Wednesday, April 2, 2008

On Risk Assessment, Stressing Less, and Other Thoughts

Apparently I was much, much more out of shape than I thought because that two miles to the metro today was killer. Seriously, my legs were kind of spasming up by the end. By the time I made it to the metro, I was ready for a nap.

So I am glad that this challenge is forcing me to get exercise, but I kind of wonder why exactly I need to be forced to get exercise? I can challenge myself to not buy new stuff for a year and I can do that (less than 4 months to go, baby!) and I can challenge myself to not eat pre-packaged meals, and I can do that. I can even challenge myself not to use toilet paper and do that! So why is it that when I challenge myself to exercise for half an hour a day four days a week, I fall flat on my face?

Why do I stress out about global warming and peak oil, both of which are pretty much entirely out of my control? Am I going to die of global warming? Pretty damn unlikely. In fact, it is much more probable that I would die of heart disease. I have a history of high cholesterol, and my father passed away of a massive heart attack. You would think that exercising every day would be a no brainer.

Except that it's not. And I'm not alone. According to a 2006 Time Magazine article on risk, I'm pretty average:

Shadowed by peril as we are, you would think we'd get pretty good at distinguishing the risks likeliest to do us in from the ones that are statistical long shots. But you would be wrong. We agonize over avian flu, which to date has killed precisely no one in the U.S., but have to be cajoled into getting vaccinated for the common flu, which contributes to the deaths of 36,000 Americans each year. We wring our hands over the mad cow pathogen that might be (but almost certainly isn't) in our hamburger and worry far less about the cholesterol that contributes to the heart disease that kills 700,000 of us annually.

Ring true to you? It does for me. In fact, I would go out on a limb and say that I think in the past few months I have worried considerably more about getting cancer from microwaved tupperware, than I have worried about having a heart attack. Rationally, this makes no sense. But, then again, people aren't rational.

Lately, my life has been going through a lot of turmoil. I always figured I'd be pretty settled in my late twenties ... married, with kids, and successful career. But beyond that, and more importantly, I thought I'd know the answers. And I don't. I really, really don't.

I've also had a lot of moments of poutiness, where I've felt frustrated with the current state of affairs in the world: financial crisis, rising food prices, global warming, disaster in Iraq, rising trade deficits, etc etc. On several occasions I have thought, why do MY twenties have to be so unstable? Why is so everything so difficult and insecure and at a crisis point NOW?

And then I have to step back and remember ... the world has been in crisis before. Can I really say that I am worse off than people who came of age during the Vietnam War? Or World War II? For all the doomsaying going on in the 24-hour news media (At 11:00 pm, we'll talk about how Avian Bird Flu, SARS and Ebola got together to create AvARSola, a disease so dangerous, you're probably already dead!) the threat of nuclear warfare is much lower now than it was in the 1960s and 1970s.

And so, I have been trying more and more to give myself a good dose of perspective when necessary. When I am stressed out about something that is out of my control, or that is unlikely to actually be a problem, I take a deep breath, and tell myelf, "You are being irrational," or "There is nothing you can do." And then I try and find something completely unrelated to do.

Does it work? Well ... no, not always. But I find that the mere act of recognizing that I'm being irrational, or that I'm worrying about something out of my control is in itself important and helps me to calm down. Even more important, though, is being dismissive of my irrational self. I used to get freaked out about stuff, and think, "I know this is crazy but..." But that, in a sense, was giving credence to the crazy thoughts. Now, my attitude is, "I know this is crazy." Fullstop. No ifs, ands or buts.

Now you might be thinking, "Okay, Arduous but irrational and out of your control are two different things." And they are. And look, I'm not saying we should duck our heads under the sand and not pay attention to the problems around us. But I think, in terms of our own personal sanity, irrational and out of your control are more or less the same.

I can't control global warming. I really can't. I can do my best to lessen my impact, and I do, because it feels right. I can write letters, and I can vote and I can act as an empowered citizen. But at the end of the day, what will be, will be, and my stressing out over it is not going to do a damn thing.

The problem with stressing about the irrational and the unchangeable is it allows you to ignore the real issues that you can change. Which is problematic. So, ultimately, while it's good that I am exercising more and eating healthier foods, it does give me pause that I'll walk to the metro to cut carbon emissions, but I won't take the initiative to walk for my own well being. And that I'll cook to cut down on packaging, but not because it's healthier for me than a diet of Lean Cuisine. I guess I'm lucky the health of the planet and my own personal health line up so neatly!


Chile said...

Very thought-provoking, Arduous. You're right - you are difficult. ;-)

I get what you're saying, though. It's easy to get pretty freaked out about all the bad news these days. I try not to sit around wallowing in despair, but rather find what I, personally, can do about it. And like you say, I don't think that my puny little actions are going to stop global warming, but my actions are under my control. Other people's actions are not, although I hope to influence them by my actions and words. Reminds me of Green Bean's post a while back on "Action is the Antidote."

So, how do we decide that it's important to take care of ourselves? It's obviously a common problem. My failure on the Stress Less challenge indicated I'm right there with you!

Anonymous said...

It sucks when you realize your previous physical glory has waned but you can get it back. It's just going to take time, but after all the soreness and fatigue subsides you'll probably feel more energetic than ever ;-)

Don't feel bad about not having the answers in your 20s either. I don't feel qualified to do much more than eat fruit snacks and watch pirated cartoons most days. Nevermind kids or a mortgage.

EcoGeoFemme said...

This sounds just like your post about money, where you said that you couldn't cut your spending for the sake of saving money, but you could do it for the sake of saving the environment.

I think it's easier to worry about something out of your control than to take action about something that is in your control. Talk is cheap.

Mad Hatter said...

Great post! I think sometimes it's the sensational and highly-publicized dangers that we freak out most about rather than the more mundane ones. You should see the precautions we take with dangerous chemicals in lab, when I'm much more likely to die in a car accident driving to work.

Cindy said...

My friend, as I can attest that after I entered into my 30's, got married , had two children and a dog and an unbelievably burdensome mortgage, I still don't have answers. Looking back, I wonder why I thought my parents had all the answers. I ask my mother and she says that you never really have complete answers to life no matter how old you get. You just get more comfortable with not having them.

My close friends and family think I am absolutely nuts because I worry about global warming, about water shortage, about the depletion of fish in our ocean, about the illegal whaling in the Antarctic marine sanctuary, about polar bears of course. The list goes on and on.

It seems that I should just lock myself in a closet and cry all day. But the way I see it, every generation has some crushing problems - war, famine, natural disaster, or worse. They survive by surviving these problems. We are no different. We are surviving ours by figuring out our crushing issues and trying to resolve them. You are stressed because you face these problems with open and clear eyes. With enough people like you, we will too survive the enormous challenges of our generation.

Thanks for taking the public transit! Health and environment, win win.

equa yona(Big Bear) said...

This was an excellent post. Two thoughts. While it is good to reflect on motivation, I figure whatever works. If you do it for positive reasons,(as opposed to showing others how great you are, or making somebody else feel guilty) it does you good. Good results, good karma.
The other thing I realized as I read this was that I NEVER thought my parents had ANY answers. I just thought we are all groping in the dark. Still do. But hell, that's ok, it is all an adventure.

Sam said...

I remember about a year back I got incredibly angry at this little old lady at the grocery store. Why? Because she was buying a six pack of coke. I kept thinking, if your generation didn't succumb to eating and drinking crap then we wouldn't have all these problems with the food industry today. I stood there and silently judged here like I was some saint.

OK I guess saints don't judge...

I think alot of my actions are predicated on the idea that it will somehow make my life as an old person a little more bearable. And of course...I want to be happy and reduce stress in whatever feasible manner I can. When I first read about the Theory of Anyway, it suddenly hit me on why I do what I do. Its the right thing to do. And I have a very human desire to feel accepted and not alienate everyone, but the desire to be accepted is starting to differ from my desire to not wreck everything.

Also didn't Freakanomics address some of the thoughts you bring up, regarding why people place too much emphasis on certain issues vs. others.

Going Crunchy said...

I'm 38, and I still don't have the answers. Many of us don't because the "answers" are different for each of us, as are our paths and the questions that may change with every year.

Just enjoy where you are now, and live to the best of your ability in each day. It sounds trite- - -but you live so much more when you are just involved in the business of enjoying life.

I was reading your posts on PT. Maybe one of those little scooters might help you? And give yourself a couple of weeks. Once you start working out more you'll start to feel "good" in a couple fo weeks.