“What, Me Worry?” by Mark W. Harris – June 4, 2006
“What, Me Worry?” Mark W. Harris
June 4, 2006 First Parish of Watertown
Opening Words – “Consider the Lilies” by Stephen Shick
It is not newness we seek
but the fresh return of the eternal.
He said, the truth is not hidden in the mountains, it is not far off,
it is in your hand, your heart, your mouth.
“So do it,” he said.
He spoke in parables, mostly about money
and the truth it can’t buy.
Consider the mustard seed, he said,
how it grows into the largest shrub.
From it, he said,
know your true wealth and power.
Consider the birds that nest in the shrub, he said,
how they sing in the spring.
From them, he said
know your true heart’s song.
Consider the lilies, he said,
and don’t worry. The truth is at hand.
With the seed and the lilies
nothing new arrives,
and even the mockingbird
sings songs that other birds once knew.
Nothing arrives with newness.
All is waiting to be reborn.
Do you ever worry? Not me. Why worry just slides off my back like water off a fish. In fact, whenever I visit my brother he brings out one of those battery powered fish that wiggles and winks, and guess which song that fish performs for my boys? This brook trout croons Bobby McFerrin’s infamous tune, “Don’t worry, be happy.” And I suppose at first glance the life of a fish would seem to be pretty worry free, just splashing around in the pond all day. But in truth, if I were a fish, I’d be concerned about all the bad things that could happen. I’d worry about some mean bigger fish coming along to swallow me up. I’d worry about some relentless fisherman tying the most beautiful lure, and I would suck it right up and be gone. I suppose I could hope for one of these catch and release Unitarian type of fisherman, but the percentage of UUs out fishing is probably pretty low. They’d say it wasn’t productive enough. No UU’s, Not with my luck. My fisherman would want to kill his prey and throw him on ice for later. Then there’s the pollution making me sick, or the flooding that could wash me away. All kinds of things could happen. I could even get eaten. I’d worry myself sick if I were a fish.
My wife Andrea tells me I am a worrier. I don’t know why she says that. Just because I use to lay in bed thinking that the slight bow in our roof in Maine would mean that the roof was going to collapse at any time, and leave our house in a pile of rubble was no indication that I was a worrier, was it? Glad we sold it. Just because I have to hover over my children like a hawk for fear that I might lose them doesn’t mean I am a worrier does it? Glad they are getting older. Just because I see every odd shaped or odd colored mole becoming a deathly disease doesn’t mean I am a worrier. I am just cautious, concerned, involved and responsible, right? Well, can’t say I’ll never get sick can I? In fact disaster could befall my house, my kids, or me. We can take reasonable precautions to prevent these things from occurring. There are structural engineers that can examine houses, there are rules that children can follow about not taking unnecessary risks, and we can try to live lives that help us live longer and better. And one of those things that would help us live longer and better would be to not worry so much.
It is sometimes said that studies show that belonging to a church will help you live longer. Does this mean that those who have faith will worry less? Once upon a time the stress over whether or not you were saved and going to heaven was a significant source of worry for people. Puritans were constantly examining themselves to determine if God had shed his grace upon them, and chosen them to be among the elect. So there was constant worry, if and when you would feel God’s saving love. The alternative was worry about burning in the fires of hell for all eternity. I think at one time this kind of preoccupation with whether you were predestined for salvation or not was worrisome to people, especially when life was so short, nasty and brutish. But this type of worry seems less relevant now especially with liberal religion’s 19th century contribution that everyone who developed good moral character would be saved. Universalists, especially offered a kind of “don’t worry, God loves you and will save you anyway” faith. We were the first worry-free religion.
Religion traditions that promise salvation provide some insight into how we can respond to the worries that beset us. If a person was worried about whether or not they would go to heaven, they were told they would be rewarded for acting in the kindest, most responsible fashion. While few Unitarian Universalists these days believe that God plays some kind of tit for tat game to achieve eternal life, we have always emphasized the positive role each one of us can play in overcoming worries that plague us. Mother Jones, who was called the Miner’s Angel, and was active in labor reform 100 years ago, was famous for the saying, “don’t mourn , organize.” This fits those of us who are worriers because we tend to worry endlessly about things like health, money, or schools, but not be able to constructively act in response to these worries.
In the reading from Nancy Mairs’ memoir, she tells us how her son Matthew has chronic health problems right from birth. She has a legitimate worry, and recognizes it as such. Something is wrong. Unfortunately, she has no support to affirm that. Her mother says that she could not stand to take the child, and the father denies that there is anything to worry about. For one thing she says he is constitutionally inclined to leaps of faith. In other words, he doesn’t worry at all, but believes everything will be alright. Second, he is not around enough to even know the truth. He might recognize that there is something worth worrying about if he were. Even the doctor refuses to listen. So she must continue to find the strength of heart to believe that something is wrong, even if no one backs her up. We are reminded that we must act when something is a legitimate worry. Too many of us procrastinate, or ignore, or hide from things that actually worry us, so that we can simply worry some more. Here we must act on our worries.
Arnold Lobel tells a Frog and Toad story called “Tomorrow.” Toad woke up one morning and realized his house was a mess. Frog confirmed this, but Toad pulled the covers over his head saying he would clean it tomorrow. Today he thought, I will take life easy. Frog said, your pants and jacket are lying on the floor. But Toad replied that he would pick them up tomorrow. Then the litany continues. Your sink is filled with dishes – “tomorrow.” There is dust on your chairs – “tomorrow.” Windows need scrubbing – “tomorrow.” Plants need watering – “tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.” Just then Toad sat up, I feel down in the dumps, he said. He began to worry. “I am thinking about tomorrow, and all the things I have to do.” Now we all know people who would say, “oh it will just get dirty again.” But in this story Toad realizes that if he picked up his pants and all the rest, he will not have to work so hard tomorrow. Then he did it all. “Now I feel better. I don’t have to worry about tomorrow. Now I can save tomorrow for something I really want to do.” What’s that?” Frog says. “Just take it easy.” Then he pulled the covers over his head, and went to sleep. At least, he doesn’t have to worry. Do your teeth worry you? Go to the dentist. Does the size or color of a mole bother you? Get it checked. Does it seem like your kids are not getting any help or any respect? Demand that you be listened to. Don’t worry. Act on your worries, or as Mother Jones said, organize.
The second thing we need to do with our worries is to have reassurance that what we are worried about has legitimacy. Nancy Mairs’ husband in our reading , offers no assurance to her legitimate worry, but basically tells her she is imagining the problem with the baby. What we usually don’t need is someone saying, stop worrying so much. More importantly we need someone to listen to our worries so that we feel supported in our concerns. In Nancy Mairs case, her husband seems to imply that her worries are not real, but a symptom of her craziness. More than anything worrying shows how much we care. It is not pathologically self-serving, but rather a sign of our tremendous love and compassion for another that we need to share with another who will then offer reassurance. We all need things to assure us and assuage our worries. While someone listening to us helps, her husband’s willingness to stay with the baby or even figure out a plan of action might have helped. If we are worried about safety, then we can use locks. If we are worried about a pain, then a positive test result may alleviate our worries. If we know a specialist is actually working with our child, then we may worry less, and consequently have hope that somebody is doing something about this worry.
Everyone carries insurance of one form or another We have health insurance not to prevent bodily illnesses or health problems, but to help us pay for those maladies when they do strike. We have car insurance, not to prevent accidents, but to help us pay for damage inflicted when large metal objects collide. We have home owners insurance , not to prevent theft or fire, but to help us pay for costly replacements when they are stolen or burned. All these forms of insurance may help alleviate worries of one kind or another. Those who sell life insurance tell us we won’t have to worry about our families financial future if we carry their policy. It is important for a worrier to realize one important thing about insurance. It is not insurance of your life, but insurance on your life. There is no insurance of your life. If we live in the world – own a house, drive a car, parent a child, we take risks every single day. We take precautions crossing a street. Heavy traffic may worry some more than others. But if we refuse to cross the road, we never get to the other side. Here is where worry can dominate a life, and we miss the joy of living because everything we might do worries us, could hurt us, and therefore we end up doing nothing. So we need assurance that trying new things or taking risks is a good thing. We grow, we experience, we learn, and we enjoy life. So if you’ve always wanted to do that or go there, we need to let the worry of disaster not take precedent over the more likely adventure of emotional, spiritual and educational gain.
So we have gauged whether a worry is legitimate or not, and if it is, then we should do something. Second, we need reassurance that what we worry about is worthy of support, things that makes us feel insured in a variety of ways. A third thing we can do with things that worry us is avoid them. I don’t mean put your head in the sand over legitimate worries, but rather literally stay away from things that really can hurt us. In the Islamic tradition there is a Sufi tale about a man who was invited to go lion hunting. When he returned he was asked how was the hunt? He replied, “oh, it was very successful.” “Why was that?” his friend asked. And he said, “because we didn’t meet any lions.” Many of us worry every day that we are going to meet a lion. A simple solution to this dread of lions, or those things that we fear are going to eat us up, is to avoid them. My boys are afraid of dogs, and despite the fact that most dog owners insist, “my dog doesn’t bite,” some dogs do bite. This reminds me of when I went back to Pemaquid Point, a couple of years ago to see the site of my near death encounter with an ocean wave. Andrea who had witnessed this harrowing event did not want to come with us, and see the place again. When I brought the boys down on to the rocks and began walking around, I began to worry about their safety, and said to myself, this is a scary place. Why go to places, why meet people who are
just going to bring you more stress, more worries. Sometimes with worry, it is better to stay away.
Up until now, we have mostly considered how we respond to legitimate worries through action, reassurance or avoidance, but for many of us worries are often making a mountain out of a molehill. Whether it is inheriting the worrisome genes of my mother, who panicked over her baby (that’s me) playing in the woods, or the human inclination to worry over eons of time in life and death moments with real lions with no greater weapon than intelligence, and the ability to climb a tree, I am as my wife says, a worrier. I tend to lock doors, look behind me, and follow small children around like a magnet. I try to do all those things I have counseled in this sermon. See legitimate worries and act. Reassure myself not to worry by remembering that people have told me that it is safe, or it will go well. What I sometimes fail to remember is that people are usually forgiving and the world will go on. As a minister I sometimes worry that what I say will have an negative impact on someone. It is natural that we would worry about what pain our words can inflict. Words are my life’s work. So is all that worry about the impact of my words or offending others or that I will say the wrong thing a legitimate concern?
Recently, I was in a panic over something I had done. I spent the better part of a week thinking this person is really going to be offended that I did this without their permission. And I kept worrying telling myself I should have consulted them. Oh, why did I act so compulsively? And then after the week was up, I saw the person and said, did you notice what I did? I hope I didn’t overstep my bounds. I was all ready to be reprimanded or attacked. They simply responded, “oh , it was no big deal.” I thought, all this worry for nothing. They didn’t care. It was no catastrophe. I was brought back to that favorite magazine of my childhood, Mad Magazine. There was this goofy, freckle-faced boy with a smirk on his face, saying, What, Me Worry? Alfred E. Newman was an ever present reminder that some worries we harbor are a ridiculous waste of energy and effort. Come on he was saying, have fun, relax and stop worrying about everything all the time. So often we worriers expect the worst. We see disasters around every corner, but with a little reassurance and a little trust in life we would realize that 99 times out of 100, there is no disaster, there are no lions today. There is nothing to worry about. And in those instances of personal enlightenment we can enjoy the beauty of the lilies as they bloom, or the sun as it sets over the horizon, or the smiles of trust that exist in the eyes of those we love. We all have three kinds of relationships – with the self, with others and with the universe, the source of life. We worry about our own health and well being. We worry about how others perceive us, and how we perform in society, and we worry about where life will take us in this strange and wondrous journey. Some worries we can do something about and some we cannot. Some worries are legitimate and some are not. Some worries are always going to be there, and some never existed. The answer: Do what you can, with what you can, for as long as you can, and for the rest, don’t worry. Last night I saw the movie Akeela and the Bee. It is the story of an African American girl from South Los Angeles who beats all odds to win the National Spelling Bee. At the end of the story we hear that we cannot really worry about tomorrow until it comes, and why worry about yesterday, when it is already gone. It is the love we share today that is important – all those family and friends who helped Akeela be a great speller. The key was not about worrying about failure, but about having the faith to believe in your own power, your own love. Consider the lilies, Jesus said, they grow, and grow and grow. They are so beautiful, as are you, as are others, as is life. I do enough worrying about the world, about my kids and about doing the right thing. Summer is coming. Time to do a little less worrying. Save it for winter.
Closing Words – “The Sun” by Mary Oliver
Have you ever seen
in your life
than the way the sun,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon
And into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone –
and how it slides again
out of the blackness,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower
streaming upward on it heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance —
and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love —
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure
that fills you,
as the sun,
as it warms you
as you stand there,
empty handed —
or have you too
turned from this world —
or have you too