"Why worry if you can do something about it,
and why worry if you cannot do anything about it?"
These are very thoughtful lines, so I thought I'll piggy-back off them, and come up with a blog post from here.
Since the things we worry about are things that we either can or cannot do something about, we really have no reason to worry about anything at all, if we follow the logic of these lines. But I'm going to humbly beg to differ with Shantideva here, and suggest that the problem may be a bit more complicated than this. To begin with, I think that most of the time, the part of our minds that is doing the worrying is not the part that listens to reason. I suspect that, even at the very moment when we are worrying ourselves sick about something, we probably know that we have no reason to worry, logically speaking. But we go on worrying anyway.
Why do we worry when there is really no reason to worry at all, objectively speaking? One possible explanation may be what Aristotle calls akrasia, or weakness of the will. Our minds are capable of understanding the directives of reason (in this case, the directive would be something like "Do not worry; there is no reason to worry, one way or the other."). A perfectly virtuous mind would be, among other things, a mind that acts in perfect accordance with reason. This, at any rate, is Aristotle's view. But our minds do not always act in accordance with what reason tells us is in our best interests. We may know perfectly well that something is the right thing to do, or that a particular attitude is the right attitude to have, and yet fail to do the thing or adopt the attitude in question. A smoker may know perfectly well that smoking is very bad for her, and yet continue to smoke. In the same way, we may know perfectly well that we have no reason to worry about anything at all, and yet continue to worry.
But knowing that I suffer from akrasia is only part of the picture. The million-dollar question (okay, maybe it's not worth a million dollars, but I think it's worth a lot, at any rate) is: Why do I suffer from akrasia? Why do I continue to worry, even though reason tells me there is no reason to?
One possible reply is that we are not purely beings of reason; we are also creatures of emotion. There are things, events or individuals in our lives that evoke such powerful emotions that reason is seemingly powerless in the face of them. If I know that somebody whom I care deeply about is in a dangerous place or going through a very difficult time, and there's nothing I can do to help that person, telling myself that worrying won't change anything probably won't stop me from worrying. Aristotle probably has something to say about situations like these too, but I won't try to go into this now. For one, I am not an Aristotle scholar, and trying to say something useful about this would require too much research on my part. Besides, I don't feel like turning this post into a lecture about Aristotle anyway.
So I'm going to take this discussion in a slightly different direction. I dare say that a lot of the time, the things that we worry about in our day-to-day life are more pedestrian or mundane in nature. I'll just call this mundane worrying. Mundane worrying is not triggered by big life-changing events or extreme situations. Rather, it comes out of the grind of daily life. Here's an example: Is the bill payment that I just mailed out going to get there on time? Will I get slapped with a late fee? If I get slapped with a late fee, will the people at the billing company listen to my explanation if I call them? What if they don't believe my story? And so and so forth. Mundane worrying has a tendency to just spiral on and on; one worry leads to another, snowballing into a big mass of not-so-positive energy.
Mundane worrying is closely connected to another phenomenon of daily life: Procrastination. Let's use my bill-paying example again. Chances are I got myself into this unpleasant situation because I procrastinated: I could have avoided all this worrying about the payment not getting to where it needs to get to on time if I had just somehow made myself mail the payment earlier. So procrastination is, in a sense, the cause of my mundane worries. I assume that we can all agree that there are many similar instances in daily life in which procrastination gives rise to a lot of unnecessary mundane worrying.
So the next million-dollar question is: Why do we procrastinate? (Okay, maybe you don't procrastinate. In which case, you can happily stop reading this post here, if you've actually followed me this far. If, like me, you also procrastinate, then read on. It gets better. I promise.) If we follow the logic of Shantideva's words, and procrastination is something we can do something about, then we have nothing to worry about; all we need to do is to stop procrastinating. But again, I think the matter is more complicated than this. For one, I believe that many procrastinators suffer from a form of akrasia: I know perfectly well that procrastination is bad for me (just as a smoker might know that smoking is bad for her), and yet I continue to procrastinate. So we cannot understand why we procrastinate until we understand why we do not act in accordance with what reason tells us is in our best interests.
Grreat. It looks like I have just been going around in a big circle: We fail to act in accordance with reason, even though we know better (akrasia), and worry even though we really have no reason to. We fail to act in accordance with reason, because we procrastinate when we should know better. And we procrastinate because we suffer from akrasia. And we suffer from akrasia because we fail to act in accordance with reason, even though we know better.
Hmm... This doesn't seem to be getting anywhere, and I'm getting really exhausted. But let me see if I can at least end this post on a somewhat brighter note. Here's T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Have I known anything? Actually, yes: I need to stop procrastinating, and get to grading my students' papers!b