Are you worried? Losing sleep? Feeling stressed?
Are politics freaking you out? How about ISIS? The Zika virus? Personally, I worry about many great and important things. And stupid things. And, occasionally, crazy things. You?
We might just be wasting our time. Our energy. Our emotional health. Even our spiritual health.
I’m sure I’ll get some pushback here, but I am convinced that sometimes it would be in the best interest of our physical, spiritual and emotional health, and the people around, us to sometimes care less. Yes, I am endorsing “targeted apathy.”
You know the expression – “I couldn’t care less.” (Which is the correct version of the common, “I could care less.”) Sometimes that is the right response.
Our society and technology is more interconnected than ever before, and it moves at a lightning speed. Back in the days of the pioneers, an earthquake could happen in India, and the saints in Utah might not hear about it for weeks or months – if ever. In our day, we watch live-streaming footage of the disaster, the grieving victims, and follow the impact for days and weeks afterwards. And we feel it. And we worry about it. We grieve. We are awash in sympathy and worry. We can learn about some new crisis, threat or tragedy every day of our lives by simple reading the news, or checking Twitter.
The problem is that worry is not always very productive, or earned. Too often we suffer about things that are entirely out of our control, or issues that we are not willing to engage. However, if you look deeply at those options, you can see how they can blur into one another.
• There is absolutely nothing I can do to affect the outcome of the primary elections in Indiana. Nothing – unless I am willing to volunteer to help a candidate, or pack up and head to Indiana and start knocking on doors, or donate money to whomever I want to win there. But I’m not doing any of those things. So how late will I stay up an watch the election returns come in? True, I need to be involved and concerned about our political system and how it impacts my life and culture, but do I need to let it give me ulcers?
• North Korea is messing around with nuclear weapons. Unless I am willing to try and change career tracks and get involved in geo-political relations, nothing I do will alter what it going on. I’m not planning on doing that, either.
• The bees that we discovered infesting our house this week might try and come back. I could lie awake at night listening for them.
• And the ridiculous: I have gotten stressed out about if “my” team will win a sporting event. A team that consists of players I have never met, playing some other team that I have never met in some far off city. Players that do not know I am alive. Yet I worry about them. But, even if I could, I’m probably not going to buy that team, or suit up and get on the court/field.
Some things that are happening right now in our lives and world are terrible, and we worry about them. Some things that are being hyped right now aren’t even real, and we worry about them, too. Simple truth: If the media and politicians can’t find something to scare us with, they will make something up. Ironically, the vast majority of things out there to worry about do not actually impact or involve me – but it feels like they do.
The basic point is that there are some things are completely outside of my circle of influence. Short of prayer, my impact is meaningless. Because of that, any time, energy and emotion that I spend on those issues is stealing time, energy and emotion from things that I can actually impact.
Here’s how Richard G. Scott said it, “Some people divert their best efforts from constructive accomplishment by investing them in mental anguish and continual worry.”
In a talk given at BYU, Elder Scott told about how his struggle with worries beyond his control were messing with his health:
“The Lord has taught me a great lesson about worry that I now share with you. After completing meaningful full-time missions, my lovely Jeanene and I were sealed in the temple. We began life together with every expectation of happiness. I was blessed through the kindness of the Lord to obtain a job in a new, highly developmental pioneer effort to place a nuclear power plant in a submarine. The work was fascinating, challenging, and absorbing. When combined with the natural growth experiences that come with the formation of a new family and Church assignments, I found each day filled to overflowing.
Within eight months I was being examined by a doctor to determine if I had ulcers. For weeks I returned home from work each night with a severe headache, and only after long, quiet periods of isolation could I calm my nerves sufficiently to sleep briefly and return to work the next day. I began to prayerfully consider my plight. All I wanted to do was to be a worthy husband and father and honorably carry out my Church and professional assignments. Yet my best efforts produced frustration, worry, and illness. In time the Lord led me to a solution. I was prompted to divide mentally—and physically, where possible—all of the challenges, tasks, and assignments given to me into two categories. All of the things for which I felt responsibility but for which I could do nothing to resolve I put in a basket called “worry.” Then all of those things for which I had some ability to control or resolve I put into a basket called “concern.” I realized I could not resolve those things in the worry basket, so I tried hard to forget them. Later in the process I learned that putting them into the worry basket didn’t mean they wouldn’t be taken care of. They were resolved by those who could best handle them—and most often that was the Lord Himself. The items in the concern basket were ordered in priority. I conscientiously tried to resolve them to the best of my ability. Although I could not always fulfill all of them on schedule or to the degree of competence I desired, I did my conscientious best.
As I was learning to control worry, occasionally I would feel my stomach muscles tighten and tension overcome me. I would cease whatever I was doing and, with earnest prayer for support, concentrate on relaxing and overcoming the barrier that worry produced in my life. I would mentally say, “I am not going to do another thing until I begin to control my emotions.” Over a period of time those efforts were blessed by the Lord. I came to understand how He is willing to fortify, guide, and direct every phase of life. The symptoms of illness passed, and I learned how to face tasks under pressure.” (Link. You might want to read the whole address, it is excellent.)
Sometimes, I think that worrying about things that are beyond my control somehow means that I am a more caring and sympathetic person. It makes me feel good about myself. Perhaps.
Sometimes, I think that worrying about things that are beyond my control is safer than worrying about things within my control – because I am not really accountable for any of those things. I can rant and rave about the cause du jour all I want and not be responsible for what happens.
Sometimes, I can do a token gesture and give myself props for doing something- even though what I did doesn’t really amount to anything. Today’s world, with the speed and reach of technology can also help create an illusion that we are actually doing something, when we are actually doing very little. It so much easier to post a link to a charity than to run one, or volunteer to help. It is much cheaper to post a meme about a crisis than it is to donate to it. I’m sure ISIS trembles anytime someone posts a “Defeat ISIS” meme on their Facebook wall. But hey, it makes us feel better…
Turning worry in to action is noble. And sadly, rare.
I know this is probably coming off as cynical, but it is not. It is meant to help. There are so many stresses and worries that demand our attention in our lives that are pressing and immediate that we do not have the mental, emotional or spiritual resources to freak out about things beyond our control.
Personal example: In 2004, there was a giant tsunami in Southeast Asia that killed almost a quarter-million people. When it happened, I was riveted to the screen. So many horrible images. For days and weeks tragic video was released, and I watched it all, feeling sick inside. I experienced the “mental anguish” referenced by Elder Scott. Here’s the sad part. While I suffered and worried about the crisis, I did exactly nothing. I didn’t volunteer time. I didn’t donate money. I said a few prayers at the time, but the proportion of effort to emotional investment was dreadfully out of skew.
But to ignore tragedy and suffering seems almost inhuman and wrong. We need to be aware of what is going on in our world, and is afflicting our fellow men. It is part of being human. Of course we need to hold charity in our hearts, as well as mercy, pity and sometimes empathy. However, when those feelings do not lead to anything productive, or get in the way of things we should be focused on, they become detrimental.
Life is difficult. If we fill our cart with “mental anguish and continual worry” we take away our strength to focus on the myriad tasks at hand. It can be paralyzing. Targeted apathy can free up strength and faith to move forward.
I think it takes some real honest self-assessment to figure out which things that stress us out deserve our attention, and which things are merely in our lives because we invited them in.
But this is not a carte blanche to embrace apathy. Somethings we have an obligation to be concerned about. Especially spiritual things. Not long ago, Elder L. Tom Perry said (Quoting President David O McKay),
“The peril of this century is spiritual apathy. As the body requires sunlight, good food, proper exercise, and rest, so the spirit of man requires the sunlight of the holy Spirit; proper exercise of the spiritual functions; avoiding of evils that affect spiritual health, which are more ravaging in their effects than typhoid fever, pneumonia, or other diseases that attack the body.” (link)
Maybe the Zika virus isn’t our biggest concern.
One way to evaluate what we worry about is to try and determine if those worries interfere with our spirituality. Do they cause fear, and diminish faith? Because we can’t have both. Fear or faith – choose one.
“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).
“My beloved brothers and sisters, fear not. Be of good cheer. The future is as bright as your faith.” President Thomas Monson (LInk)
“Any believing Latter-day Saint is an optimist about what lies ahead for him or her, however difficult the present may be.” President Henry B. Eyring. (link)
Care less – about the stuff we can’t change. (Targeted apathy)
Care more – about the stuff we can change. (Targeted faith)