Plus ca change – on worrying

January 26, 2009

This is my contribution (or should I say Adam Phillips’ contribution) to the current end-of-the-world scenario we appear to be in the midst of right now.

Whether or not there is a gene for worrying — or indeed a gene for being a geneticist — a psychoanalytic story about worrying would try to persuade people to see that by worrying they are doing a number of interesting things, many of which may not have even occurred to them.
First, worry is an ironic form of hope. It is a way of looking forward to something — even if it’s something awful — and that implies a belief in the future. So worrying is a version of desiring; when we worry, we anticipate.
Second, each person has a very specific history of worrying that evolves over time. Each of us chooses certain things to worry about and chooses whom, if anybody, we will tell.
And the way our worries were received when we were children — whether our parents seemed horrified or indifferent or only too keen to hear about them — will leave us with a mostly unconscious set of expectations about what we can say and to whom. Worries, like secrets, are part of the essential currency of intimacy.
Last, but not least, worrying is a form of thinking. At one end of some imaginary spectrum, there is something akin to creative rumination. At the other end, there is the stalled thought of obsession. If worrying can persecute us, it can also work for us, as self-preparation. No stage fright, no performance.
In other words, if we can lop off the worry gene, what else might go with it? People without worries are people without self-doubt. And we know what people are capable of in states of ultimate conviction.

New York Times 1996