Worriers and Warriors

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   July 2, 2020

It isn’t often that I make my Psychiatrist laugh – but he did, when, telling him about the events of a recent day, I said, “I was so busy, I forgot to take my anxiety pill.”

Yes, I do actually take (in small doses) a pill that is supposed to have a calming effect, and does seem to help at certain times. But it is also true that, the more activities I have to keep me busy, the less need I seem to have for any artificial chemical soothing.

But what is this “anxiety” anyway? Isn’t it what, in the good old pre-psychobabble days, we used to call “worry”? I don’t know any songs about anxiety – but we all know the century-old ditty about packing up your troubles in your old kit bag, with its heartening refrain,

“What’s the use of worrying?

It never was worthwhile!”

Today, the phrase “No worries!” has become so common in Australian speech that it’s been called that country’s “national motto.”

But isn’t it natural to have worries, especially about things which may be important to us, but which we can’t control? In the unlikely event that you are running short of things to worry about, you can always replenish your supply just by turning on the news. In fact, the news media seem to consider it their principal job to keep our anxieties stoked.

And of course, a chief source of concern is all the conflicts going on in the world. But, except for the names and places, this is hardly news. In fact, there has rarely been any time in history when organized killing of some kind wasn’t going on somewhere. You might therefore think that the people who find themselves most closely involved in such unpleasantness are particularly good candidates for anxiety – and you’d be right.

When it comes to armed forces, those in the lowest ranks, especially in wartime, may not be happy about their chances of being killed or maimed, but, apart from that, all they have to do is follow orders. It’s the ones responsible for giving the orders who are more properly plagued with anxiety. We can go back as far as Homer’s Iliad to see Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks against Troy, who is apparently so over-wrought by the years-long siege that he quarrels with the best fighter he has, Achilles, who consequently withdraws for an extended period, and goes off and sulks in his tent.

But different warriors have different ways of coping with their neuroses. Some write poems, as if to justify the madness in which they are engaged. Back in the 1640s, Richard Lovelace apologized to his sweetheart, Lucasta, for leaving her, to go off and fight in the current war, saying:

I could not love thee, dear, so much,

Loved I not honor more.

I’m not sure about this “honor,” which so many have died defending. Even our own U.S. marines sing an anthem in which they proudly proclaim themselves to be:

First to fight for right and freedom,

And to keep our honor clean.

I’m also not sure why Napoleon is so often depicted with his right hand in his vest, as if to calm his tremors. But a much more striking example of leadership attempting to cope with its own anxieties is in the “worry balls” (two steel balls) which Captain Queeg, the central character of Herman Wouk’s 1951 novel The Caine Mutiny constantly rolls in his hand when he is under conditions of stress. This proved such a popular idea that they were later marketed as “Queeg Balls.”

General Eisenhower, just before the D-Day invasion in 1944, resorted to another method of relieving tremendous strain. He wrote an “In Case of Failure,” letter. In it, he said that “Our landings… have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold, and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack… was based upon the best information available. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.” Fortunately, that letter never had to be released.

Apart from writing (and taking pills) one of my own time-tested techniques for coping with anxiety is singing. Besides the “old kit bag,” another of my favorite songs in such situations was made famous by Woody Guthrie. I’ll leave you with the simple chorus:

It takes a worried man to sing a worried song. . .

I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long.


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