Three Thoughts on Anxiety (or, more specifically, Trepidation)

(when my son was born, I created an email account for him, and I occasionally send him letters about things we can’t talk about yet; this is an excerpt from a letter I recently wrote to him)

I want to share with you a short story about anxiety – or, more specifically, trepidation. I am still practicing the application of this lesson, and it has been very helpful for me. I hope it will be helpful for you as well.

Many years ago (around 2013), in a land far away (the town of Media, outside of Philadelphia), I lived in a small house with a woman named Lori. We were married at the time, but how we came to be married and how we came to be unmarried is a story for another time.

We volunteered to serve as a foster family for a dog, a tiny female chihuahua whose name I can’t recall. She lived with us for a couple of months, and grew very attached to Lori. When the dog was finally adopted, and her adoring new owner carried her away in her arms, the dog locked eyes with us, looking at us with what I interpreted to be a look at baleful, dismayed betrayal. We had knowingly allowed—nay, arranged!—for a stranger to carry her away from us.

We were wrecked with guilt, even as we knew that we had done a good service to the dog, and helped her have a better life.

Some months later, we fostered Sammy, a small white dog of unclear heritage. Sammy became my personal white shadow. He wanted to go everywhere I went, out to the street, into the bathroom, next to the sofa. It was clear to me that he grew very attached to me. As I imagined the day he would be adopted away, I could imagine his immense sense of betrayal, the Look he will give me as he would be carried away and carried off. I liked Sammy fine, but he is not the dog I would’ve chosen for myself. Still, I found myself contemplating adopting him permanently, to save him the shock of being taken away from me, and to save myself the sense of guilt at allowing—nay, engineering!—that.

Adopting Sammy was a true temptation, one that I kept considering even as I began screening adoption candidates. I went back and forth on this, but retained an underlying clarity that Sammy isn’t the dog for me, and that it’s better if I don’t adopt a dog who isn’t quite right for me. Eventually I came across an application from a prospective adoptive family that looked right to me, and arranged a meeting with them.

I brought the unsuspecting Sammy into the car and drove down to the shelter, where the meet-n-greet was arranged to take place. The family arrived: Two parents and a child, all very happy to see Sammy, and Sammy enjoyed them as well, although he kept turning to me and reconnecting with me throughout. They were a good match, except for his bond to me.

I prepared myself mentally to walking away from Sammy, to feeling and then seeing his look of shocked disbelief as I left him in the hands of strangers. The moment arrived. I handed the family the leash and wished them well. I petted Sammy on the head and started walking toward my car, my shoulders bunched up against the weight of guilt. The family and Sammy started walking toward their car.

When I got into my car I risked a look toward Sammy. His new family was walking ahead, holding his leash. Sammy was following them, tail high, spring in his step. He never even glanced in my direction as he got into the car and drove away. No sad dog face in the rear window, no paws scrabbling to reunite with me.

The family was nice. In the weeks to come they sent me some photos of Sammy in his new life, enjoying himself in their loving company.

There are probably a few lessons to be learned from this story. There is one that I took away and have been practicing ever since, whenever I remember. It is this: Anxiety over an uncertain future event is a waste of suffering.

When I start feeling anxious about something that will happen in the future, I remind myself these three things:

1) It may not even happen.
2) If it happens, it may not be as bad as I think.
3) If it happens and is as bad as I think, I’ll suffer then. No need to start suffering now.

I have had many opportunities to apply this lesson over the years. I am still learning. It is such an easy habit of thought to assume that something will happen, that it is certain and known. But it is not. Nothing is certain. I may be relying on faulty information, or I may be making faulty assumptions, or the world itself may change by the time this event is to take place. So few things happen in the way I expect. Assuming that I know what is going to happen is its own form of hubris but more importantly, in this case, is its own form of self-torture. Buying in to the belief that an unwanted event will happen, will certainly happen, is a way of gifting misery to myself.

It’s equally easy to believe that I know how I (or someone else) will feel when this thing will happen, and how horrible it will be. But this too is uncertain. I may be different by the time the event takes place, or the other person may be different by the time the event takes place. Or the other person (like Sammy) may respond completely differently than what I expect.

It is extremely helpful for me to recognize these assumptions and beliefs for what they are. It takes away a bit of the sting, it helps me remember that I am suffering because of a story I am telling myself about a possible future, and not because of something painful that is happening right now.

As I mentioned, this is not a lesson I have fully learned yet. I still fall into these holes, and it sometimes takes me a while to dig myself out. The reason this is on my mind at all right now is because yesterday, as I was driving to a kayaking trip up in Glastonbury (Riverfront Park has a launch to a lovely part of the Connecticut River), I spoke with Anat on the phone. She said her dog Billy (a dog that used to be Savta’s, a dog who you enjoy so much and wanted to have live with us, a sweet-natured and lovely dog who is getting to be quite old) has been very weak, doesn’t eat, hardly drinks, and has a hard time moving around. And I thought to myself: Oh no. We will have to euthanize her soon. I imagined being in the room with Billy, giving her a last deep ear scratch and hearing her sigh contentedly, I imagined having to explain to you what had happened, I imagined asking for her ashes so I could spread them together with Savta’s when the time comes. I thought about having to do all this the following day, a day before my trip to Philadelphia, and somehow recovering before I go do my workshop with the medical students at Penn. I got sad. I cried as I drove.

After kayaking, I went to see Anat (and Billy, and Bay). I came into the apartment. Bay charged into the kitchen, wagging, jumping, whining, barking, smiling, licking. Behind Bay came Billy, walking in her usual dysplastic way, barking, smiling, burying her head between my thighs as she loves to do. We took both dogs on a walk. Billy walked well. We came back in. Billy barked for food.

She is getting older. She will die. But not right now.

And all this anguish I had been feeling, all this loss and sadness, and even the stress of figuring out how to fit her death into my life, was unnecessary.

There may be benefits to anxiety and to grieving in advance. I have a friend who believes that anxiety is a motivating force, that sometimes it pushes us to prepare for and thwart a damaging process. Grieving in advance is a part of grieving, and a way to start getting used to the possibility (or, more accurately, the eventuality) of loss.

And yet. And yet, dear boy. So few things happen as we think they would, when we think they would. And in those times, so often our experience than what we thought it would be. And even if these things happen, and even if our experience is painful, there is little benefit in bringing the pain into the present by imagining how it will feel in the future. I have given myself many, many hours of pained brought on by imagined future events that never happened. Now, I try to give myself the gift of lightness by accepting not-knowing, by acknowledging the fear, the anxiety, the trepidation, and gently reminding myself that it may not happen, or that it may happen differently, or that when it does happen, I will experience it and process it.

I hope this is helpful for you. And I hope you are having fun wherever you are now, beautiful boy. I will talk with you soon.

Love,

Dad

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