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The Rituals Of Worry

05/21/2015 10:22 am ET | Updated May 21, 2016
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There are self-help books. There is meditation and mindfulness. There's aromatherapy and St John's wort. There are friends. There's wine.

No one is short of ways for tackling worry.

But there's an oddity. There are more furtive methods for containing worries that are hard to admit. That is because they are borrowed, in the midst of our contemporary world, from the cavemen.

Worriers like me are secretly devoted to mysterious rituals and superstitions. Although we're ordinary people living ordinary lives, we are caught up in peculiar dramas of obeisance. Although we are modern people, living modern lives, our mental resources are dependent on primitive things. In this sense, we are not, in fact, ordinary or modern at all. Our worrying minds belong among the stone circles and the barrows, with puzzling fates and mercurial gods who rule our lives.

I am good at worrying that I have left the kettle on. And so I can't leave the house without a little ritual. I step into the kitchen and press the off switch of the plug socket that powers the kettle. I do this with my right fore-finger. I look down to check that the kettle light isn't on. I confirm that the plug in the socket actually runs to the kettle. I walk out.

I might as well bow.

Checking my kettle, I have temporarily placated the revengeful power that will punish me with fire if I do not perform this ritual each time I leave. What are these powers? Am I really caught up in a primitive revenge tragedy where there is always calamity waiting on human failure?

Lots of people do similar things. Some minor rituals are performed on the threshold. The neatly choreographed checking of pockets for keys, phones, wallets, coins, at the doorway of homes is familiar. Some people walk round their car in the same direction, almost rhythmically, to check the car doors really are locked and that there are no new scratches owners might accidentally have caused. Not to do this would not only be thoughtless. It would be an insult to the faceless powers that are always waiting for a chance.

A friend of mine checks her hair straighteners before she leaves the house. She runs upstairs and confirms they are not on by picking them up. Good, she thinks, they are cold. The straighteners are, therefore, off. She does this even though she hardly uses them and most of the time they are not plugged in. The vengeful forces among which we live don't expect us to be logical. They just expect us to be faithful.

The legacies of superstition have seemingly lingered far into the modern world.

Worrying itself has only been talked about since the middle of the nineteenth century. Low-level anxieties about the future were only fully labelled as "worry" at the beginning of the twentieth. The first worrying self-help books belong, in turn, to the first decades of the twentieth century. Worry, it seems, has been invented by the modern world.

Worrying is the "disease of the age," said the American physician C.W. Saleeby in 1906. He was right. Contemporary urban and suburban existences, Saleeby observed, were becoming so busy, so time-tabled, with increasingly large numbers of choices and opportunities, that it was hard not to worry. Modern capitalism was filling our time with fretfulness.

Worry is still a "disease of the age." Advanced capitalism makes us ceaselessly busy. Our commuting lives are time-tabled down to seconds. We are faced with innumerable decisions. We worry that we got it wrong, that there was a better choice, a better route, perhaps even a better kettle. Then most politicians remind us now that success is down to us; that the individual is responsible for their own failure; that help will not be at hand. We pile on the pressure to make the correct choices, to do the right things. Otherwise revengeful gods will punish us.

Worry is a flaw in reason. It is the mildest form of an obsessive compulsive disorder. Yet it is also a sign of something wrong not with me but with today.

What happens in the heads of an every-day worrier isn't ordinary. It is both deeply strange and perturbingly modern. The worrier's head is full of reasoning. But it is also a repository of sacrificial altars and sacred stones. The gods we need to conciliate at those altars might seem anonymous and lost in the mists of our anxieties. They might seem to be the last traces of primitive faiths that have managed to cling on to the present-day.

But I know exactly what those powerful forces are that we're trying to placate. We're attempting to make ourselves feel safe in the society we've created for ourselves.

Francis O'Gorman is the author of Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History (May 2015, Bloomsbury).

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