Monday, November 19, 2012

What, Me Worry?

No, this post isn't about Mad Magazine which is this month celebrating 60 years of looking satirically at American culture.  And it's also not about its icon, Alfred E. Neuman, who took up residence on the magazine's covers a couple of years after the first 26 issues were published as a comic book.  His stock answer to everything is the ironic, "What, me worry?"  My topic here, then, is worry, in particular and in general, something familiar to everyone born human.  I even think it  a better English translation for the Pali word dukkha than "suffering." This word is at the heart of the Buddha's dhammic analysis of our plight as living creatures who can reflect on their situation, recall the past, look forward to, and perhaps fear, the future.  Back in the New Age Sixties worry was condemned as a negative attitude.  And here in Thailand it's seen as an unproductive state of mind that gets you nowhere.  But I'm not so sure.  While I recognize that worry can be a tsunami of the mind that destroys everything in its path, I also believe that worry motivates, and that it is a spur to action.  Worry can also be seen as concern, for the messes we get ourselves into, the tragedy of the poor, the innocent victims of war, and the fate of the planet.

Perhaps I'm worrying more than normal these days.  I haven't been paid for the teaching I did last term for nearly four months, along with the other part-time English teachers. All we've been told is that there is an "accounting problem."  No, I'm not in Kansas any more.  Money, or the lack of it, is a definite trigger for anxiety about the future.  Speaking of that, how much of a future have I got?  It's amazing how fast the days go by now that I'm in my dotage.  While many Thais continue to tell me how strong I look (a euphemism for something, I'm sure), my body squeals otherwise.  The right knee, the left eye, my few remaining teeth, both ears, and the skin covering with its strange blotches and growths all cry out for expensive medical repair, but the budget says no.  A good friend has had bypass surgery and a pacemaker installed at a cost equal to the economy of a small country (even though half-price in Thailand for medical tourists).  My outstanding credit card debt would finance the start-up of a high-tech company.  You get the picture.

After my father died at 83, I learned from my mother that he had been a serious worrier.  I never knew.  For the last few years of his life he was proscribed Valium.  It helped him probably to forget two heart attacks, his emphysema, the table full of pills he had to take, and the tank of oxygen he had to carry with him to walk with the other old men at the Mall. During my wild amphetamine youth, I used to take doses of that drug to come down and sleep at night.  My first wife consumed Valium regularly, she said, to make her feel normal.  I've never tried any of the many new mood elevators and antidepressants like Prozac, et al, but I am suspicious that they mask rather the remove all the many causes of worry.  If the beast is knocking at your door, I don't think it wise to be wacked out on tranquillizers.  My son Luke's self-medication of choice was alcohol (although he also was quite fond of pharmaceuticals), and it eventually ended his life; no more worries.  I want to say, without sounding too Pollyanna here, that our task in life must be to learn to live with our worries rather than to make them disappear.  The wise Pema Chodron advises us to lean into them rather than to run away to the things that go bump in the night.

One of my biggest worries is that no one will like me.  This has gotten me in some serious trouble in my life with honesty and truth.  Right now I fear the Thai teachers and administrators at my university might shun me if I shout too loudly about not getting paid for my work.  Thais do not appreciate complaints unless they are couched in face-saving gyrations.  On Facebook, I'm discovering that my criticisms of Obama, U.S. policies in the Middle East and elsewhere, and, especially, my blunt condemnation of Israel and its occupation of Palestine, have enflamed the antagonisms of a few "friends."  I've been insulted and de-friended and suspect others are simply blocking or ignoring my links and posts.  I try not to retaliate in kind, but it's difficult, and I feel sad that people I knew and worked with over 35 years ago think me a bigot, an anti-semite, and in general a not very nice person.  Even though we shared anti-Tea Party views during the recent election, many, mostly Jewish, connections on Facebook will not listen to any criticisms of Israel and hate those who are willing to speak out.  I try to explain that it's the present nation of Israel I detest and not Judaism or any who self-identify as a Jew; I respect Jewish spirituality and studied it in school.  But like abortion, the debate over Israel is less words than rocks thrown.

The people whose respect I seek the most are my three remaining children, and the fact that I've moved halfway around the world from them makes conversation especially difficult.  But not impossible.  The new technology offers innumerable ways to communicate while not residing in the same room, or country.  Yet judgments and attitudes stand in the way.  I was an absent and misbehaving father for much of my tenure with two different families, and forgiveness is slow to emerge; maybe it won't.  It's painful to hear your choices mischaracterized and demeaned, and to see your desire to stay in contact refused as unearned.  Part of not being liked (or loved) is the awful shock of realizing that others do not know you as you know yourself, a wonderful human being, and to realize that nothing will change their opinion.

So I worry, about money, about my degenerating body, about a lack of understanding and respect from others, and about the state of the world.  Facebook, and to a lesser extent Twitter, has become my forum for finding out about the world and for expressing my opinions.  I scan the globe using email lists, a personalized and customized Google News, and Google Reader where I maintain a list of credible and interesting sources.  Despite my view that Obama is a moderate Republican (like the kind that used to exist but no longer do) in disguise, to the right of Clinton, whose foreign policies in most aspects duplicate those of the hated Bush II, I took pleasure in his visit to Thailand yesterday, kept track of his movements on Twitter, posted photos on Facebook as they became available, and watched video on the local TV stations and on YouTube.  Because I've chosen to stay here in Thailand, beside my loving and understanding wife, until I take my last breath, I'm vitally interested in the political issues at stake here between monarchists, militarists, true democrats (not the fascists who pretend), and Shinawatra partisans.  And living in Southeast Asia, I now take a close interest in the formation and actions of the regional association ASEAN.  What happens in Myanmar (I really prefer to call it Burma), Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia directly effect my life here.  There is much to worry about, and also much about life now that is exciting. To be concerned and also critical of the status quo is NOT to be negative and sad.

During the halcyon days of the Sixties, worries were so much simpler, although no less deeply felt.  We agonized over choices about work, lovers, music, and politics (I came of age with Vietnam), but there was always time and room for improvement.  At 73, I no longer anticipate an outcome I can oversee.  Back then, it seemed, we could change anything, even ourselves.  I've come to believe that our choices are much more limited by circumstances beyond our control, and that mantras and meditation are largely self-help illusions.  We humans are amazing self-replicating structures of living meat, and life is a one-of-a-kind adventure we experience through no fault of our own.  Given these restrictions, I believe we should make the most of it without resort to distractions that pretend an otherworldly wisdom.  "I put before you life and death," said God in the Biblical story.  "Choose life."  He forgot to mention that worrying is part of the process.


Stephen Cysewski said...

Yep, worry, in moderation motivates solutions.

Roxanne said...


I do not always agree with some of your opinions. And I know you would not always agree with some of mine. But you are not me, nor would I want you to be.

I do understand why some people choose not to associate with those who reject ideas/philosophies that are very important and meaningful to them. Just yesterday my daughter decided, after much agonizing, to turn down the advances of a young man who does not adhere to the same kind of work ethic as she. It caused her much pain. But she came to recognize that those particular differences were not in her best interest.

It is very sad when differing philosophies and opinions separate us. Yet, I think I can see both "sides." I guess the best that we can hope for is that people who don't agree decide to disagree gently and with respect.

Hindsight can be very valuable. However, one has to look where they are going (i.e., ahead) or they are bound to walk into something.

Take care,