You see it in the eyes.
During the middle of my workday, the light filters through my office window just right, highlighting my clients’ faces.
And it’s easy to be fooled at first. Well put together. Decked out. Hair done just right. Good shoes. Maybe a North Face. The whole deal. Fresh from afar.
But the eyes, they often tell a very different story. And the story I see recently is worry. I see way too many worried eyes. I see them in 50-year-olds, and I see them in 15-year-olds. Weary, worried eyes.
Sometimes there’s an issue that carries an element of immediacy. There’s justified worry there. But far more often, the eyes carry a more permanent worry, more persistent, heavy and diffuse.
And lest you think I’m working with a skewed crowd, specifically those in therapy, I’ve been paying attention outside this room as well. And I see the unmistakable heavy brow of worry on the street, in adjacent cars, in lines at Starbuck’s or 7-11.
At times, I see worry in the mirror.
I used to think that worry was reserved for the future. But sometimes, I find, the worry is about the past. I worked recently with a man coming to terms with some trauma from childhood he’s carried in the recesses of his mind for well over a decade. Another client is haunted by the untimely death of her mother several years back. Though what happened has happened, their eyes read worry.
We worry about the future as well. We lose ourselves in the pragmatic, long-term, retirement-savings, colonoscopy, bi-focal worries, to be sure. I suppose there’s a certain survival-instinct-based utility to these.
Other times, we invite worry, eschewing all boundaries, and allowing the woes of anyone we hear about to become the basis of our personal concern.
Some guy you don’t know, but know of, has cancer. New worry.
That lady just one block over lost her job. New worry.
A plane disappeared on the other side of the planet. New worry.
But we also worry more broadly, and I am finding that most of us cannot articulate the nature of our worry. For many, we worry that we’re going to be afraid. We worry about worry. Worry and fear become the muddy ruts of habit, our baseline before the day begins.
I suffer this myself sometimes. It happened about a week ago. I had a full slate of clients for the day. I am healthy. My wife and son are happy and thriving. Yet I woke up filled with dread. I carried worry through the morning.
Later that morning, something strange happened. I’ve been practicing therapy for 15 years, thousands of hours. I’ve heard the darkest confessions, and mitigated the harshest battles. Not much surprises me, or throws me off my game.
But this one woman came in, plopped down on the couch and said, “So, I want to know. How are you doing? Are you okay?”
In my experience, this protocol breach had never before taken place. I was flustered, and lost my composure, if only momentarily.
“Yes, I am. But I wasn’t until you asked.”
I am grateful for the question. It snapped me into awareness, and I realized I was white-knuckling another day. I let go, breathed, and took in the moment. It was unremarkable, but at least I didn’t miss it.
Though spring was approaching, it was not evident in the frigid air as I walked home that evening. But I stopped on a corner, breathed deeply, face to the sky, and took a moment to take a moment.
I felt present and appreciative. And really cold. But present feels better regardless.
One thing that’s abundantly clear to me: outside the immediate specter of crisis, we rarely worry about the present. If it’s Now, we’re just here, experiencing it. We feel what we feel. We may be bored in a meeting, inspired by someone’s story, in the zone on a court or amidst a project, or freezing on a chilly night.
But the heavy eyes I see suggest to me that the vast majority of us are husks of empty worry in the present, focusing on a past we can neither change nor retrieve, or a future that is not yet here, and worry does nothing to change.
Step in front of a mirror today, and look into your own eyes. Do you see worry? If so, you need more Now, and less Then.