Chickens don't build skyscrapers: future anxiety and being human

Many of my patients have some degree of anxiety. Indeed, it is an anxious time in an anxious world. But some of us are prone to higher degrees of anxiety over the future. We may fear something bad will happen. We may fear we will fail at something important. We may fear letting other people down. The practice of mindfulness is recommended as a remedy for anxiety. Most anxiety exists in the future - it is a future fear emotion. Thus, practicing mindfulness, limiting your focus to this very moment and not allowing your mind to race into the future, effectively reduces future fear.

I was talking to a patient about his anxiety the other day, and he lamented that he couldn't be more like the animals, who seem never to suffer from future anxiety. I was struck by his comment because people are not animals. Why would we wish to be like animals?

It is true that my chickens do not give much thought to the future. They do appear to live primarily in the present moment. They eat when hungry, brood with the season, rest when they are tired, and flee when they are threatened. Even under threat, once the threat is gone, they return to normal fairly quickly. Narrowly escaping a hawk does not see them still cowering in fear even two days later. They appear to have an advantage in being able to let go their fears as threats pass. 

But chickens don't build skyscrapers. Chickens build nests in response to the arrival of nesting season. The nest is basic, easily put together by first selecting the right spot, shaping the existing materials with feet and beak, and then pulling some feathers from one's breast to make it soft and warm. The nest is intended to serve only one set of chicks. She will not use the nest again. She does not envision generations of chicks, many years in the future, using this nest that she is laboring to build. Nor do squirrels, for all their reputation as future planners, truly do much future visioning. Science has discovered that squirrels do not actually remember where they have buried anything. Rather, when they are looking for stored goodies, they randomly dig in places where it seems likely they might have put something a season or two before. 

Some animals do seem to possess longer vision. Termites and ants, for example, can build permanent colony structures that will last for generations, and are properly oriented to sun and earth to provide optimal conditions for habitation. One wonders, then, if ants and termites, like humans, are more prone to future anxiety because of this ability. Do the first ones to break ground on a new colony fret over whether they have the orientation just right? Do they fear their peers will die a horrible death if the colony collapses, making plain their ineptitude? Has anyone measured levels of cortisol in termites? 

People are capable of vast future vision. We envision the future not only for ourselves, but for our family, our friends, total strangers, and people who aren't even born yet. We design parks, thinking of the people who will use them for years to come. We do medical research, looking for cures because we can envision a future where people don't suffer from terrible diseases. We start foundations to remedy the ills of society because we want a future where all people have peace, sustenance, education, and justice. And we build skyscrapers, gleaming towers that must account for future weather, future populations, and the future of the materials with which they are made, long beyond the life of the builders. Our ancestors long ago built houses of worship to glorify God with materials that would far outlast themselves. Today we can still worship in them because someone years ago saw the future. 

My dear anxious friends, do not be too hard on yourselves. The thing that makes you anxious is also part of what makes you human. That ability to see the worst coming is also your great gift to lay foundations for future generations. 

My advice to the catastrophizers: indulge! Indulge that terrible fantasy! Most people who are anxious stop with, "Something bad might happen." That does not allow your anxiety to complete the cycle, and you stay stuck there. Instead, play it out. What bad thing could happen? Could a loved one die? Could you go bankrupt? Could you end up divorced? Or unemployed? What is the bad thing you see on the horizon? Now, what would you do?

What would you do?

This is a critical question. It allows you to reflect on your skills and support. The mistake we make when contemplating disaster is we assume we are completely ignorant, helpless, and alone. That is just not true. We are adults who have acquired tremendous knowledge of the world, many skills, and many social supports. We have people who love us, and social programs to help us. If your spouse died, you would go on. If you went bankrupt, you would go on. If you got divorced or lost your job, you would go on. You would endure, because you have already endured so much. You would take concrete steps to help yourself, because you already do that every single day. You are so much more competent and capable and loved and supported than your anxiety thinks you are. Take those thoughts to completion, so your heart can see that I am right.

To worry is human. To envision the future is human. To adapt, and to love, and persevere is human. God bless the beasts, but that is not our path. We have bigger things to make.