Nobody Wins When We Confuse Worry with Care

A little bit of bad news can bring out the worst in us.

And when journalistic organizations can find ways to keep the bad news coming (or keep bringing in the experts to speculate on an unfolding situation), we can be easily caught in a devastating cycle of trickling news feeding our anxious thoughts, triggering our worried reaction, fueling our desire for more information, motivating us to seek out that information, heightening our appetite for the “breaking news” and “developing story” that started the whole thing.

And ironically, as we wait for more news and worry over what we learn, we often believe we are doing something helpful.

It’s understandable, and it comes from an admirable part of human nature: We want to help. When we see people suffering, most people naturally want to ease their suffering. When we learn about injustice or peril, we want to rescue the people at risk. This is a very good impulse, and when it is suppressed or ignored, the world becomes a much darker place.

But in those times when we so desperately want to do something helpful, sometimes the only thing we can find to do is worry. And we don’t help by worrying. Instead, often without realizing it, worry can lead us to focus more and more on our own discomfort and seek ways to soothe ourselves, ultimately turning our helpful impulse into action designed only to make us feel better. These are confusing, often frightening times, and the paradox of information overload without the power to truly intervene can be paralyzing. It’s tremendously uncomfortable to feel powerless, and as miserable as worry feels, we often use it as a substitute for facing the reality that a situation is beyond the reach of our intervention. This doesn’t actually help anyone.

Case in point: the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. When this plane went wayward and vanished from radar screens and satellite tracking in 2014, the world was captivated by the search for the plane and clues to its disappearance. This was a deeply unsettling mystery, and at its heart was the possible loss of 239 people. Everyone cared about this plane; some were in a position to take action–and no one could find it. As we now hear reports that debris from this plane may be washing ashore on Reunion Island, mystery remains. But it’s becoming even more clear that regardless of what happened to that plane, all the worry in the world couldn’t have given us power in that powerless situation. We felt powerless because we really were, and our worry didn’t help.

With our instant and overwhelming access to news (and a lot of speculation and gossip masquerading as news) and the long reach of social media, it’s common and easy to just pass along more and more information because that’s the only thing we can do. It’s also easy to demand that others join us in our worry.

Occasionally I’ve seen outraged posts from worried people, demanding that others get with the program and worry along with them (and express it the same way they do). Behind their frustration is the assumption that if you aren’t tremendously worried to the point where one issue has taken over your life (temporarily), you don’t care. On the contrary, there are many ways to care. And ironically, while engaging in worry can be a byproduct of care, it isn’t actually a way to care for someone else.

Here’s news: Worry is not productive action. It doesn’t help anyone. With it we can fool ourselves into believing we’re helping someone by “building awareness” or “standing with them” or empathizing. But when we worry we don’t actually do anything meaningful. In some cases, worry may even distract us from ways we might offer real help. And while we can fool ourselves into believing we’re helping ourselves, ultimately worry hurts us too.

Now, if we believe there is no one more powerful than ourselves, being powerless is a truly terrifying prospect–and why not worry? But for those of us who believe God is not only powerful but in control, trust is a much better option. Just as worry is often confused with care, trust is often mixed up with either a sunny form of denial or a religious kind of resignation. Trust does not require either blindness or apathy; it can coexist with realism and courage (and cowardice, for that matter). But it does require faith. It requires that we see beyond what we know and know that what we cannot see is more real than what we can. It requires “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1).

© 2015 Amy Simpson.