I Went Out Into the Morning and Sang – or Maybe I Ate a Hot Fudge Sundae
by Mary Oliver
I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?
Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?
Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
Finally, I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
I’m a worrier, a catastrophizer actually. Not only is the glass half-empty, the water’s polluted. My mind constantly spins out worst-case scenarios. My worry kicked into overdrive recently prior to cataract surgery. Generally it’s a pretty low risk surgery, but I had some complications – I’ll spare you the details – that put me at higher risk for things to go wrong. The day before the surgery potential problems, big and little, exploded into detailed stories in my head. I found myself weeping several times. And I started to crave a hot fudge sundae – something I haven’t wanted in a long time.
I’d remembered that Mary Oliver wrote a poem about worry. I looked it up hoping it might give me some comfort. It didn’t. I love Mary Oliver’s poetry, but in this case I think she got it wrong. The poem reflects a common bias, that somehow if you can’t control the outcome of a situation, you should simply give it up and distract yourself with a song, or maybe a hot fudge sundae.
It’s not that easy. I spent years yelling at myself for being a worry wart, distracting myself with food, and trying to sooth myself with platitudes like “Let go and let God.” Not one of these worked. Ever. Distractions are temporary at best and the more you tell your mind to “stop it” the worse it gets.
I think the word worry also has a trivializing connotation. It’s not “just” worry. At its core are two powerful emotions, fear and anxiety. And more often then not they grow from feeling out of control. That’s a truth we all live with, we’re rarely in control, though we spend a lot of time and energy trying to convince ourselves that we are.
So I’m writing this the night before my surgery. I’m feeling fear and anxiety big time. I’m not in control. My mind is pumping out tragic stories of ways I could be hurt, injured, or swallowed up by the medical bureaucracy. And I want to placate myself with food. What can any of us do when we’re in a situation like this?
First step back and take a look at what’s happening, the situation you’re in, the feelings, the resulting stories, and the urge to eat for comfort. Instead of pushing it away, give it space to exist. Acknowledge your feelings and simply allow them to be. Send yourself some compassion and kindness.
The second step is to recognize that your mind is telling you stories that may or may not happen. In the present moment they’re just stories. The truth is, you can choose to think positive thoughts or negative ones, but they’re still just fleeting, insubstantial thoughts. Rather than denying them, just let them be. You don’t have to believe them.
You’re caught in a chain reaction that can lock you into a very small emotional space: Fear and anxiety lead to thoughts of doom and gloom that lead you to look for relief in a hot fudge sundae or a pitcher of Margaritas. Acknowledging it may seem counterintuitive but it’s the best way I know to disrupt the chain. It doesn’t get rid of uncomfortable feelings, but it does open a door to managing them.
And by all means remember to give yourself some TLC.