Dude! Thanks for stopping by! Let’s start this thing by clicking on this week’s playlist. Let it run for a few songs, get yourself into the groove ’cause there’s a definite groove. Maybe burn some green if you’re so inclined. Let’s chill together for a while.

Early one morning this week, I was sitting at the desk staring into space, something that’s not really all that unusual of an occurrence. The cats had awakened me far too early, the dogs had tried chewing on kitchen utensils, and we were already running late for a breakfast appointment. The Young Woman walks over and hands me the magic bowl of green herb and says, “Here, hit on this for a while before you blow something.”

She knows me well enough to recognize when I’m stressed.

The problem is that I’m a worrier. I let things get to me when they really shouldn’t.

For example, my middle son, the 22-year-old, is a U.S. Marine. For the better part of the past two years, he has been stationed in Okinawa, Japan. When he first received that assignment I was relieved; Okinawa is a fairly safe duty station, it wouldn’t be likely that he would find himself in a forward combat situation. Then, the crazed lunatic running North Korea started lobbing missiles into the Sea of Japan, egged on by the saber-rattling provocation of the U.S. President. Suddenly, I was worried about my son’s safety.

Are my worries warranted? Reading the newspapers would seem to indicate that they are, that war is almost inevitable. My son assures me, however, that I can relax. Most of his unit was just in the exercises with South Korea. They were there, up close, with full view of the real situation. The official USMC opinion is that the threat of actual conflict is small—really, really small, as in comparison to the size of the “esteemed leader’s” penis. No worries are warranted.

But I still worry, especially when a missile sails over Northern Japan. Something deep in my gut is afraid one or the other lunatic leader will say something that gives the other reason to do something stupid.

Now, is there a damn thing I can do about my son’s safety? No, absolutely not. The matter is totally out of my control. I shouldn’t waste an ounce of my time or energy worrying about the matter.

Worrying is a trait well engrained. I blame my mother. She never met a day she couldn’t load down with worry. If it was raining, she worried that the ground was too wet. If the sun was shining, she worried that the ground would get too dry. If I called, she worried about how the grandkids were doing. If I didn’t call she worried that something was wrong with me. I do not remember a single day of her life when she didn’t have something to worry about.

I like to think I’m not as bad as my mother was, but the truth is that I still worry far more than is healthy, assuming that any level of worry is healthy in the first place. I don’t need to look up a medical study to correct myself. Worrying is not healthy. There is absolutely zero chill when one is worrying. We cannot abide in worry; it just doesn’t happen.

On one hand, I’m not alone. According to a Washington Post survey conducted back in July of this year, 74% of Americans are worried about war with North Korea. While not everyone has the same reason for worrying (74% of Americans are probably not specifically worried about my son), the general feelings of concern almost cross all the social divisions of Americans. War isn’t the only thing we’re worried about, either. A quick Google survey shows that we’re worried about finances, keeping our jobs, retirement, race relations, moral decline, discrimination, and clean drinking water and those are just the tips of the proverbial iceberg.

At the same time, however, for many places in the world, worrying is almost unknown and it’s due largely to the difference in how language deals with the future. In English, we have this wonderful, or horrible, thing called the subjunctive tense that, especially when used as an adverb, allows for the possibility of hypothetical “what if” situations. As Americans, we use subjunctive tense rather frequently, not realizing how it gives voice to our fears. “I lost my toothbrush this morning and missed being on the airplane that crashed.” “If that car had crashed just three feet to the left a dozen people could have been killed.” We think and talk in the subjunctive tense so often that we rarely realize we’re doing it.

Try explaining those same situations to someone who only speaks Italian, for example, and they’re not likely to understand what you’re saying, and if they do they’re not likely to show any concern. Italian is one of many languages that does not have the subjunctive tense. As a society, they are not confronted with hypothetical fears, therefore they are not worried by them. Sounds rather nice, doesn’t it?

Language isn’t the only reason we worry, though. Age has a lot to do with how much we worry. As we go through life and see bad things happen to other people, we become more cautious with our own lives. Barely surviving a close call often causes people to worry they might not survive the next time.

Old Man Talking
photo credit: charles i. letbetter

Health is probably one of the biggest sources of worry, though. We’re afraid of dying. The more aware we are of our mortality, the more we worry about dying and that, in turn, leads us to do things to prevent that from happening. We exercise not because we especially enjoy working up a sweat and making our muscles sore but because we’re afraid of dying sooner if we don’t. Neither are we thrilled about spending thousands of dollars on medicines that have to be taken in the correct order at a certain time of day with or without food and other restrictions. Yet, we keep making those trips to the pharmacy because the consequences for not taking those pills is going to be pain. So we worry. What if we lose our insurance? What if the pills don’t work? What if the doctor misses something?

This particular worry hits home pretty hard at the moment because I have to do something new this week: get a colonoscopy. I have never been a fan of sticking anything up my butt. I generally consider that to be an exit only orifice. My insurance company, however, called my doctor (not me) and said, “This dude is getting old. You’d best check out his butt ASAP because we don’t want to pay for cancer treatment.” Someone at the insurance company was worried that I might cost them a lot of money.

My response to this news was, as usual, to do a lot of research. I was pleased to find out that, as medical procedures go, this one is pretty safe. The mortality rate is only .5 percent. That’s not much at all! Well, not as a percentage goes. There are approximately 14 million colonoscopies done in the US each year, with that number increasing as our population gets older. Do the math. One percent of 14 million is 140,000. Half that is 70,000. All of a sudden, I’m a lot more worried. One-half of one percent is next to nothing. 70,000, though? That’s a lot of dudes dying from having something shoved up their butt!

What I’m experiencing is nothing new, mind you. Worry has been part of the human existence ever since that first cave-dwelling person went out looking for food and ended up being food. It has always been as the Stranger said: “Some days you get the bear. Some days the bear gets you.” So, we tend to worry that this might be the bear’s day.

We know better. We know we know better. Wisdom literature admonishing against the folly of worry is as old as the written word itself and permeates every culture and religion. Chances are you’ve heard some of these before.

Al-Ghazali (Muslim) said:

What is destined will reach you, even if it be beneath two mountains. What is not destined will not reach you, even if it be between your lips.

The Bhagavad Gita (Hindu) instructs:

The secret of human freedom is to act well, without attachment to the results.

From Talmud, Yebamot 63b (Jewish) come these rather frightening words:

Don’t worry about tomorrow: who knows, what may befall you this day?

Jesus, the Dude that Christians look to, expounded at length on the subject. This is from Matthew’s account in chapter 6, starting with verse 25:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 
26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 
27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? 
28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 
29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 
30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 
31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 
32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 
33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 
34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Of course, I would be remiss among my fellow Dudeist here if I did not include words from the Tao Te Ching, chapter 20

What’s the difference between yes and no?

What’s the difference between beautiful and ugly?

Must one dread what others dread?

Oh barbarity! Will it never end?

That’s just a few of the countless religious passages dealing with worry and every last one of them tells us that we’re wasting our time. For some reason, though, we tend to not listen to religious texts, at least, not on this topic. I mean, how many times did my father preach that we shouldn’t worry with Mother sitting right there on the front pew in front of him? She’d be nodding her head up and down, agreeing with everything he said. Then, she would no sooner set foot through our front door before she’d say, “You know, I’m afraid if they don’t get that leak repaired in the ceiling, the whole thing’s going to fall in right on top of the choir. Probably while they’re singing. Vibrations would shake it loose.”

Don’t laugh at Mom too hard, now. You know good and well you’ve said something similar even though you know worrying doesn’t gain a damn thing.

Across history, there have been some people who viciously tried to keep worry from their lives. One of the most ancient anti-worry philosophies was Stoicism, which was a thing from about 300 BCE until 300 ADE. Probably the best known of the Stoics was Seneca, who wrote rather extensively on the subjects of worry, anxiety, and fear. His take on the subject sounds quite Dudeistic:

It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things. What shall you gain by doing this? Time. There will be many happenings meanwhile which will serve to postpone, or end, or pass on to another person, the trials which are near or even in your very presence. A fire has opened the way to flight. Men have been let down softly by a catastrophe. Sometimes the sword has been checked even at the victim’s throat. Men have survived their own executioners. Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime, it is not. So look forward to better things.

The penultimate sentence in that paragraph may be the most important: “Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime, it is not.” In other words, “Dude, if nothing bad is happening now, Abide, man.”

Here’s the thing, dudes: the more we want, the more anxious we become about not having what we want, or not being able to obtain what we want. When we get what we want, we worry about losing what we want. Worry becomes a self-feeding monster that gobbles at our souls and our minds until we are totally consumed, wanting everything and simultaneously afraid to reach for anything because, you know,  “What if …”

British philosopher Alan Watts sounded very Buddhist, though I’m sure unintentionally so,  when he wrote:

There is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. But the contradiction lies a little deeper than the mere conflict between the desire for security and the fact of change. If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. To be secure means to isolate and fortify the “I,” but it is just the feeling of being an isolated “I” which makes me feel lonely and afraid. In other words, the more security I can get, the more I shall want.

To put it still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet.

A few pages later, he adds:

The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger. The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the “I” out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two. Sanity, wholeness, and integration lie in the realization that we are not divided, that man and his present experience are one, and that no separate “I” or mind can be found.

To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening.

Our challenge, and dudes, this very much is a challenge unlike any other challenge, is how we turn all these admonitions and warnings into something constructive, something that allows us to be more Dude-like, enabling ourselves to abide? All the great advice in the world is meaningless if we are unable to turn it around and use it to our benefit. I think that one major reason all those religious admonitions have never worked over the thousands of years they’ve been taught is that all they ever tell us is, “Don’t.” That’s not really that much help. If we are going to make any progress, we have to have some sense of How.

Old Man Talking
photo credit: charles i. letbetter

Wander through the Internet, as we tend to do in these situations, and one can find some questionable advice for how to address all the worry in your life. Things like, “Just believe in yourself,” “Be more positive,” and “Try to not think about it,” not only don’t help but can actually make things worse. If you catch yourself saying those things, perhaps it would be better if you put duct tape over your lips for a while.

There are some methods, though, backed up by scientific studies, that might help. I want to be careful here in saying that there are no guarantees to the effectiveness of any one method, or any combination of methods. What works for you, or anyone else is going to largely depend upon one’s specific circumstances and state of mind at any given moment. This is also a good place to mention that if you have worry and anxiety to the point that it is debilitating in any way, and I know plenty of people who do, then please seek professional assistance. Counseling and even, in some cases, medication can help tremendously.

That being said, to the extent that we can reduce the worry load for ourselves we should at least try. We’re not likely to make the worrying any worse and any step forward is a good one. Write these down or print them out and consider what might work best for you.

1.Don’t stop the worry, accept it. This can be really important because there are some worries that are justified,  such as whether one can pay the rent. Not everyone has a landlord as understanding and talented as The Dude’s, you know. What’s important is that we not try to suppress or stop the worrying. The science: A 2005 study in the journal Behaviour Research and TherapyTrying to shove those unwanted thoughts into the closet can actually result in making the anxiety over the matter that much worse. Rather, we are more likely to be successful in limiting the worry if we accept that the thing we worry about is real. The rent is due by the 10th, man. Nothing we can do about it. Let’s call this the “It is what it is” approach.

2.Stay busy. Mother’s worrying became worse after she retired from teaching in part because she had more downtime during her day. The more idle time she had, the more she filled it with worry. Staying busy, especially doing things that keep our hands occupied, blocks our ability to worry as much because our minds are occupied with the thing that we’re doing. This may or may not include playing a game of football with neighborhood teenagers. One’s worries take a break when you’re trying to tackle the brat who keeps tossing his soda cans in your yard. Here’s the science: the American Association for the Advancement of Science studies show that keeping busy interferes with the mind’s ability to keep and store visual receptors, blocking our ability to visualize our worries. Let’s call this the “Something Better To Do” approach.

3.Exercise. Dammit dude, ya’ gotta get up off the rug every once in a while, man. Lying around all the time, sitting there staring out a window, not only doesn’t help alleviate your worries but may even be partly responsible for why you have them in the first place. Get up and go bowling, man. Research, a lot of it, shows that exercise not only increases the brain’s output of serotonin, which tells us that we feel good even if we don’t, it also reduces the amount of stress derived from a lack of oxidation. Having more oxygen in our blood is a good thing. The science: a study done at Southern Methodist University found that it only took two weeks of exercise to produce a significant reduction in “elevated anxiety levels” compared to those who did no exercise. We’ll call this the “Bowling is Good For You” approach.

4.Unplug from social media. Actually, depending on your browsing habits, you might want to drop kick technology completely every once in a while. Not that technology in of itself is bad, mind you. After all, you probably wouldn’t have found me without it. What’s hurting us is all the worry-inducing news we find in our newsfeeds on Facebook and Twitter and such. Good news rarely makes headlines and there has been a lot of worry-inducing news to report of late. We need to take a serious break. How long depends on how strongly it affects you. For some, an hour a day might be sufficient. For others, that hour is too long and you might be better off only plugging in every other day or so. The science on this one is bulky, but one of the easier reads comes from Anxiety UK, which finds that controlling one’s technology use reduces anxiety levels. We’ll refer to this one as the “Get the fuck off Facebook” approach.

5.Write down your worries. This approach is a bit old school, but for a lot of people, it works. Write down what’s bothering you and address each item directly. The emotional impact of getting the worries out, writing them down and seeing them in front of you, then being able to take that paper and burn it or throw it away tends to have a positive impact on certain kinds of stress. The science here was done primarily with students at the University of Chicago and found that women benefit from the exercise more than men. The method may not work across a broad range of worries, either. The studies done have been rather limited. Still, this might be worth a shot for those of us who are very visually oriented. Why don’t we call this the “Writing Your Novel” approach?

6.Zen out. For many dudes, this one is a given: meditate. Use whatever method works for you, whether it’s music, or chanting, or mindfulness, or yoga, they all have the same ability to help relieve anxiety and worry. The reasons are not necessarily spiritual, though they may feel that way for some. Studies, by real doctors and such, show that meditation affects the anterior cingulate cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex brain regions. In other words, that state of mental and emotional occupation alters what’s going on in the parts of our brain that involve emotions and worrying. Research published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience shows a reduction in measurable anxiety levels by as much as 39 percent. I think we should call this the “Tapping Your Inner Buddhist” approach.

7.Give yourself a fucking break, man. I need this one more than any of the others. We are too often our own worst enemies, expecting more from ourselves than is reasonable. There’s only so much you can do, dude. When you’ve done your best, you gave it your all, then ease up on yourself. We don’t have to follow all the rules. Being diabetic, this has been a rough lesson for me. I’m not going to die if I put strawberries on my morning cereal instead of blueberries. If we’re dining out and a dish ends up having more salt than I really need, I’m probably not going to slip into a coma on the way home. Just this past week a new study says that fat isn’t as bad for me as was originally thought. The science here is a little softer. I’m referencing the book Live A Little! Breaking The Rules Won’t Break Your Health by Drs. Susan Love and Alice Domar. They work off several studies showing that moderation, not strict rule following, is better for us. That doesn’t mean we toss out the rules completely, mind you. I still have to watch my diet rather severely. However, I don’t have to go into a panic if the barbecue sauce is a little too sweet, either. We’ll call this the “Everything In Moderation” approach.

As with other aspects of life, what we’re ultimately looking for is a balance between the yin and yang of probability and fear.  There are times we legitimately need to worry. Yet, we do not need to be consumed and disabled by our anxieties. For example, I used to worry about being homeless until I actually was and discovered that I could survive. While the experience is not one I care to repeat, I no longer fear that monster because I know I’ve faced it before and kicked that son-of-a-bitch in the balls. I have achieved a reasonable, workable balance on the issue.

19th-century philosopher René Descartes compared hope as the yin to worry’s yang in his treatise, The Passions of the Soul. Long before any of us worried about making a 7-10 split, he understood that we need a little bit of both in our lives, but that either can be equally debilitating.

When hope is so strong that it altogether drives out fear, its nature changes and it becomes complacency or confidence. And when we are certain that what we desire will come to pass, even though we go on wanting it to come to pass, we nonetheless cease to be agitated by the passion of desire which caused us to look forward to the outcome with anxiety. Likewise, when fear is so extreme that it leaves no room at all for hope, it is transformed into despair; and this despair, representing the thing as impossible, extinguishes desire altogether, for desire bears only on possible things.

Dudes, the worry is going to happen. There’s no escaping it. Consider The Dude’s concern for Bunny when Walter tossed the case full of underwear out the window. “They’re gonna kill that poor woman, man! What am I gonna tell Lebowski?” He hadn’t yet figured out the scam and his concern for Bunny’s safety at least seemed legitimate from his perspective. The danger, though, turned out to not be real, much like many of the things we worry about. What is important is that The Dude used his worry to solve the problem and then went on living his life. He left the worry and the Big Lebowski behind.

Here’s where you need to take another look at today’s playlist. Back in 1972, Queen guitarist Brian May wrote a song that ended up on the flip side of the band’s first single: Keep Yourself Alive. The song speaks to how we handle the ups and downs that life throws at us, the worries and the hopes. Ultimately, what matters is that you keep yourself alive, dudes. We cannot stop everything from coming at us. Some of us will lose pets that are dear to us. Some of us will lose parents or children. There’s a lot of bad things that could happen. At the same time, there is a lot of good things for which we hope. Some of them may happen. At the end of the day, though, what matters is that we keep ourselves alive. Here are the lyrics to the song. If you’re not to this point in the playlist just yet, jump ahead and listen along.

Take off
I was told a million times
Of all the troubles in my way
Mind you grow a little wiser
Little better every day
But if I crossed a million rivers
And I rode a million miles
Then I’d still be where I started
Bread and butter for a smile
Well I sold a million mirrors
In a shopping alley way
But I never saw my face
In any window any day
Now they say your folks are telling you
Be a super star
But I tell you just be satisfied
Stay right where you are

Keep yourself alive yeah
Keep yourself alive
Ooh, it’ll take you all your time and money
Honey, you’ll survive

Ow

Well I’ve loved a million women
In a belladonic haze
And I ate a million dinners
Brought to me on silver trays
Give me everything I need
To feed my body and my soul
And I’ll grow a little bigger
Maybe that can be my goal
I was told a million times
Of all the people in my way
How I had to keep on trying
And get better every day
But if I crossed a million rivers
And I rode a million miles
Then I’d still be where I started
Same as when I started

Keep yourself alive, come on
Keep yourself alive
Ooh, it’ll take you all your time and money honey
You’ll survive – shake

Ow
Keep yourself alive, wow
Keep yourself alive
Oh, it’ll take you all your time and money
To keep me satisfied

Do you think you’re better every day?
No, I just think I’m two steps nearer to my grave

Keep yourself alive, c’mon
Keep yourself alive
Mm, you take your time and take more money
Keep yourself alive
Keep yourself alive
C’mon keep yourself alive
All you people keep yourself alive
Keep yourself alive
C’mon c’mon keep yourself alive
It’ll take you all your time and a money
To keep me satisfied
Keep yourself alive
Keep yourself alive
All you people keep yourself alive
Take you all your time and money honey
You will survive

Keep you satisfied

Songwriters: BRIAN MAY
© Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Keep yourself alive, dudes, without all the worry and may you abide in peace.
The Old Man

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