Worry: The Need to Know

Routine situations normally follow each other in a self-evident chain of succession. This doesn’t mean we never encounter anything new. It merely means that, most of the time, our knowledge is adequate and the empty categories are automatically filled in with specific details. We expect pregnancy to lead to childbirth. Whether it will be a boy or a girl may be unknown, but neither can be very surprising.

This chain of events is periodically interrupted by open situations. We cannot proceed routinely because something unexpected has emerged, something that requires a reinterpretation or further investigation of what we already know. We’re presented with a problem or choice. We have to think it through. We check back on our past experience for relevant information, imagine possible scenarios, and deliberate on alternatives.

For example, I’m in my new house and I turn on a lamp. Nothing happens. Immediately I begin to draw on past experience. Is it plugged in? Yes. Is there a bulb? Yes. I try another one and still no light. Is there electricity in the house? The clock is running. Is the lamp broken? I plug it in across the room and it works, so it must be the outlet. I try the clock in the first outlet and nothing happens. Why should one outlet not work? I look around and see a switch on the wall. I flick it and the light comes on.

The problem is now definitively solved and I add this recipe to my stock of knowledge. New categories are solutions to past problems and contain the routine methods for dealing with similar situations in the future.

We stop pursuing problems once we’ve solved them, just as we always find things in the last place we look. We know only what we need to know. We stop increasing our knowledge once our practical interest has been satisfied, or when we decide the problem is unimportant, irrelevant, or not worth our time, money, or energy. We could always know more: How could I best use this outlet given it has a switch? What other outlets are controlled by a switch? Should I cover the live outlets to keep them from a small child’s curiosity? It is impossible to exhaust the uncertainty that surrounds every situation — what is unknown and not yet relevant.

Anxiety will be aroused when we sense that our knowledge is inadequate, that past experience will not be a reliable guide. Routine behavior will not get us through. Worry is the thought process that accompanies the feeling of anxiety. It is the attempt to solve the problem, to resolve what is uncertain, to discover what we need to know.

What makes an anxiety situation different from an ordinary open situation is that there is nothing to bring our thinking to a conclusion, no switch to flick. Our thoughts can expand into the surrounding uncertainty indefinitely, and we can still not know what we need to know.

Suppose I come home and discover there’s no electricity. I find the flashlight and check the fuses; they look okay. I look out the window at the nearest house and there are no lights, but this doesn’t necessarily tell me anything. I call the operator and ask if there’s been a power failure. There has, but I get no information about the cause or the possible duration.

All my routines are interrupted. This is inconvenient but not a big deal. I’ve been in blackouts before. I find the candles, the matches, the transistor radio, and eat potato chips. The situation doesn’t yet make me anxious — I’m not dependent on my television, stereo, and computer after all. For a while I enjoy taking a break from my routines.

Then I remember that my neighbor, an archaeologist on a dig in East Africa, confided to me before she left that she was storing a specially prepared vial of her dead boyfriend’s sperm. Perhaps this shouldn’t be my problem. It doesn’t make me anxious the way it would if I were the one with important intentions for this organic matter. But I know how important this is to her, that she would be counting on me in such an emergency. The electricity has already been off for at least four hours. It’s the middle of the night. There’s no way I can reach her. Where can I call? A hospital? Will they believe me? Should I find a twenty-four-hour supermarket and buy ice? How can I break the news to her? This I was not prepared for. I don’t know what to do and the uncertainty cannot be resolved.

Every open situation contains uncertainty, and there is always the potential for anxiety whenever knowledge can’t assimilate a situation routinely. But to provoke anxiety the uncertainty must touch on something important that cannot be ignored. We must come to believe that we will not be able to arrive at a satisfactory solution or explanation. No matter how we analyze the details, no matter how exhaustively we explore the alternatives, the problem remains. There is irreducible uncertainty: something we need to know but cannot determine at this time. We are reduced to waiting, but because of the personal significance of the problem, we cannot simply put it out of our mind. This is worry.

Next chapter: Anxiety: The World as Chaos