In hard times, will we be worried or concerned?

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at

“There are two groups of worried people today. One group worries because of their jobs; the other worries because they have no jobs.”

My father penned those words 19 years ago. Some things don’t change.

For most of us, though, the last few weeks have brought unprecedented uncertainty, anxiety and volatility to our lives. Yet, regardless of our place in history, the bottom line is that we are going to worry about something.

People have always worried. Strickland Gillilan’s brief poem, “On the Antiquity of Microbes,” applies to worries, too:


Had ’em.”

But let’s not confuse worry with genuine concern. There’s a difference.

As Wordsworth writes, “The fretful stir unprofitable …” They worry and fret, and nothing good (profitable) happens.

Genuine concern, however, is that feeling that causes you to do something constructive about the situation.

Worry weighs you down to think endlessly about a problem without positive results. Concern stirs you up, moving you to corrective action.

Worry incapacitates you, putting you to bed because you failed at your work. Concern gets you out of bed, putting you back to work on that failure.

Worry causes you to lament the process of growing old. Concern prompts you to schedule a medical check-up, buy insurance and/or adopt a healthier lifestyle.

Worry gives you ulcers because you can’t pay your bills. Concern causes you to review your finances and make a budget.

Worry makes your heart ache because you are lonely. Concern prompts you to make plans with friends or join a group.

But why do we worry? Why is stress such a large part of our lives?

One definition of stress continues to comfort me: “Stress is the effort of the brain to adapt to a change in the environment.”

Dr. Wilkie Wilson, a neuropharmacologist from Duke University, explained this premise to parents in his “Biology of Motivation” lecture.

I recall dropping my pen, pausing to absorb his words. What a powerful concept. In the war on worry, my brain was the culprit, the hard-wired part of me that was reacting to a change in the environment. Stress was its struggle to adapt.

I tested that theory, recalling stressful times. Indeed, each was preceded by a changed environment. Stress reflected my attempts to adjust to the new circumstance. Surprisingly, that concept brought tremendous relief. My stress was a bodily response, scientific in nature. More importantly, it was predictable.

By definition, uncharted territories create stress. In our nation’s current voyage, we’ve experienced significant uncharted territories both politically and economically.

We are rightfully, predictably stressed. Yet, hard times create opportunities for unprecedented personal growth, too, where we can learn more about ourselves, our beliefs and what we truly value in life. And remember, we are also rightfully, predictably resilient — with a storied history of adapting, adjusting and surviving.

But along our current course, will we be worried or concerned? Will we get stuck in a never-ending woe-are-we loop of worry, or can we put legs on our worries and take action?

We each have a choice to make.