We Don't Know Enough to Worry

Terence McKenna once said: “Don’t worry. You don’t know enough to worry. . . Who do you think you are that you should worry, for cryin’ out loud. It’s a total waste of time. It presupposes such a knowledge of the situation that it is, in fact, a form of hubris.” Regardless of whether you agree with his views on psychedelic drugs and human evolution, this quote is one we can all learn from - to free ourselves from anguish and anxiety. Let's break it down.

What does it mean to worry? It means that we are mentally concerned with a situation and that we physically experience stress as a result of our concern. The situations that distress us typically have a few things in common:

  • They are set in the future. (Although, this is not guaranteed, of course.)
  • They have the potential to be uncomfortable.
  • They are out of our control. We cannot do anything to avoid the situation or its potential discomfort.

Consider examples from your own life - a particularly difficult physical feat, being forced to interact with someone you despise, a project falling through, ending up forever alone.

In reality, there is no guarantee that these situations will turn out as assumed. The physical feat could be easier than expected. The interaction could be surprisingly normal, perhaps pleasant even. The project could be a slam dunk. You could meet the partner of your dreams. On the other hand, all of your fears could come true. Either way, we don't know what will happen until it happens, and until it happens, there is nothing we can do. This is why McKenna says worry is "a total waste of time".

Why, then, do we worry? Up until the last several hundred years, stress was a necessary human emotion because it alerted us to take immediate action in order to survive - find water, gather food, take shelter, and run away from predators. In modern civilization, and especially the developed world, many of us do not have to deal with these acute concerns. (Learn more about why we worry by reading this insightful article by James Clear on the evolution of anxiety.)

With no focus on the issues of the present moment, our minds are instead bogged down with thoughts of later, of tomorrow, next week, next year. We wonder about future occurrences and construct mental movies of how these occurrences will play out. We expend precious time, attention, and energy contemplating "who we will become" and "whether things will work out". We worry, and it's to our detriment.

How preposterous this worry seems, then, when the events over which we agonize are in some indeterminate future state and when there is no certainty that the events will occur the way we envision. How preposterous it is to assume that we know what is going to happen and to allow our thoughts and emotions to be consumed by this supposed knowledge. This absurd notion is exactly what McKenna is referencing when he questions, "Who do you think you are that you should worry". Do we believe to have some psychic ability that enables us to foresee eventualities? Of course not. Our foolish pride overtakes our logical mind. As a result, we fret and suffer, unnecessarily.

How do we stop worrying? There are two options when we find our minds shifting to thoughts of future affairs. The first is to take action. Perhaps our stress comes from being unprepared; this is something we can control. But when worry lingers after we have done our part, we must simply quiet our minds. Dispel the distressful thoughts and focus on the present. Acknowledge that we do not know - that we cannot know - what will happen, and make peace with it.

While the undetermined state of the future means there is possibility for pain or hardship, it also means there is possibility for something greater and more spectacular than we could have ever imagined. There is beauty in uncertainty, freedom in the unknown, hope in the unfathomable.

We cannot predict what will happen. We can only be sure that it, whatever it is, will happen. Until then, all we can do is cherish what is currently happening, embrace the magnificence of the present moment, and relinquish our worry.