Naturally, I related big-time to this recent cover article on anxiety in The New York Times‘ Sunday magazine. Some babies are born anxious, the article on a longitudinal study at Harvard points out, and then they kind of proceed to become anxious toddlers, nervous teens, and neurotic adults.
Well, of course, it isn’t nearly that simple. It depends on the environment you’re brought up in, your parents, your experiences. Some anxious babies fare just fine, but many of them are marked for life. Those who function best end up in quieter, more solitary fields — like, say, writing. They cope pretty well, but they’re still anxious inside.
Oh, lord, the story of my life. I can never understand why some people crave the adrenaline of jumping out of a plane or forging rapids — when normal life, with its vicissitudes, its drunk and texting drivers, its tsnunamis, its epidemics is plenty for me. What do I mean, plenty? Part of the time it’s terrifying.
The article mentions people who always worry when they hear a siren and all I can think is, What kind of nut wouldn’t worry when a siren blares? The bell’s tolling for somebody, all right. Why not me or somebody I care about?
When you’re anxious, when you’re a worrier, when you’re basically a nervous wreck, nothing unsettles you as much as good fortune. Last week, when my novel sold, I was thrilled. But part of me also expected I’d get immediately flattened by a bus since, after all, life is a grim and relentless equalizer and you invariably have to pay for something good.
Don’t try to make sense of any of this. I was just born this way — one of those canaries they use in mine shafts that drop dead when dangerous gases are leaking out. Great system for the miners, but it kind of sucks to be the bird. In my next life, I’m going to be carefree and insouciant. I’ll be leaping out of planes, skydiving, devil-may-care.
But probably not. Truth is, I can’t imagine myself completely free of my trepidations and anxieties. Without them, who would I be?
Sometimes, I think, you come to terms with the person you are and with your own limitations — and understand what it’s given and taken away from you. In my own life, I’ve often thought about the woman in a Cheever short story who stands on a street corner in Manhattan, paralyzed by fear, at the very end of the piece.
I often saw myself as that woman and feared standing on that same corner, frozen and immobilized by panic. Funny to be here in that same city, reasonably confident and enjoying the life. Maybe, when you’ve feared the very worst, it frees you to relish anything short of disaster.
That’s not the kind of relentlessly upbeat, smiley-faced story that’s so popular in these Think Positive Times. But it’s mine — and what the hell. I’ve come to appreciate it. Sometimes, the canary makes it.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read about the lonesome roads of West Texas