Worrying About Soufflè

It was our 9 year wedding anniversary, and I was in one of the many resort pools in Kauai’i. I hadn’t been on vacation in 5 years – and I was thrilled to be in this paradise of sorts, surrounded by the unique beauty of Hawaii and the luxury of a boutique hotel. When we pulled up to the front entrance –  grand as it was, and opened so you could see directly through the lobby, across the resort and out onto the ocean. A traditional lei was placed around my neck, and I felt like a fairytale princess.

I had never made a call from the bathtub before, much less from inside a swimming pool surrounded by tropical flowers and cabana girls. In my utter delight of having this most perfect afternoon in the world, I decided I should call my sister to share my contentment with her, to tell her we made the flight okay, and that we were celebrating our anniversary so nicely. I don’t remember much of the conversation, but it started by her saying something like “They found a lump.”

The world couldn’t have crashed harder on my head than at that moment in hearing those words, and the quiver in her voice when she said, “I’m scared.” I tried to offer encouraging words, calming words, non-panicked words. In the end, from the middle of the pool, palm trees and tropical birds flying overhead, every word out of my mouth were all … just … words.

My mother used to say I shouldn’t say I hated things. As a teenager, I threw the word around far too casually. “Hate is such a strong word,” she’d say, and eventually I realized she was right. I don’t use the word anymore, but I hate cancer.

As soon as I hung up with my sister,  I filled in the blanks for my husband who half knew what was happening from hearing my side of the conversation. With tears in my eyes, guilt seared me from the inside out. I am spending this day in Eden, I thought to myself, and my sister is entering the gates of hell.

I tortured myself over what to do as i got out of the pool. Seems when things go bad, I always want to do something. I guess we all do.

That was almost 4 months ago to the day. A year before that, she had surgery to have a radical hysterectomy followed by radiation treatment, and was declared cancer free. Fast forward to today. When I called her this past weekend to see how her appointment went on Friday, she told me the doctor ‘noticed something abnormal’, and she’d have to go for some tests.  Foolishly, I hadn’t expected even potentially bad news when I dialed her.

Again, I scrambled. What should I do…???

The problem there is, a lot of times when something jarring happens, there’s nothing to do. So usually, I resort to the next best thing  – I worry. I think a lot of people probably fall into this same pattern, because it feels somewhat proactive. If we can’t DO something about what’s happening, well, at least we can think about and plan what we might do in case any of the eight million  forty two possibilities come to our doorstep. Of course we only come up with a solid and satisfying plan for three of those so the remaining and unsolved worries are left for us to mull over and over … and over …  trying to figure out what to do ‘if’…  or what to do ‘when’… Ultimately we spend a whole bunch of energy on not doing much of anything but wearing ourselves out.

“Worry and doubt are the greatest enemies of a great chef. The soufflé will either rise or it won’t. There’s not a damn thing you can do about it, so you might as well just sit back and wait, and see what happens.”

 

– Joe Sisko, Star Trek DS9

I can still remember one of my childhood friend’s mother calling me a worry wart when I was about 9. She was quite right, too. My dad was especially good at worrying, and my mom wasn’t half bad, either. Not saying it’s their fault, though I did see a lot of worry and I became a pro at it myself at an early age.

I remember one of my brothers saying to me at my dad’s wake, something like, “All the worrying he did… Always worrying… In the end, what good did it do him?” As I looked at my dad laying in the coffin, hands folded with rosary beads laced neatly around them, I could still imagine him sitting, on any given night of the week, at the kitchen table in his white undershirt, his back hunched and one of those same hands holding a Winston, the other resting on his lap while the world pushed down with both hands directly on his shoulders. My poor father, so much burden. Always worrying.

I understood at that moment during my fathers wake, even if I couldn’t quite embrace these words of wisdom from my brother and learn from them, that he was onto something. As today I still know, though maybe I am a little closer to being able to live by them. (And by a little I mean ever so slightly, like the size of just one of the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin.) Maybe I’m a little closer than I used to be (by not very much) because I’m less afraid of my own death. Or maybe, and most probably, because worry itself has taught me that it really actually doesn’t help anything – it’s not just something you say to try to help someone stop worrying. It really actually doesn’t affect the outcome, no matter how much your emotions want to believe that somehow, by worrying, you will devise a clever plan that will outwit the antagonist ,whoever or whatever that might be, and you can control whether or not you walk away from this thing victorious.

My philosophy is that worrying means you suffer twice.

 

J.K. Rowling

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:
The Original Screenplay

Weird things stand out for me when I watch movies. I suppose this line was meant to be remembered; but ask me anything else about the movie, and I can’t remember a thing. This, though, I remembered – probably because it doinked me between the eyes – clearly it was directed at me, right through the movie screen. I think it stood out, too, because fewer words often better serve some of the most evocative and emotive ideas. (Which is why I will probably never be remembered as having been either.)

Herein lies the crux of this writing, and that is the acknowledgement of the presence of this daunting sense of teetering on a tightrope between worrywart and soufflé chef.   How do we keep ourselves from falling off into worry?

It feels passive to think, “Welp, there’s nothing I can do about it,” sealed with a shrug for good measure. That feeling of it reflecting passivity comes, I think, from worry (heh) of being perceived as uncaring, or maybe selfish with a negative connotation – at least for me. (Possibly in part because there is part of me that suspects that I am selfish, with a negative connotation.)

There is part of me that recognizes and accepts that death is inevitable, and all life is suffering. Meaning, everything is impermanent, and that impermanence is beyond our control. Even if short-lived, this thought brings me peace, as if something just lifted a burden from my shoulders. Since there’s nothing I can do about it, I need not worry. Hooray! Okay, maybe not exactly.

I find myself truly in a middle ground, then, in something of a purgatory of peacelessness. Neither here nor there. Ignorance is bliss, but I am not completely ignorant. I know at least some of what I do not know.

But that was fluffy and esoteric. Let me explain myself in a more tangible way.

I know that I cannot cure the cancer if it exists in my sister.  I cannot remove the fact that she will someday die, and that day is out of my control. Death is inevitable and all life is suffering. Agreed. But this idea that, ‘since there’s nothing I can do about it, I need not worry’ , well, it’s just not quite that easy…  One has to prepare for the possible outcomes! I mean what if…

Oh wait, wait, that’s shenpa. Yes, I recognize it.

Saying ‘it’s not that simple’ is my knee-jerk reaction, my attempt to legitimize my own shenpa, or ‘hook’, as Pema Chodron explains it, which for me is worry in this case. Worry is that sticky thing that I get hooked on, like…well kinda like this. I get stuck in that discomfort that’s so familiar it’s almost comfortable. It’s something I can understand, something I can hold onto. Something I can do.

But, I know worry is pointless, so how do I change this habit of hooking onto worry?

For one, like with everything else – I will get better at it with practice. I will try to be thankful for having an opportunity to practice mindfulness, returning myself to the present moment when I start to wander to worryland in my mind, and practice not losing myself in possible outcomes of the future by getting hooked by shenpa. I will practice trusting myself, and that I will know what the right thing to do is when the time comes to do it, so I don’t have to evaluate every possible situation beforehand to make sure I do the right thing when the time comes to act. I will continue to show compassion to myself when I recognize that I have allowed my thoughts to wander into worryland, and I will bring myself back with gentle nonjudgemental love, recognizing that time spent on the less desirable path means I may have attained a greater capacity for empathy of others who suffer from worry. Above all, I will continue seeking answers, guidance from trusted spiritual leaders, and growing spiritually to be able to better embrace all of these things.

In closing, a chart for those of us that need a more “logical” representation of this path. Not mentioning names, self.. 😉