Mental health

What Are We All So Worried About?

An investigative journalist contemplates the nature of uncertainty and risk as the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 deepens.

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The word “insurance” is a misnomer. We can buy policies that pay our loved ones when we’re dead, or others that replace cars and homes lost to fire or theft. But nothing protects us from the unpredictability of life itself. The only warranty against worry is trust.

I’m thinking a lot about uncertainty and risk these days, prompted first by my own travel fiasco, then by the announcement of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanishing from radar over the South China Sea. As a writer who specializes in Asia, I’ve crossed those waters in the past 15 years more times than I can count. It’s chilling news, the stuff of nightmares: to be (or have a loved one) on a plane that disappears without explanation. Answers may surface in time, but some questions will likely linger forever.

In reality, the risk of disappearing in a plane is slim compared to statistically greater dangers we often face in our daily routines—driving a car, riding a bike, crossing the street, choking on food. Yet the thought of being trapped in a falling plane, to me, is more horrid than facing a potential crash on foot or behind the wheel. It’s the lack of control.

And it’s culture. Scientists know that our upbringing, our environment, everything around us affects how we perceive the perils and possibilities of our choices in life. We tend to attribute greater risk to unfamiliar situations or those beyond our control, according to University of Oregon psychology professor Paul Slovic. Risk perception and actual risk are two different things, and cultural context determines how we react. Many of us make decisions based on perception rather than reality.

As Americans, we want—we crave—the ability to choose the best alternative in a risky situation. “In modern Western democracies, the individual right to choose is crucial to society,” writes Austrian scientist and scholar Markus Schmidt. That’s why the vanishing airplane scenario sticks in our heads, consumes our thoughts—even as we drive our cars down the much riskier freeway. 

My own brush with uncertainty this week pales in comparison. Essentially, I’m not where I was supposed to be. Not where I thought I was supposed to be—which was in Yangon, Myanmar, for an international media conference. It’s a convoluted story involving an embassy, a ministry, a visa application, several faxes and emails, many dead-end phone calls, a helpful friend with connections, snowstorms that shut down Washington, and an overdue Express mail envelope containing my passport—which arrived a few hours after my scheduled flight had departed.

Oof. “That sucks,” several friends consoled. “I am so sorry to hear this happened.”

I am too. I’ve lost a bunch of money, but I’ve booked another flight. I’ll still eat tonight and tomorrow, and the knot of stress in my stomach—it too shall pass.

So why do I have that knot of stress?

That question, coupled with the missing MH370 jetliner, prompted a flurry of reading this week on the intersecting paths of risk, uncertainty, and worry.

Risk and uncertainty are actually elusive terms, even in the scientific realm. They’re hard to clarify. By some definitions, risk is a calculation of odds based on potential outcomes; whereas with uncertainty, we don’t know what the outcomes could be. If I flip a coin, odds are 50-50 it will turn up heads. There is risk in the flip, but not uncertainty.

As lay folks, though, many of us equate risk and uncertainty, and we’re consumed with the potential result: worry. We worry about the risk of unknown outcomes. We worry about uncertain futures when we have no idea how the wind will blow. And we worry about our responses to these worrying situations—I bought a new plane ticket at a hefty expense; was that the right choice? Should I have waited for a better price? Will that particular plane disappear from the radar somewhere over the sea?

I have to believe it won’t.

As I searched for information on risk, uncertainty, and worry I came across an essay that added another key ingredient to the stew: trust. “It would be easy to say that mindfulness is the answer to worrying,” writes the author Lori Deschene. But that won’t happen to all of us all the time—worry is a natural human response. So, “maybe a better suggestion is a combination of being in the moment and trusting in the one to follow.” After all, worry accomplishes nothing. “If you worry and nothing’s wrong, you’ve wasted precious time over nothing. If you worry and something is wrong, you’ve still wasted precious time.”

I like that—difficult as it is to practice. But I do believe, if I had loved ones on that disappeared flight, they would not want me to spend my precious moments in worry. They would want me to spend every second of my time in the thrust of life. And if I had been on that missing plane, I would battle my own brain in a war against worry—because the analytical me would prefer to think of life, rather than the prospects of losing it. I’m not sure I would win that battle, though.

I’m not surprised to find that Deschene is author of a site called Tiny Buddha. Her ebook series on wisdom is rooted in the age-old philosophy that still defines behavior and response in much of the world where I work and travel. I meet villagers who have no option of insurance—on anything. A storm destroys a house or a crop, and a family spends years working harder to recoup. A snake bites a man in the woods, and he loses a leg. A diseased mosquito bites a baby girl, and she sweats through excruciating days of dengue fever. Maybe she survives, maybe she doesn’t. It’s not easy, not at all. But that is life, and that is the pain a human being bears. Every morning brings with it the knowledge and acceptance that life might pivot on a pin that day—or not.

But it’s not just Buddhist cultures in which I see the sort of patience that life’s risks and uncertainties bring. It’s widespread across the developing world, where there is no guard against changes in plans. I remember, years ago, leaning against the crumbling wall of an open-air bus station in Los Palos, Timor-Leste. My husband and I had joined a small crowd of locals and a Japanese tourist named Kuni. All of us waited hours for a bus to the tiny village of Tutuala, half a day down a rutted one-lane road—the only way there. Locals finally told us the bus would not come that day. Some days it arrived, and you could take it. Other days it didn’t, and there was nothing to do but wait and return again the next day.

I have tried to mimic the poise I see in others who remain so calm while facing the unknown. It’s hard. I rarely succeed. Some of the most amenable people I’ve ever known live in villages with impassable roads and no phones; where communication takes place on foot or face to face. Once, while staying in a remote roadless village in Borneo, I changed an airline reservation by sending a verbal message with the cousin of a friend who was setting off around 4 a.m. on a four-hour hike to a market in the nearest town, where the airport was. Seemed a risky method of communication, but it was the only option I had. Later that day, I passed the cousin and his buffalo on their way home on a muddy rainforest trail. The system had worked. He confirmed my change in tickets.

People accustomed to such risks and uncertainties take hurdles in stride. In fact, they expect there to be hurdles, even when the track looks clear. They snatch the moment—perhaps because there is nothing else to do. I’ve seen Cambodians sleep on logs and rocks and piles of metal, enjoying a rest whenever they can—because they can. That’s a lesson I’ve had to learn. Several years ago in Sri Lanka, our train stopped in the middle of nowhere. No one could tell us why, nor could they say when the train might move again. I fretted and paced the tracks and swore. Hours later, when the engine finally growled to a start, I was in a mad mood. But I didn’t need to be. I could have enjoyed the fresh air and thick forest, where we’d spotted wild elephants. I could have reveled in the few hours of unexpected quiet. Instead I took my ingrained fears and perceptions with me on that train, and I let them compound my stress.

If I had thought about the science of risk, I would have realized the odds were good the train would move again—and I would suffer no real harm.

And if I had thought about Deschene and her Tiny Buddha philosophy, I would have realized “all that mental busy work” of worrying did nothing to change the future. Instead, I could have found something unexpected in the unknowns of the moment. “When I look back at the most fulfilling parts of my life,” Deschene writes, “I realize most of them took me completely by surprise.”

There is no true insurance in life. What I need to learn is what Deschene describes: “On the other side of worry, there is trust.”

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