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Worrying won’t solve our troubles. Try wondering instead and the world might be a better place

The headlines are worrying. Impeachment is impending. The stock market is slumping. Chaos in Hong Kong. Peril in the Persian Gulf. Conflict in Kashmir. One recent headline said, “Meeting at UN reveals world in really bad mood.”

We are awash in worry. A recent Gallup poll showed that almost half of Americans worry a lot. More than half of us are stressed. One in five feels angry. These numbers are up from previous years. The U.S. is in the top 10 of countries that report high levels of stress.

Care, concern and indignation have a place in our moral economy. But habitual worry undermines well-being in a chain-reaction of anxiety. The more you worry, the more worried you become. In the same way, habitual anger creates raw tempers ready to explode.

Worry is rooted in an old English word meaning “strangle.” Predators worry their prey, grab them by the throat, shake and choke them. Worry is a wolf that torments and throttles us.

Anxiety causes shallow breathing. The wolf won’t let you catch your breath. One quick cure is to breathe from the belly. Worry loosens its grip when you stop hyperventilating.

A reality check can also help. The human story is mixed. These are not the worst of times. Nor are they the best. This too shall pass.

We should also recognize what is within our power to control. Focus your energy on things you can actually change. The world’s political situation is like the weather. If you expect rain, bring an umbrella. But worrying about the rain won’t change the weather.

Unworried objectivity is hard to achieve. We suffer from historical myopia and psychic nearsightedness. The problems of the moment are magnified in the worried mind. We dwell on the splinter or the hangnail while failing to see the health of the body. The present crisis seems to be a sign of impending doom.

Historical myopia is understandable. The past fades into a blur. The future is even more opaque. So we brood over the present moment. To worry is also to gnaw, chew and ruminate. It is good to think things over. But endless rehashing is unhealthy. Obsessive rumination contributes to depression and resentment.

There is wisdom in letting go and in forgetting. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once suggested a happy life would be one that was lived without remembering. A similar insight comes from Taoism, where meditation has been described as a practice of sitting and forgetting.

This sounds easy. But it is not. Traumatic memories worm their way into consciousness. Resentment grows along with regret. And the silence of meditation can be full of the deafening roar of guilt, blame and fear. To learn to forget takes hard work and practice.

But forgetting is not the only way to silence the howling wolf. Another path seeks to transform worry into wonder. Instead of seeking the silence of forgetting, the path of wonder seeks the joy of greater things. It turns to art, religion, morality and philosophy.

The poet William Blake called upon us to see a world in a grain of sand and eternity in the palm of your hand. The philosopher Immanuel Kant was awed by the starry heavens above and the moral law within.

Wonder, reverence and awe lift us beyond the cares of the present. Instead of hearing the howling wolf of worry, the wondering mind listens to the music of the spheres. Beauty and love show us a hint of redemption and a promise of meaning in the madness.

Wonder and silent meditation will not solve our problems. But they keep the wolf at bay. And this gives us the freedom to think more clearly.

President Franklin Roosevelt said that we having nothing to fear but fear itself. He followed that famous line by warning of the danger of “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts.”

Anxiety paralyzes us, which is what the wolf wants. Paralysis lets the wolf sink its teeth in. It takes courage to confront our fears. But it takes wisdom to understand that worry builds nothing, that anger solves no problems, and that the howling we hear is often the wind between our ears.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala
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