“Vee get too soon oldt, und too late schmardt.”
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These words, which I saw on a wall plaque in a mountain cabin years ago, have never stopped resonating with me. The older I get, the truer they seem. I find myself wishing I could go back in time to counsel my 30-year-old self.
“Don’t agonize over that,” I’d tell me. “It’s not that important.” Though in some ways I’m smarter now than I was back then, there are many self-improvement projects I’m still working on. Something I call “the insidious sliding scale of worry” is one of them.
Yes, it’s as ominous as it sounds.
Here’s how it works. We all have positive and negative things in our lives; that’s a given. Usually, one of the negative things will stand out from the others and, as a result, become something you wind up focusing a good deal of attention on. You think, “This is the thing that’s keeping me from being as happy as I could be. If only I didn’t have this in my life, everything would be so much better.”
Let’s say it’s your job. The office environment where you work is stressful and the job itself unfulfilling. You wish you could quit. Then again, finding a better job in this climate would be challenging, so you’re not sure quitting outright is the best way to go. Still, you don’t have the time to look for a new job while keeping up with your current job as well as other commitments. And so on.
All this worrying creates and sustains a lot of negative energy in your life.
Now, there are undoubtedly other downsides to your life, in addition to your job, but you don’t worry about those because the job thing is always front and center. So items number 2 and 3 on your worry scale, whatever they are, manage to coast along without too much attention from you. Compared to your number-one concern — that #$!% job — they just don’t matter that much.
But let’s say the job situation suddenly improves. You’re unexpectedly promoted to a new position that you like much better. Or maybe you’re fired, but then luck into a more fulfilling job in another field.
Hooray! Your number-one worry, the single thing that’s kept you from feeling 100-percent happy, is now resolved! So now you can be happy, right?
Well, sort of. You’ll be happy for a short while, but here’s where the sliding part of the scale comes into play. Before long, now that the number-one worry-thing is off the scale, your attention slides down to the number-two thing, so that it becomes the new focus of your discontent. True, while you were upset over your job, you didn’t mind so much that your front-yard fence was leaning a little. Now, however, it really bugs you. If only you had the time/energy/extra funds to replace it, life would be swell.
And so it goes. When the sliding scale of worry is in effect, you’re never without a number-one concern to weigh you down.
Now that I’m getting older and (theoretically) smarter, I’m trying to wrest the power away from this insidious scale and turn it to my advantage. In other words, I want to turn a worry-generating tool into a worry-management tool. The trick is to avoid automatically sliding down to the next thing on the scale. Instead, ask yourself, “If it didn’t bother me that much before, why should I let it bother me now — simply because another area of my life just got better?”
This doesn’t mean, of course, that you live in denial about that rickety fence. It just means you don’t agonize over it. Plan to fix it and then do so, or plan to leave it and then don’t worry about it.
But let the thought of it grind on you over time? No.
It comes down to “framing.” Framing is how we think about the events and circumstances of our lives. Much of what happens to us is beyond our control. But we can, with effort, control how we think about things.
Aging is a perfect example. I’ve found that the way to feel less gloomy about getting old is to frame it differently.
The temptation, especially on any of those big birthdays, is think of our age in relation to the past. When we turn, say, 40, we gaze back longingly at our 20s and 30s. “Never see those again,” we think. We compare how we look now to how we looked then. Rarely an uplifting activity.
By contrast, if we look ahead instead of back, we can feel thrilled to be “just” 40. If we perform a little mental time travel, then look back on our 40-year-old self from our 50- or 60-year-old self, we’ll see just how good 40 can look.
This approach works at any age. I, for example, am now looking back at the current me from my 70-year-old self and thinking I look pretty darn spry.
Meanwhile, the sliding scale thing is still a work in progress. If I’d started on it sooner, I’d probably be further along. But you know how it is … we get too soon old, and too late smart.
Jennifer Forsberg Meyer is a biweekly columnist with the Mountain Democrat. Share your thoughts with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.