I’ve been playing music with a friend in the harbor. We’ve been working on a medley of Bobby McFerrin’s song Don’t Worry, Be Happy and Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, the chorus of which says, “Don’t worry about a thing, ‘cause every little thing gonna’ be alright.” These words have permeated my mind, and they are timely. My musically gifted friend has plenty of reasons to worry. With a rare cancer diagnosis and an expiration date handed down by doctors, there’s no guarantee that the treatment he’s seeking will save him. Even now, he’s waiting for the VA to decide if it will even cover the treatment protocol and work with the oncologist who specializes in his type of cancer. But he’s refusing to worry anyway. He told me, “When you relax, things just have a way of working themselves out.”
Worry is a cancer of the soul. It emaciates your spirit—causing a loss of peace and joy not unlike cancer’s cachexia, the inexplicable wasting away of the body. Worry makes a terrible companion, keeping you up at night, preventing you from eating (or making the food you do eat indigestible), blinding you from the good in your life and keeping your eyes focused on all the possible bad outcomes. Worry says, “What if…?” The more imaginative the person, the more elaborate the worst-case scenarios he invents. Worry says, “We can mitigate this by…” The more goal-oriented the person, the more control she attempts to exert. Worry says, “Be careful…” The more risk-averse the person, the less adventurous his life becomes.
Sometimes our worries are completely unfounded—so much of what we fear does not come to pass. But sometimes we worry because circumstances are worrisome. In this case, it takes a herculean act to refuse to worry. Many of us have real worries. I have friends in places where the next meal is not guaranteed, let alone the next paycheck. The whole world is consumed with worry about an invisible virus, and about the cascading effects of trying to mitigate its spread. One generation worries about the world it will hand to the next—about the environment, about violence, about education, about jobs, about relationships, about government. There is no part of our lives untouched by these concerns, because no part of life is guaranteed. We know that life is fragile and that suffering is real.
But worry takes this uncertainty and amplifies it, creating deafening fears. One Bob warns, “in your life, expect some trouble, but when you worry, you make it double,” and the other offers an antidote, “smile with the risin’ sun” and listen to the message of the three little birds: “don’t worry ’bout a thing.” Perhaps they are echoing the wise words of another teacher: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as recorded by Matthew, chapter 6, verses 26-27). Our worries have no power, on the one hand, to change the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and a lot of power, on the other, to make a bad situation feel worse.
I should know. I am a worrier by nature, a nervous nail-biter with an internal monolog that sounds like a broken record (“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”). The heightened uncertainty of this past year’s events has forced me to deal with this repetitive voice, and to tell it to shut up. It is an act of the will, and of the spirit. I have no way of knowing what comes next. I don’t even know if I will live to see this day’s sunset. There are dark clouds on the horizon, and it may indeed rain on me. What if the sky is falling? When I can’t change the circumstances, all I can change is my response. I don’t know what comforts you when you worry, but for me the answer has been prayer and gratitude. Keeping my eyes focused on the good, choosing to believe that all things eventually work out the way they’re supposed to, and asking God to take care of all the things I can’t control is what gives me peace of mind. Whatever comes next, I will be praying—and singing—my way through it.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, chapter 4, verses 6-7)