I spend a lot of time worrying about my anxiety. I’m only trying to quiet my disquietude, or apprehend my apprehension, or wrestle with my restlessness, or, can we just talk about something else? This is making me anxious.
Anxiety probably has a very good evolutionary purpose. When we were living out in the savanna in our birthday suits, the individuals who had heightened awareness about predators, like lions and tigers, were much more likely to survive an attack. Because you know the old saying: You don’t have to run faster than the tiger, you just have to run faster than the guy near you who is preoccupied with grooming himself to look good for the ladies by picking and eating all his body lice.
Anxious ancestors were also the ones who kept the tribe from being ambushed by enemies. Back in the day, those people who couldn’t sleep at night because of anxiety were the ones who saved the whole clan by waking everyone up to defend themselves from sneak attackers. OK, sometimes some of the younger members of the tribe might have gotten annoyed by false alarms, like when grandpa kept having nightmares and woke up screaming because he’d eaten too many fermented goji berries, but after being saved from certain slaughter a couple of times, you cut a guy some slack. Even if you don’t want to sleep in the same cave with him because of the smells he puts off.
Nowadays, anxiety doesn’t seem quite as good of a survival trait. Staying up half the night worrying about whether or not you remembered to invite your sister to your son’s birthday party, or if you have enough flour to make the birthday cake, or whether or not his friends will make fun of him because you insisted on bringing Ruffles the Clown to make balloon animals for 10-year-olds. What were you thinking? He’ll hate you for the rest of his life. When you’re 90, he’ll stick you in some old-age home and send Ruffles the Clown in every Saturday to make balloon dogs for all your fellow residents.
But good anxiety, the kind that allowed our ancestors to survive all the trials and tribulations of history, is like the canary in the coal mine. It is the early warning system that is designed to help us avoid bad situations and become aware of detrimental changes in our environment before they can do us in. The problem is my canary sings all day and night. At first, it’s a pretty song, but after hours and hours and hours, I’d like it to take a break, watch some TV, eat some sunflower seeds.
This damn canary never shuts up. Once it’s done worrying about all the big issues, and all those problems are solved, it finds other trivial things to squawk about. “When are you going to get an oil change; do you want your engine to seize up? These knives are dull; you can cut off your fingers with dull knives. Why didn’t you get your flu shot? Do you know how many people are sick with the flu? On the other hand, I’ve heard that it can kill some people who have a bad reaction. Do you hear something dripping? What if the plumbing is leaking? Maybe a pipe is cracked behind the bathroom wall right now doing thousands of dollars worth of damage. Maybe you should tear a hole in the wall and find out.”
What I need is a cat. Yes, a cat to eat my canary. Did you ever see a cat that’s anxious? They might be on alert as they prowl around looking for birds or mice to eat, but I’ve never seen one freaking out about the overdue cable bill, or if their son is wearing a nice enough shirt for his class picture. No, I need a cat to eat this canary, and then take a nice long nap, the two of us together, cuddled up on the sofa. Turn off the beepers and the warning buzzers, the alarms, the email alerts, and the tests of the emergency broadcast system, pull down the shades and enjoy the feeling of a belly full of digested anxiety. I just hope it doesn’t give me nightmares.