Victims of Advice

Worry has a bad image. It’s regarded as useless, neurotic, an object of ridicule. The negative aspects of worry — the tendency to exaggerate and overreact — make “don’t worry” seem like reasonable advice. And certainly there are times when putting something out of mind may be the best policy.

But let’s consider some of the assumptions behind this point of view.

The advice “don’t worry” assumes that your thinking will be ineffectual: “there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.” But this overlooks the possibility of preparation for change. If you refuse to consider the possible alternatives that might occur, you’re likely to be left vulnerable to abrupt transitions and the disorientation of surprise. On the other hand, a moderate amount of anxiety directed toward a definite problem will promote and ease the assimilation of change and can provide an opportunity for self-clarification.

The idea that worry is useless is symptomatic of the general belief that you cannot exert any control over the future. But to believe the future cannot be changed reveals a basic misunderstanding of what it means to consider the future.

There are basically two kinds of future events: those we bring about through our decisions and actions (what to eat, whom to marry, what to do for a living) and those that are imposed and more or less unalterable (death, the weather, time in general). When we anticipate the future, we modify our experience of it. This is obviously true with matters of choice, but it’s also true of events “beyond our control.” The element of surprise is no longer the same if you’ve anticipated something. When you expect rain, you bring an umbrella.

There is clearly a difference between an event that takes you off guard and one that you’re prepared for. You cannot control all events in the future but, through anticipation, you can be different when the future arrives. This is precisely what we do when we worry: We prepare ourselves for the future.

If you believe the future is not under your control, you need a philosophy of life that helps reduce the anxiety that goes along with this view. One such philosophy is “live for today.” If you live for today you can eliminate anxiety, but, by confining your thoughts to the present, you also eliminate future possibilities.

Another implication of “don’t worry” advice is that your problem is not worthy of consideration and that the chances of its materializing are undoubtedly much smaller than you think — in other words, you’re being unrealistic. But what does it mean to be realistic? A threat is never unreal to the one who feels threatened. An outside observer can judge your reaction as inappropriate or disproportionate, but that point of view is unavailable to you once you’re anxious.

This is the dilemma of worry. The situation — real or imagined — has provoked an anxious response. It’s not a question of what is threatened, or how likely it is, but of the inability to know whether you’re thinking clearly and rationally.

Finally, “don’t worry” type suggestions assume that you could change your behavior by will power if only you’d “shape up and pull yourself together” and “take control of yourself.” And it’s certainly true that worry can be eliminated. You can displace it temporarily with something more irresistibly attractive to the mind.

But worry is only a surface sensation that accompanies an underlying anxiety, and that cannot be displaced by a simple act of will — sweeping it under the rug as it were. The anxiety will persist as long as the threat remains, whether the danger is trivial or profound, real or imagined.

In all these assumptions lurks the idea that anxiety and worry should be eliminated because they are problems, and problems are unworthy of the successful and attractive individual who should be “having a nice day” in carefree tranquility, oblivious to situations out of control. Anything that requires a depth of feeling should be nimbly avoided. The desire to find a quick psychological fix for the slightest deviation into emotional discomfort often conceals a shallow self-image — just deep enough to be the vehicle for guilt.

“Don’t worry” is the perfect advice for the seeker of problem-free, odorless existence. This is the aspirin of psychological advice. What it tells you, in so many words, is not to think. Used as a common conversational phrase, it is an admonition not to look beneath the surface of life; not to question, doubt, or object; not to think too deeply about yourself and the world. Don’t fill your head with those unpleasant thoughts. It represents the smile-button ideal that permeates social interactions: the equivalent of “You should be dancing.”

This kind of suggestion is objectionable in general because it subtly promotes the inability to think for yourself, as well as the unimportance of such activity. It is objectionable in particular because it advocates the elimination of anxiety.

In our culture anxiety is regarded as undesirable and so we’re advised to keep it to a minimum. But anxiety is an alarm that can wake people up and prevent them from sleep walking through a life of sanitized options and standardized identities, participating in little more than prepackaged pleasures.

It would seem then that the assumptions behind “don’t worry” advice are faulty. Once examined, they’re easily exposed as the soft foundations of not so benign platitudes. What’s particularly offensive about the whole “don’t worry”/”live for today”/”have a nice day” complex of advice is not simply that these clichés are offered as truths. Even when not taken literally, their surrounding presence in the environment can only condition us to a mindless and uncritical mentality. We grow incapable of recognizing not only our assumptions, but also our self-interest.

The phrase “don’t worry” is typical of the frozen words and ideas we look right through, never realizing how they may be conditioning us to remain unaware of the world and our role in its creation. These verbal ice cubes contain only the faint suggestion of the iceberg on which they rest. What remain submerged are the linguistic and conceptual patterns of thought that operate out of sight, below the level of awareness.

“Don’t worry” is obviously advice, and yet we fail to see that its chain of implications may work to our disadvantage. It’s not surprising then if we fail to recognize what is less clearly labeled. We have no defenses against those admonitions and directions that go unrecognized.

Advice — in the broadest sense of the term — fills the human environment. We live in a world of words and cultural, man-made objects. Every object has a use and every word is part of a symbolic network of associations and values. Implicit in the words and objects that surround us are instructions, directions and suggestions as to what we should be, how we should live, what to think and feel, how to act.

Behind all advice are assumptions that go unquestioned because they are taken for granted. When assumptions remain unexamined, for generations at a time, it becomes increasingly difficult to recognize them and question whether or not they are still valid — if they ever were.

The question is, how does our self-awareness get so restricted that we become unable to identify our own interests? Is it actually possible that we not only choose but have come to prefer what is disadvantageous? What other delusions do we continuously perpetrate on ourselves? And with what effect?

To seek out advice is to make the assumption that change is possible. This is a correct assumption. But we can become victims of this advice for two reasons: 1) we don’t realize just how impressionable we are, and 2) we remain unaware of the overly familiar.

In our natural attitude toward the world we regard its categories as obvious and self-evident. Operating with this attitude we believe we discover the world the way “Columbus discovered America.” This taken for granted quality of life is its most cunning feature, concealing the origins and history of meanings and values.

The mind is not at all unlike a machine, programmed by the categories contained in language. The mechanisms of consciousness — the programs themselves — are ordinarily concealed by their very familiarity. But to recognize these mechanisms is to increase control of major instruments of change. The routine, the commonplace, the cliché — these conceal because they are taken for granted. But camouflage is much easier to spot once you know you’re looking for camouflage.

Next chapter: The World from Scratch