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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Closet of Anxieties

One of my favorite comic strips back in the day was Bloom County. If you are not familiar with it, it was a snarky, offbeat commentary populated with equally strange characters including a penguin named Opus, Milo Bloom—the eponymous and only known resident of the county later supplanted by Michael Binkley, and famously by Bill the Cat. A frequent trope in the strip was the closet of anxiety, from which all manner of bizarre and potentially threatening or just plain anxiety causing things would emerge. Berkley Breathed, who created Bloom County, clearly tapped into a contemporary theme of existential angst when he introduced the closet to his readers.

I was reminded of the closet the other day when I was reading an article about the results of a survey in which corporate workers were asked to list their greatest fears. The list was topped by a wide margin with fears of another health crisis –pandemic or otherwise. Collapse of the financial markets also was high up on the list, as was worsening inflation and/or recession, crime in general, and civil unrest particularly rounding out the top five. I cannot say that any of these worries are unfounded. Our world seems more tightly wound than a clock-spring with little margin for errors that could plunge us into cascading calamities. I did not mention climate change, seal level rise, drought, famine, or a half dozen other environmental disasters that are lurking around the corner and would be equally devastating only because they are marginally less imminent, or possibly unstoppable at this point according to many scientists. In short, our collective closet of anxieties is overstuffed and surely, it seems something must burst out soon.

I could coyly recite some tired aphorisms at this point about worries—you have probably heard them before. Worrying is paying interest on a loan you haven’t taken, or Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow. Then there’s this from the Dali Lama, “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, it empties today of its strengths.” And one of my personal favorites from George Bernard Shaw, “People become attached to their burdens sometimes more than the burdens are attached to them.” I searched out quotes on the topic and they all follow a familiar refrain—as the song goes, “Don’t worry, be happy.” Fine, you say, I won’t worry but the things that concern me won’t go away just because I don’t worry about them. And that is exactly right—the things in our closets of anxiety are real, regardless of whether they ever happen or not.

A dear friend of mine who waged a successful effort to keep cancer at bay for over a decade once told me that he no longer worried about his medical test results. He said, “they are never as good as I hope, or as bad as I feared.” He knew he was dying—as indeed are we all, but he had a clock running on his lifetime. The rest of us generally don’t know when that day will come, but he never gave up hope right to the end. Now you may think that unrealistic but what did it cost him? Nothing, in fact that hope helped keep him alive and enjoying his life, making plans, meeting new people, but never pretending to himself or anyone else that he would be magically cured. He once told me over an ice cream cone, that the cool thing about it was that he would get to wherever it was he was going before the rest of us and would have all the answers by the time we got there.

None of those aphorisms I found have helped me on those days when my personal closet seems overflowing. But my friend’s hope in the face of what most would say were desperate circumstances has been of more comfort than a thousand wise quotations. Surely, some of the things we fear may come to pass—and my guess is that they won’t be as bad as we thought. I would hate to think what the human race would be like if it did not fear the future. Those with the hubris to believe that they have a free pass, a get out of jail card as a result of their standing, wealth, power or fame seem destined for a harsh surprise. Worrying about the future is not entirely a bad thing, if it prompts us to take the actions we should to prevent what we can, as long as we accompany that with my friend’s sense of acceptance that we cannot keep the closet door closed forever.

Michael Binkley’s closet contained a Giant Purple Snorklwacker, a far more benign monster than most of us will ever have to face. Whatever Snorklwackers lurk in your closet perhaps you should air them out—take them for a walk in the park and then very carefully put them back where they belong, in the closet.

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