Sunday, August 29, 2010

Some Thoughts about Worrying

"Any time anyone complains of worry, anxiety, depression, fear, hatred, jealousy -- whatever it is -- let him sit back and analyze the cause. If he is really sincere, he will find out that he wanted something for himself. Selfish desire causes all the problems. Do things for the sake of others, not for yourself. That is the simple and practical way to find peace."

Daily meditation for August 19, from "The Golden Present: Daily Inspirational Readings," by Sri Swami Satchidananda (a cherished and much-consulted gift my friend Christine)

"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."

From "The Gift of Fear," by Gavin de Becker (a book recommended by my friend Karen C., which I recently read while at the beach)

I am a life-long worrier. I've been worrying about one thing or another for about as long as I can remember. As I've gotten older, my worrying habit has escalated at times to outright anxiety with an alarming frequency.

The starkest, most troubling manifestation of my worry-turned-anxiety occurred this past June and July, before and during the House-Senate conference on the financial regulatory reform bill. Each chamber's bill was nearly 2000 pages (in legislative text format -- shorter if formatted as a normal Word document), and the conference through which the chambers arrived at identical text lasted about two weeks. I'm convinced that this broke all previous conference committee speed records (by comparison, the last conference on major financial legislation, which involved a much, much shorter bill, took about 3 months).

Needless to say, the staff of the House Financial Services Committee, a group to which I belong, was more than a little busy. I am a perfectionist who prides myself in turning out very precise, well-crafted legal work, and although I wound up doing what I think was a respectable job during the conference, I literally had multiple panic attacks in the course of so doing. And I am someone who previously doubted the existence of panic attacks, so I don't make that claim lightly. Once the conference concluded, I had nightmares for a month about mistakes that I might have made. They started out eerily real -- some of them were barely distinguishable from reality, so much so that I would consult the final conference report first thing the next morning to make sure that I hadn't made the dreamed-about mistake -- and then got more and more outlandish as I started to let the stress of the conference slip away.

After my conference-induced anxiety started to abate, I starting working myself into an almost-as-pitched frenzy about a series of other things -- my health (there were times that I almost seriously convinced myself that I had at least 5 terminal illnesses at any given point), my dog (did his diarrhea mean he was dying?), the house (the water in the basement and a couple handfuls of deteriorating foundation bricks were a sign that the house was going to collapse around me at any moment), etc. I could keep going, but you get the idea. This was pretty bad worrying, even for an accomplished pro such as myself.

To help with this, and some other chronic conditions that I'm tired of having, I finally took the advice of the mighty Reya and sought the help of the person to whom she affectionately refers as "the Sufi acupuncturist." He is as wonderful as Reya describes. In addition to performing acupuncture, he started me on a Chinese herbal tea, which, among other things, has heightened my awareness of what I am doing and why. About the time I started seeing the Sufi acupuncturist, I stumbled across the two quotes at the beginning of this post, which really focused my heightened sense of self-observation on the roots of worry, and how to free myself from them.

I think that de Becker is clearly correct that worrying is a choice, but it is a choice I have made for so long that I didn't previously, or easily, recognize it as such. I took for granted that worrying was an inherent part of who I am. Plus, worrying is a choice that can perniciously reinforce itself. I worried, almost inevitably things turned out just fine, and instead of concluding that the worrying was meaningless and created needless suffering, I instead concluded that things turned out OK because I worried, which then became a really great argument to keep worrying about anything that might be important.

I also think that Swami Satchidananda is correct that worrying, anxiety, and other such conditions are rooted in wanting something for oneself. I think that my particular selfish desire is to be as close as humanly possible to perfect. It's as if I equate the absence of perfection with utter failure, which is the worst thing I can imagine. I therefore live in constant fear of, pardon my language, fucking up, especially when it comes to my work product (I formerly attached this kind of importance to my grades in school). Intellectually I know that we all make mistakes, and that almost none of our errors, individually or collectively, are of the civilization-ending variety. However, I think that I want to have the distinction of at least making a lot fewer errors than most, and I want others to recognize and praise that trait. I hadn't exactly thought of it this way before -- although once I paused to reflect upon it, it suddenly seemed pretty obvious -- but my selfish desire is apparently to have my self-worth validated by the outside world on the basis that I am, if not absolutely perfect, at least a lot better than most. So I worry, excessively, about the consequences of making mistakes, because making mistakes undermines the false premise on which I base my sense of self (those Chinese herbs really are something for clarifying the mind, aren't they?).

So, thinking about worrying and anxiety has been a very interesting and useful process for me, but the real test will be what I choose to do with my newly-found insights. I literally do not know what it feels like to not worry, but I have a feeling that I'm soon going to find out. . . .

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Three Little Birds

We have had some mockingbird activity in the bush beside our front door/stoop for a few weeks now. Over the weekend, my fiance and his son discovered a nest in the bush, and within the nest were three baby mockingbirds. This absolutely thrilled me! I viewed it as a good omen, partly because I think it is an honor when a member of the animal kingdom chooses to make its home and raise its young in such close proximity to one's own abode, and partly because it provided a linkage between my life and one of my favorite Bob Marley songs, "Three Little Birds." The chorus of that song -- "don't worry about a thing, because every little thing is gonna be alright" -- contains words that I really should take to heart a lot more often than I do.

Today, I discovered that the three little birds were not in their nest. However, the adult birds are still taking food (and maybe also building materials?) into the bush, and I thought that I still heard the voices of the babies emanating from within the bush. Is it possible that the parent birds moved the baby birds to a different, bigger nest? I know nothing about birds or how they raise their young, but I am hoping for the best. I'm hoping that my three little birds are OK, and that every little thing is gonna be alright for them, too.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

You'll Never Walk Alone

Monday, August 31, 2009

Fall, All of a Sudden

Last year, at around this time, I had felt the coming of fall in early August and then waited on pins and needles for the autumn to settle in for good amid recurring lapses of hot of humid. Not this year. After a cool spring and summer, punctuated by about 3 weeks of blistering heat and humidity, fall, all of a sudden, is upon us. I really do think that perhaps it's here for real. All week it's supposed to be in the low to mid 70s during the day and the low 60s or high 50s or night. The leaves are rustling, the spirits in the dog walking graveyard are stirring, the air is clear and crisp, and the earth is cooling. Fall, all of an abrupt sudden, is upon us. Welcome, as always, my favorite season.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Death is a Form of Healing

In previous posts, I have written about a family member who was seriously ill. That family member was my fiance's 21-year old daughther, Helen, who sadly lost her battle with leukemia on Friday, June 26, at 1:51 p.m. This was the latest, and saddest, of many deaths -- human and animal -- that have occurred within my circle this year. 2009 has somehow turned into the year of death. I will say, though, that this year has forever changed the way that I think about death.

My personal view of the universe is that death is inevitable for all that lives, and that everything that dies comes back around again in another form, so paradoxically souls don't ever really die, they just continually evolve. That's been my belief for a while, and that belief remains not only intact but also stronger than ever in light of recent events. When viewed through this lens, death is less scary and tragic than most people tend to see it, although it doesn't necessarily make things less painful when it's someone you love, or ultimately yourself, who's doing the dying. The things that I recently added to my view of death are these: that death is a form a healing, and that to be with someone when they die is one of life's highest honors and holds its own kind of beauty.

Right before Helen's leukemia returned and the doctors said there was no hope, she had been through a lengthy and life-threatening lung illness. She was hooked to a ventilator through a trach tube, and she weighed all of about 70 pounds. As a Iwatched her fight her lung troubles, I remember thinking, "I want to her to find peace, in whatever form that may take." Maybe because I equate peace with health, it occurred to me that death could be viewed as a form of healing. When no other means of healing proves up to the challenge, death provides body and soul with much-sought relief. Moreover, death is just one step on our soul's journey to find ultimate peace, so it can be viewed as healing in a cosmic, as well as an immediate, sense.

We found out on Monday, June 22, that Helen's leukemia had returned, and that peace to her would, indeed, come through death, likely within a matter of days, or at most weeks. This was a hard punch to the gut, because the previous month the doctors said that the stem cell transplant had worked and that almost all her bone marrow was the donor's, plus she was finally out of the woods on the lung ailment. Helen was alert and fully appreciated her situation, and although she could not talk because of her trach tube she could write, mouth words, and use sign language. We all had time with her that last week to say what needed to be said. Although it was difficult to watch one so young and so brave face her mortality, that last week with Helen was precious, sacred time.

Helen deteriorated rapidly after being moved from Johns Hopkins to the ICU of a hospital in her home town, according to her wish to die as close to home as possible (home care and even hospice care were out of the question due to the graveness of her condition). When the palliative care team suggested that the time to disconnect the ventilator had come on Friday morning, the whole family let Helen go willingly and lovingly, and we were all there with her when her soul finally passed away. Even through the grief and tears, it was a beautiful, powerful moment -- by far the most sacred moment I have yet experienced. I was incredibly honored to know Helen in life (and will write about how wonderful she was in a later post), and I was equally honored to be present when she departed this life.

I will say, as a final observation, that of everyone affected by Helen's death, she was the strongest and the most serene during that last week. By miles. I hope that for her death really was a form of healing, and that wherever she is now she has peace.

Photograph of Adrianne and Jacob at Congressional Cemetery, by Stewart Harris

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Full Circle

Today I had a full circle moment.

I love Rainer Maria Rilke, whom I discovered as a result of reading The Gold Puppy. The Rilke poem that started it all for me just happened to turn up in a book about religion that I'm reading at the moment. It still made me cry. The poem is this:

Gott spricht zu jedem nur, eh er ihn macht

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
Then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
Go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
And make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

--Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Entertainer

Tonight I left work relatively early (meaning 7:30 p.m.) and took the shepherds for a walk in their favorite dog-walking graveyard. On the drive back to the house I was channel surfing on XM and found myself actually stopping to listen to what was on channel 28 (which usually has elevator music). I flipped away, registered what I had been hearing, and then flipped back to listen to this--

This is beautiful guitar music, if you ask me. Chet Atkins could really play, and in a way that would have made J.S. Bach proud (in the sense that Chet could make one instrument sound like three or four). He's so good that I even forgive him for the truly awful '70s shirt. Listening to this put me in a mind of someone I loved who could match Chet Atkins even when he (my friend, that is) was having a bad day. Sammy, this one's for you.