Dan Hitchens

Sometimes it’s good to worry

Francis O’Gorman’s Worrying: A Literary and Cultural Guide finds not much hope for the human race — but at least worriers, being sensitive to others, apparently make good team mates

Sometimes it’s good to worry
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Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History

Francis O’Gorman

Bloomsbury, pp. 192, £

At last, a snappy pop philosophy book which offers to sort out absolutely none of your personal issues. If anything, it will make them worse. ‘There are,’ Francis O’Gorman admits, ‘serious problems for me with the ethics of writing on worry.’ Since words are the very stuff of worry, O’Gorman (himself a worrier) suspects that reading is unlikely to provide a cure. Sufferers would do better to contemplate the sublime balance of Brancusi’s ‘Bird in Space’ (‘a glimpse of a world without fretfulness’) or listen to Bach’s contrapuntal fugues, in which ‘Everything, whatever happens, fits.’ But O’Gorman is not really here to dole out advice:

A while ago, I described this book as I was writing it to a friend. He listened patiently, and rather sceptically. He finally said: ‘Is it like, then, some kind of literary self-help book?’

No. It’s a kind of literary there’s-no-help book.

As with a lot of O’Gorman’s humour, you’re not sure how far the joke carries. Anxiety disorders, for one thing, aren’t especially funny. O’Gorman limits his scope to ‘everyday’ worrying rather than ‘debilitating and extreme fearfulness’. But he has clearly been influenced by the literature on mental illness, and he reflects on Andrew Solomon’s aphorism: ‘Depression is the flaw in love.’ Solomon meant that creatures who find meaning in connection will be vulnerable to the misery of disconnectedness. Analogously, for O’Gorman, worry is ‘a flaw in reason’. Worriers know better than anyone the limits of the reasoning mind. Having tried often enough to just think about this rationally, they can see that, behind supposedly remorseless logic, there is usually some hidden belief system. Our minds are not reasoning machines; we are driven by our commitments.

So far, so familiar from writers like Jonathan Haidt. But O’Gorman goes further. In some enjoyably subversive pages, he unpicks a few of modernity’s best-loved fairy tales. The ideal of secular reason is that we should trust in ‘free and reasoned thought’, question everything, and fearlessly seek the truth. But secular reason has trouble explaining why the truth will turn out to be liberating as opposed to, say, paralysingly awful. O’Gorman is sceptical, too, about the widespread assumption that the good life consists in making choices — in pursuing our individual desires and seeing them fulfilled. As worriers are keenly aware, the burden of endless decision-making can make us less at home in the world. And there are sinister political implications to exalting ‘choice’. If our lives are the sum of our free decisions, then the unsuccessful have nobody to blame but themselves.

The historical sweep of this argument is, as O’Gorman acknowledges, itself characteristic of worry: you start off wondering if you locked the back door, and within five minutes you’re trashing the entire Enlightenment project. But O’Gorman isn’t condemning freedom, reason and choice; he just wants to register their tragic dimension. We need worriers, he urges, because they remind us not to overrate ‘the strength of the human mind and its own capacity to think things through’. Worriers’ extra sensitivity gives them an important social role, too. They may be egotistical and vacillating, but they can also be attentive and considerate. With their ‘ability to see other viewpoints’, worriers make good team workers — although, every so often, they may tire of consensus and take a drastic and reckless decision. (‘We usually regret those moments.’)

A book which lets out such an eloquent sigh at impractical self-help guides, the power of positive thinking, and ‘the bland happiness of the modern West’ should be applauded. But the closer you listen, the more it sounds like a sigh of despair. O’Gorman really means it about there being no hope. Amid ‘the unconsoled ridiculousness of human life’, he says, music and art offer ‘only fleeting’ comfort. ‘Human beings are happier with lies,’ apparently. In the same vein, he remarks that the great thing about social media is that it makes room for our fantasies: ‘The very distance such sites create… allows us to admire those we hardly know.’ It seems a rather sad fate for this book’s resolutely sceptical world view to end up nosing through a near-stranger’s Facebook photos.