The DNA of Worry

I left you last time a little weepy after sending my first son off to college. I’ll be emptying the nest this fall as my youngest son and talented, self-taught digital musician heads to Columbia College Chicago. My instinct is to say, “thankfully, he’ll be close to home.” Maybe I’ll worry less. For parents, worrying comes with a positive pee stick. None of us want to worry, but we just do.

Last year, my sister (50+ years old) and I (49 years old) visited my parents in Florida. When we left for a walk on the beach, our dad shouted, “Be Careful!” We rolled our eyes, but I understood.

The day before my oldest son left for UW, full of angst, I got the news that there was a terrible storm that flooded Madison. Sadly, one poor man got swept away near the isthmus, the narrow stretch of land between Madison’s two lakes. It prompted me to alert my son, “Don’t get swept away! Avoid the isthmus!” I’ll never forget his face, stunned with a shot of worry... for me! “What? It actually happened,” I barked back, trying to convince him I was sane. In the moment, I even got a little worried about my boys worrying about my worrying. Worrying is annoying, and I’m sick of worrying.

As if on cue, my not-so-spiritual husband surprised me with a quote that my spirit really needed to hear. “Pam,“ he said...

“Worrying is praying for something you don’t want to happen.”

Yes, I’m mindful and I know how to stay present and breathe, but the primal power of parental love, the instinct to protect and the fear of uncertainty is sometimes too great. This quote and recalling our natural inclination toward negativity helped me surrender (somewhat).

Worry comes not only from a place of love, but also from our DNA. The negativity bias says that the human species is programmed to seek the negative. Imagine you’re a nomad following the seasons looking for food and shelter. Each time you find a place to settle, your DNA kicks in as you look to fix what’s wrong. It’s how we protect ourselves – keep ourselves out of harm’s way. As parents, we see potential trouble and shout out “don’t do that, stay away from this.” Going against our DNA to resist this negativity is challenging, but not impossible.

Remembering the quote my husband shared helps me avoid the isthmus of worry - the narrow confines of fear that are actually surrounded by an expansive space to ask for what I seek. Rather than think about what could go wrong, I focus on what I want.

When my son left for college, I couldn’t imagine how I’d survive not knowing what he’s up to – which I don’t – and being far away if he got sick – which he did. But I let go naturally, and I somehow made the transition to a place that once sounded like parental folklore... I actually worry less when he’s gone. When he’s home, well, that’s a different story. But I’m trying. Now not only do I ask both my boys to please take good care of themselves, but I also ask the universe to do the same.

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