I don’t say that I had no worries way back in the long-gone days when Mad Magazine was in its heyday and Alfred E. Neuman’s goofy, worry-free face under the What, Me, Worry? motto was possibly the most recognizable one in the world. I was an adolescent then, and adolescents are mired in worry like flies in molasses. But there was always some faint hope that when you grew up you’d gain control over your life, and worries would be behind you.
Fat chance. I think there were brief periods in my adult life when I thought things were finally on an even keel, but of course those times don’t last, and “finally” doesn’t apply to anything except the sort of finality you’d rather not think about when you get to be my age.
So yes, I worry, mostly just in those nagging half-waking hours of early morning that most of us have talked about. Sometimes, when it turns out that I was closer to real sleep than I thought I was, I even worry about imaginary problems that turn out to have no connection to reality when I wake up. What a relief!
On the whole, though, I’m lucky. I’m lucky to have family to worry about, even though I realized when my granddaughter was born that the more loved ones you have, the more hostages fate holds (not that I believe in fate, except as a useful metaphor.) I’m lucky to be comfortably retired with the quasi-career of writing to exercise my mind and provide goals to strive for, even if I worry justifiably that I began too late (even though it was always what I wanted most to do) and don’t have what it takes for the promotion all writers have to manage these days. In spite of my luck, I have worries, but they’re not interesting to anyone but myself, and not entertaining even to me.
So let’s discuss worry in a completely different context. We’re all writers and readers here; we’ve all heard that for genuine, complex, fully developed stories, the characters must have some goal that’s difficult to achieve, setbacks to overcome, threats to their happiness or survival. (I’m not endorsing this supposed rule, just mentioning it.) Protagonists who are supremely confident, or achieve their goals with no problems and no self-doubt, are hard to make believably human. Even superheroes face obstacles, I assume, although I’m largely ignorant of that genre. For romance books, and to some extent erotica books, it sometimes seems like writers tie themselves into knots dreaming up obstacles to be overcome before their characters can find everlasting love or that ultimate, supreme orgasm. Without something to worry about, where’s the story?
Okay, I may be cheating by equating facing obstacles with worrying. Some people worry when there aren’t any immediate obstacles, just so they won’t be taken by surprise if and when some do turn up. My mother was a pro at that. The there’s that subsidiary definition of worry: “To seize with the teeth and shake or tug at repeatedly: a dog worrying a bone.” (freedictionary.com.) Those are both types of compulsion, but, while a writer is unlikely to model a lead character after my mother’s version, the dog/bone metaphor might work for a private detective character refusing to give up trying to solve a crime.
I’m worrying now that I’m getting nowhere with this line of what I’ll go out on a limb and call thought. But I’ve sometimes wondered whether we see fictional characters as weak if they worry too much, or at least too obviously. If obsessing over what course to take is a form of worrying, we have Hamlet to consider, an undertaking that has obsessed thousands of literary analysts over the centuries, with still no definitive conclusion. How do we feel about our own characters? Do we throw them into briar patches of difficulties to see how well they can handle them, or to watch them squirm and, well, worry? Or all of the above?
On second thought, maybe I should just have written about my own personal worries after all. Such as whether I could have done a better job raising my kids. Maybe I shouldn’t have let them read Mad Magazine? Come to think of it, though, the older one read it but the younger one didn’t, and the older one is by far the better adjusted, while still being charmingly eccentric. I guess there are things we’ll just never know, no matter how much we worry about (or at) them.