, always

lurking round murky corners

whispering unsettled barbs

haunting dream fragments

mirthless misery gnawing away

the semblance of serenity seeps

until the insidious poison is transfused

displacing, replacing

with realities inside the realm

comfortable calm within control

firmly grasped

——————————-

By the dawn’s early light one morning in January 1991, Operation Desert Storm was fully blown and my third baby was in full bloom. Two bouncing toddlers clamored up my legs while I clutched the positive pregnancy stick. My tremendous joy was tempered by Good Morning America’s news report that the U.S. was now at war with Iraq because Saddam Hussein refused to remove his troops from Kuwait. With tears streaming down my face – slightly hormonal and obviously overwhelmed – I just wanted to scoop up my babies, grab my pregnant belly and run for the Malibu Canyon hills to bury my head in the proverbial sand. How could I bring another child into a world that seemed destined for global war? Mercifully the Persian Gulf War ended a few months later with “only” 148 American casualties, although the fighting killed a great many Iraqis, caused immense grief for many families, and unraveled a tangle of worry for ordinary citizens like myself.

A year later, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to trundle my babies off to the canyons again or cower in a closet, trapped as we were in the war zone of Los Angeles. An African-American named Rodney King was subjected to police brutality in LA, which led to a controversial tipping-point trial. When the four police officers were acquitted, brutal riots ensued. The 1992 LA Riots lasted for six days, killed 53 people, injured over two thousand, and caused over one billion dollars in property damage. Meanwhile, my plans to meet my husband in Seattle for his father’s sixtieth birthday bash were dashed – I was sick with worry, immobilized at the thought of battling my way to LAX and leaving our three little ones behind. The riots were confined to Los Angeles, but there was such a fine line between civilization and utter chaos that the despair spread deep into the suburbs until the National Guard was called in to quell the rioting.

Consummate worrying. Perhaps it’s a mothers’ curse – I honestly don’t remember worrying much until the responsibilities of parenthood set in, although that might just be selective memory. It could be a persnickety Virgo trait, brought on when our perfect scenario is shattered. Or most likely it’s just the way some of us are wired, fretting over any little thing. Really though – is there anyone out there who isn’t a worrier? Frankly, I’m worried that worry is just a human condition, something that every person with a pulse is subject to on a regular basis. And with good reason – there is much to stress about in this perilously complicated world.

Many times I worry about ridiculous things, things that have been said and done, come and gone, long forgotten, things that my better half would say “Let go already!” Things like stewing over the tomato-laden meal I recently served to my friend and her fiancé – two weeks after she told me that they hate tomatoes. How could I be so inconsiderate and forget such an obvious distaste? What kind of a friend am I? This type of worry really isn’t a big concern – more like a nagging hangnail that you just want to rip away, until you do and then you’ve really turned it into a bloody mess. Just let these hang, already.

Often I worry about things that need to be done, that endless to-do list, bills to be paid, errands to be run, people to be called, chapters to be written. This relentless litany is relatively easy to tune out by constructing my millionth to-do list and tackling it head-on, one to-do at a time. Chanting my mantra It will all get done allays this variety of consternation, no sweat… as long as I employ my dubious self-discipline.

Frequently I worry about the twists of fate that are beyond our control, the freak accidents that can’t be anticipated, the natural disasters that strike at random, the unexpected calamities that change lives forever. There was truly nothing I could have done to prevent those “There has been an accident” phone calls that I received a few times in my life. All I can do about this kind of anxiety is to say a lot of prayers and have a lot of faith that God and the guardian angels are paying attention…. and brace myself for the next call I hope never comes.

But most of all, I worry about The Big Picture, the overwhelming larger-than-life worries that dominate the news reports and headlines, that affect all of mankind and the very fate of our planet. You know what I’m talking about – ad naseum – unmanageable governments, precarious economics, growing unemployment, global warming, water shortages, widespread starvation, health crises, social injustices, gun control, senseless crimes, rampant terrorism, endless wars. What’s a simple-minded, just-wanna-be-happy-in-suburbia gal to do with this sort of distress?

Stay informed. Read. Digest bite-sized bits of information and leave the rest on the serving platter lest we overeat and vomit a bucket of worry. I recently discovered an amazing socio-biologist named Rebecca Costa who wrote The Watchman’s Rattle. In this intriguing book, she breaks down emerging trends and how they relate to human evolution, and she confronts our most pressing global issues in palatable portions. But Costa is no whiny worrier projecting the demise of civilization; rather, she offers insights and solutions that provoke big thoughts and inspire major change. Her well-researched evidence presents a vision that is hopeful and keeps my squirrelly worrying in check.

Heeding Costa’s rattle, I feel certain that there is more we can do than worry – we can overcome the daunting worries that threaten our very existence. Basically, our mental evolution hasn’t kept up with our technological evolution. The Watchman says that we have reached our cognitive threshold, and in order to break through that threshold and keep up with the growing complexities, we need to develop our insight. According to Costa, “… insight acts like normal problem-solving on steroids: It’s a lightning-fast, all-inclusive, powerful cognitive process that we are born with. Insight is not ‘weird science’ or some mystical experience but rather a naturally occurring physical function in every human brain.” It’s kind of like a spontaneous thought burst. Neuroscience research has made so many exciting discoveries about the power of our brains, but in the scheme of the Big Picture, I feel so inadequate and powerless to do anything worthwhile about the troubling issues. I certainly don’t have the knowledge to solve things like the carbon emissions debacle, but my brilliant engineering friend who is passionate about the environment is working on that very problem and just may have the breakthrough insight to a solution one day. Although collaboration among experts is a key factor in the Watchman’s analysis, there are things that each of us “ordinary” individuals can do to foster the breakthrough insights that will help humanity keep up with the increasingly complex conundrums of our information-overloaded world.

~ Promote advocacy instead of opposition. Opposition creates gridlock, while advocacy leads to solutions. Rather than negatively rejecting others’ ideas, let’s positively offer suggestions to collaborate on.

~ Condition our minds as well as our bodies. We all know how important physical fitness is to our well-being, but scientists have also discovered the incredible importance of brain fitness. It’s not enough to acquire knowledge – we need to be able to apply that knowledge to problem-solving. And it’s not enough to do a daily crossword puzzle – we need to challenge our minds in a wide variety of ways, just like we crosstrain our bodies. Play brain games, work while standing at a desk, use one new vocabulary word a day, go for a walk on uneven surfaces (surprisingly cognitively stimulating), learn a new dance, brush your teeth left-handed, do a Sudoku puzzle instead of a crossword puzzle, take a yoga class on paddle boards like some of my friends recently did, or pick up a foreign language like my friend is doing so she can speak with her future in-laws from Spain. Wow, just the acquisition of Spanish in-laws is enough to hyper-stimulate any American mother’s brain!

~ Fuel the neurotransmitters of our brains with high-octane amino acids, antioxidents, dopamine, vitamins, and Omega-3 fatty acids. Power down salmon, blueberries, green tea, walnuts, dark chocolate, B-complex and potassium multi-vitamins… and lots of water.

~ Sleep. For someone who used to pride herself on surviving with five hours of sleep a night, I have become a broken-record advocate for a solid eight hours. It’s the only chance our minds have to organize and make sense out of the myriad of experiences in our lives.

~ Curb our personal complexities. In a world filled with too many choices, too many cool things, and too much information, let’s streamline our lives to create time and space to think with focus and intent. Instead of buying more products, adding more goals, and increasing our commitments, let’s follow Willie Wonka’s advice and just “Stop the boat!” We need to make time for our minds to rest, daydream, and simply be present in the moment. The unconscious mind is a lot more powerful than our conscious mind… that’s where great epiphanies come from.

I finished reading The Watchman’s Rattle on a sunny Sunday afternoon, feeling hopeful about humanity’s ability to think our way out of the gridlock of problems we face. I also felt determined to stop worrying so much and start conditioning my brain to insight-ready fitness. But a funny thing happened later that night. I stayed up until 2:00 am finishing a gripping new novel about the Indian hunting grounds and oil fields of Texas called The Son by Philipp Meyer. This saga about a family dynasty spanning five generations gets my vote for a Pulitzer Prize, and I simply couldn’t put it down even though I was heading into the jungle of sleep deprivation. As I let my mind roam and range across the American plains, I suddenly had an epiphany. One of the family matriarchs bemoaned her spoiled children’s lack of purpose in life, and these words jumped out at me: “Of course you wanted your children to have it better than you had. But at what point was it not better at all? People needed something to worry about or they would destroy themselves…”

How pointless would life be without worry? It’s a very good thing that we care enough about people and issues to worry our brains. Worry itself just may push us over the cognitive threshold, as long as we don’t become immobilized with fear and gridlock. So go ahead and worry… and then clear the deck to a clean slate. I’m busy worrying my way to a buffed-out brain!

“Chance favors the prepared mind.”

~ Louis Pasteur

For more stimulating thoughts, check out these interesting brain-teasing websites:

vibrantBrains.com  ~  a health club for your brain

sharpbrains.com  ~  a wealth of information about brain science and keeping your mind sharp

keepyourbrainalive.com  ~  neurobics circuit training

lumosity.com  ~  scientific brain training games

positscience.com  ~  more brain training exercises

niftyafterfifty.com  ~  brain fitness for the AARP gang

scilearn.com  ~  software programs to build literacy and brain power in students

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Brenda
    Oct 01, 2013 @ 02:33:29

    WOW

    Reply

  2. Teresa
    Oct 01, 2013 @ 07:58:51

    Nice job, Jana. This one hit home. Teresa

    Reply

  3. Laurie Kelley
    Oct 02, 2013 @ 03:13:28

    Love and needed this. Thank you Jana! Laurie

    Sent from my iPhone

    Reply

  4. Maureen
    Oct 02, 2013 @ 20:26:47

    You never cease to amaze me darlin!! Thank you xo

    Reply

  5. Sharon Burke
    Oct 03, 2013 @ 20:28:06

    Great post, Jana, lots to think about here.

    Reply

  6. Teri Smyth
    Oct 09, 2013 @ 19:23:21

    Sooo cool. I will forward your blog to a few friends of mine who would love your notes on brain exercises. LOve it!

    Reply

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