Bridget and Sarah are visiting the hospital. They introduce themselves and find out that they’re each waiting for someone who’s in surgery. Bridget, reading and sipping a latte, looks over at Sarah who is gnawing at rough cuticles. Sarah says, “Why is this taking so long? She should have been out by now. What if there were complications?” Feeling sorry for Sarah, Bridget says, “You know that worrying doesn’t actually make things better, right?” Feeling sorry for Bridget, Sarah says, “Let me guess. Not Jewish, right?”
Genetically disposed to worrying, I have learned its ways from masters. My maternal grandmother was a strong, though not stoic, woman. If I write The Joy of Kvetching or Tao and the Art of Worrying, I will dedicate it to her. Her three sisters and she worried aloud to each other daily by phone. (Do the math.) My paternal grandmother was, arguably, more modern: she swallowed her fears with nicotine, developing, and surviving by many decades, cancer of the jaw.
(Forgive me for not discussing the men here; I was worry-apprenticed to the women.)
Underneath worrying, kvetching and stuffing away fears lays the kiln-fired optimism baked into Jewish women since Sarah accepted that she’d have her first child after age 90. Then there was the Egyptian-slavery era. An ancient tale tells that when the women brought their despairing husbands water to slake midday thirst, they made sure the buckets were a-swim with tiny, libido-stimulating fish. The wives would take turns sneaking their men off behind a mortar pile for impregnating nookie, knowing that baby girls mattered and hopeful that some boys would survive Pharaoh’s decree to kill all male newborns.
When either of my grandmothers heard about something awful, she would say, “God forbid!” “But Grandma,” I sometimes answered, “God didn’t forbid; [the awful thing] actually happened.” I got rolled eyes and waved off. When news was wonderful, my maternal grandmother promptly diverted the evil-eye away from success: mock-spitting to one side, “Poo-poo-poo.”
Both matriarchs sustained large families on next to nothing, saving pennies a week from their husbands’ earnings to purchase a first home. They supported the State of Israel with trees, and hungry neighbors with hot meals. They ensured that their sons and daughters did well in school, went to college and developed professions. They were astute, funny and competitive about the respectable lives they were making for their families.
As long as I’ve known her, my mom has aimed missiles at objects of worry, blasting them with the sheer force of right actions. She, too, communicates determined optimism in the face of troubles. “Things will get better. You’ll see.”
I hear defiance in my role models’ determined positivity: “Take that, world that wants us gone!” Their optimism includes the negative premise that someone always wants us to suffer, fail or die. They are not surprised each time Antisemitism rears its ugly head, though they are outraged. This brew of vigilance and certainty has been fermenting forever: Fool me for one millennium, shame on you; fool me for two or more millennia, shame on me. Or as a perennial social media meme summarizes it: every Jewish holiday’s narrative is, “They tried to kill us, they lost, we won, let’s eat.”
In fall 1998, a break-up triggered a resurgence of my pain from losses nearly a decade old. I could not stop crying, so I made arrangements to see a therapist. After a few sessions, my tears retreated and we began to focus on the present. One day he asked, “How can you be such a realist and yet still be so hopeful?” I was confused. After several minutes I asked, “Doesn't that question say more about you than it does about me?” Yet thanks to his question, I understood myself a little better.
I am a Hopeful Realist
I am neither an optimist, denying the power of entropy and evil, nor a pessimist presuming that they are inevitable. I want to know the full range of the possible so that I can move toward a good outcome. I am a hopeful realist.
Consider the metaphor of Schrödinger’s Cat in Metaphysics. If you can’t sense the cat moving in the box someone (unfeeling) sealed it into, then the cat is both dead and alive, because the potential is equal for either to be true. Life can be awful, and if you think it’s as bad as it can get, you are wrong. Life can be wonderful, and if you think it’s as good as it can get, you are wrong. Each action a person takes can influence an outcome and it can make no difference at all. Since you cannot sense which is true at the moment, metaphysically speaking, both opposites are true.
I would be like Schrödinger, except that I’d worry about that poor cat, let it out of the box and feed it. At very least, I’d punch an air hole in the box, whisper assurances to the cat and listen for its breath, metaphysics be damned.
When the current president announced his run for office, I knew he could win and that it would be no laughing matter if he did. I know that he, those who use him for cover and those who are cowed by him have blood on their hands. I know that this country could easily be hijacked into choosing tyranny over democracy. And I know that this confluence of awfulness could be the rock-bottom before a quantum leap in social-justice and ecological leadership. (I also realize that the actual outcome will most likely lay somewhere in between those poles.)
Willing awareness of the full range of possibilities helps me strive to influence outcomes toward good. I am fine with being a hopeful realist, though it softens me in one painful way: nastiness, greed and evil surprise and sadden me each time. If all possibilities could potentially be true, then it follows that someone who hurts others has chosen to (or at best, chosen not to prevent it). I never seem to desensitize from that.
While worry is my birthright, so is the belief that circumstances can be changed for the better. Perhaps worrying is a spiritual practice. Imagine everyone in the world simultaneously worrying about the well-being of someone they love. A global worry-thon could bring about universal love and world peace. Maybe I’ll create it as an event on social media.
Thank you for reading. I hope that you and your loved ones are staying safe and healthy during this pandemic. I worry.