My mother was what you might call a “professional worrier.” She worried with skill, power, and acumen.
She could incisively hone in on the most seemingly benign situation and find within it some kernel of trouble to worry about. Money. Health. Household. Children. Travel. Work. You name it. She worried about it. A lot.
That is until my father was diagnosed with cancer.
When my father became ill, my mother changed radically—and apparently overnight. Faced with the potential of the greatest loss of her life, she found that she was suddenly free of the many worries that had plagued her for all those many years.
In the wake of the most terrible news imaginable, the many troubles that had been burdening her suddenly fell away like a heavy winter coat on an unexpectedly warm day.
So, strangely and without warning, in the midst of a terrifying life-threatening crisis, my mother became a more light-hearted person.
Things that had bothered her before my father’s illness were dismissed with a smile and a wave of her hand. If you came to her with a knit brow and a bee in your bonnet, she would simply say, “If no one is dying, then it’s not a problem.”
There is an old Yiddish blessing that ironically wishes, “May you have many worries.”
At first glance, it seems more like a curse than a blessing. Why would you wish someone you care about many worries?
The answer lies in the heart of my mother’s experience: If we have many troubles swirling about us—and we choose to entertain those worries—that means that we do not have a single, overriding worry to consume us.
And the absence of that single, oppressive worry is a blessing in itself.
There is a great source of empowerment in this understanding: If large troubles displace small worries and with a single powerful stroke, suddenly wiping our slate of worries clean, then we ourselves can choose to wipe that slate clean at any moment.
This little bit of folksy wisdom is, in fact, a very deep instruction:
Don’t wait for a big trouble to come along and make you realize that your small troubles don’t matter.
Novelist and essayist Anne Lamott tells the story of a time she was out shopping for clothing with a friend who was terminally ill:
She was in a wheelchair, wearing a wig to cover her baldness, weighing almost no pounds, but very serene, very alive. We were at Macy’s. I was modeling a short dress for her that I thought my boyfriend would like.
But then I asked whether it made me look big in the hips, and Pammy said, as clear and kind as a woman can be, “Annie? You really don’t have that kind of time.” I just got it. I got it deep in my being . . . You don’t have that kind of time.
And she is right. We don’t have that kind of time. We live under the illusion that we have plenty of time to worry.
We have the feeling that we have hours and days and weeks and months and years to concern ourselves about whether our hips look big or the house is drafty or the bills are piling up or there is dust under the furniture or the car needs vacuuming or the kitchen is outdated. But we don’t.
My mother realized that those kinds of worries added up to nothing on the day my father became ill.
She found that she no longer had time to worry about meeting agendas and traffic tie-ups and household clutter and gas prices and rainy days and rusted gutters—all the things that consume so much of our time and energy.
She found she only had time to love the man she had committed her life to over three decades before. And that is just what she did.
We don’t have to wait for a crisis to realize that we only have time to love what is real. We only have time to care for what is right in front of us. To vow to let go our worries is a vow to love what’s most sacred.
And once we realize this, we’ll be free.