The Human Condition
Some year’s back (1988) a Bobby McFerrin song instantly went to the top of the charts. It was called “Don’t worry, be Happy.” The lyrics hit dead center into the solar plexus of the nation. 1988 was a time of worry. Among humans there was a generalized feeling that nothing was ever going to work out for the best. It was a time just like now, 2016. It was a time just like all times of every year, although the present year always seems like it is somehow a more important and urgent year.
Until next year, that is.
Why do humans worry so much, about everything, all the time?
I once had a friend call me and invite me to sit at a local coffee shop with him so he could tell me about his terribly pressing and deadly problems. He brought a yellow legal pad with him. The front page of the pad detailed ten items in his life that had no likely solution, and that might end my friend’s social, and even physical, survival. He was totally out of money. He believed his wife was seeing another man every Wednesday afternoon. His three-year-old had been diagnosed with a speech impediment. His boss was threatening to formally fire him, in writing, on the following Friday if he didn’t have a sale (he was a life insurance agent) by five p.m. of that day. Finally, he had had to walk the two miles to the coffee shop because his car would not start. I write the word “finally” because the other five troubles all had to do with the first five. My friend did not list his biggest problem, though, simply because it would never had occurred to him.
His biggest problem was the depth of his worry, and how that worry was communicating itself to everyone around him, thereby making it nearly impossible for him to get any help in dealing with his other problems.
Humans worry because of their high intellect. Lower animals are not known to experience worry, although elephants and some sea going mammals may end up disproving that. Intellect causes worry because intellect allows for prediction. Lower animals survive by reacting to external stimuli, not by predicting the potential for their next meal or the likelihood of a potential threat. Planning to survive in the future is a feature of a higher intellect. Some animals instinctively hoard food for the coming winter, and some hibernate to sleep away that same planetary condition. That’s genetic adaptation resulting from millions of years of surviving. Humans plan. However, while hoping that their plans will work out to some satisfaction, humans worry. The problem with this worry is that it infiltrates almost all aspects of everyday human life. Food and shelter were once the most worrisome areas of the human condition but soon they were replaced by the worry over money. With very few exceptions, money is the universal medium for trading all goods and services on the planet. Almost all human worries, even most concerns about health and family, can be reduced to money and are believed by practically everyone to be somehow more likely to be solved with more money.
My friend, with the ten problems written out carefully on his legal pad, did not meet with disappointment when he met with me that day. His biggest problem was actually his only ‘real’ problem, but it was the most difficult to for me help him with. The man his wife was seeing was I. She was worried about him so she was meeting with his best friend to try to understand him, and get help. His three-year-old had already qualified, unknown to him, to begin seeing a speech therapist to be paid for by the school. I bought a life insurance policy from him since I had been going to do that anyway. I loaned my friend two hundred dollars for walking around cash, and then I drove him home and got his car going (one battery terminal was corroded).
The two hundred dollars came back over time, along with satisfaction about the internal return of the life insurance policy I still own. Were my friend’s worries justified? Were there genuine threats to his continued existence or that of his family? In his opinion they were, but from a more objective perspective his worries were so minor as to be insignificant. Sometimes, in this physical world, it is not possible to ignore the things that come at us, whether of our own making or not. Perspective, however, is something humans can change. My friend could not change his perspective on his own. I changed it for him.
Sometimes it is necessary to turn to friends for support. It’s part of the reasons we have and value friends. A friend of mine, a top psychologist in L.A., answered a question I asked him about what he really did. His answer describes what I am writing about: “What I really do is charge two hundred and seventy-five dollars an hour to people who don’t have any friends who might help them