WHY WORRY? CHAPTER XVI
BY: GEORGE LINCOLN WALTON, M.D.
CONSULTING NEUROLOGIST TO THE MASSACHUSETTS GENERAL HOSPITAL
"Beware! yet once again beware!
Ere round thy inexperienced mind,
With voice and semblance falsely fair,
A chain Thessalian magic bind,--"
--Thomas Love Peacock
A friend of mine has a purebred Boston terrier named "Betty." Betty is a bundle of nerves, has a well-developed "New-England Conscience," and among other deviative (not degenerative) signs, is possessed of an insatiable desire to climb trees. More than once I have watched her frantic efforts to achieve this end, and she often almost succeeds--at least she can reach a higher point on the trunk of a tree than any other dog of her size I know--say six feet; if the bark is rough, perhaps seven feet would not be an overestimate. Her attempts are unremitting--once the frenzy is on it is with the greatest difficulty that she can be separated, panting and exhausted, from her task.
Betty's case furnishes an illustration of an inborn tendency, fostered
neither by precept nor example, persistently to attempt the impossible,
and to fret and fume when forced to discontinue. Some children are by
inheritance similarly endowed.
Imagine Betty a child.
It is safe to assume that the mental trait which prompts this expenditure of tireless and misdirected energy has found its way down through her ancestry over millenia; the chances are,
of course, against its having skipped the generation immediately preceding; in other words, one or both of HER parents are probably obsessive. It follows,
almost as a matter of course, that the "indomitable will" of the child is viewed with pride by the parent. Instead of being kept within reasonable
bounds, and directed into proper channels, it is encouraged in every direction, and fostered and encourages by every available means. Prominent among the
incentives to renewed activity furnished by the solicitous parent, possibly too by the undiscriminating teacher, will be found such precepts as: "In the
bright lexicon of youth there's no such word as fail," "Never give up the ship," "Never say die," "There's always room at the top."
Excellent maxims these, for the average child, particularly for the child
who is under average as regards ambition to excel. But what of their effect
upon the already over-conscientious and self-exacting child? Simply to
tighten fetters which should rather be relaxed.
Life becomes a serious problem to a child of this kind at a much earlier
age than is generally realized. I have been surprised to learn at what
tender years such children have been borne down by a weight of self-imposed
responsibility quite as heavy as can burden an adult, without the power
of the adult to carry it. Such, for example, are anxieties regarding the
health or the financial status of the parents, matters freely discussed
without a thought that the child will make these cares his own.
I realize that this line of thought will seem to some revolutionary. A
friend to whom I submitted the proposition that it did harm rather than
good to encourage a child of this kind to attempt the impossible answered,
"Nothing is impossible," and he said it as if he more than half believed
it. Here we have the ambitious maxim challenging truth itself. It is
certainly not impossible that Mozart wrote a difficult concerto at the age
of five; nor is it impossible that, in precocious children of a different
type, worry from failure to accomplish the desired may cause profound
despair productive of disastrous results.
Nor are such children either geniuses or freaks--they are merely inheritors
of the "New England Conscience," so named, I suppose, because the trait
has multiplied in this section more rapidly even than the furniture and
fittings of the Mayflower. Without underrating the sterling qualities of
the devoted band who founded this community it may safely be suggested that
neither the effectiveness nor the staying qualities of their descendants
will be lessened by a certain modification of the querulous insistence
which dominates the overtrained adult in the rearing of the nervously
The maxim "What is worth doing at all is worth doing well," if carried to
its ultimate conclusion by the over-careful, would justify the expenditure
of a quarter of an hour in sharpening a lead-pencil. This maxim, while
losing in sententiousness would gain in reason if it ran thus: "What is
worth doing at all is worth doing as well as the situation demands." "Never
put off till to-morrow what you can do to-day," an excellent maxim for
the shiftless, must not be taken too literally by the individual already
obsessed to do to-day twice what he can and quadruple what he ought.
Neither the chronic doubter nor the prematurely thoughtful need be
admonished, "Look before you leap," or "Be sure you're right, then go
ahead." Such guides to conduct, however effective in the case of three
individuals, in the fourth hinder accomplishment by encouraging querulous
doubt;--it is for the benefit of the fourth that these pages are written. A
revolutionary effort must be made before the worrier and the folly-doubter
can throw off his shackles.
Some might question whether this philosophy does not smack of laissez-faire, and tends to produce indifference; but the worry against which these efforts are directed is a condition of undue solicitude ... due solicitude is not discouraged. Fortunately, as a partial offset to the many maxims encouraging increased activity, there exists certain maxims of less strenuous, but not unreasonable, tenor, for example "What can't be cured must be endured," "Patient waiters are no losers." Such maxims are quite as worthy of consideration by the obsessive as any of those previously cited. While they modify the overzealous, they detract in no way from effective, even strenuous, endeavor.
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Why Worry - Maxims Misapplied