What is the definition of worry? This malaise has over the centuries been the constant companion of many active, and sometimes overactive, minds. Most of us have fallen into its fretful clutches at various junctures: the sleepless night before a job interview, the panic-stricken dash home to turn off an imaginary fire hazard. But what does it really mean to worry and what does its assimilation into our lives tell us about the world we live in?
This study by Francis O’Gorman, who teaches English literature at Leeds, defines worrying as “a set of anxieties about an unknown future.” Structured in four parts, it fuses self-analysis with quotations from René Descartes, William Shakespeare, James Joyce and personal anecdotes. O’Gorman is adamant that this book, with its neat mix of philosophy and psychology, is not a self-help book, but at times it feels as if the author is protesting too much. There is a helpful section on coping strategies, as well as an uplifting final chapter on the curative powers of music and visual art, as opposed to literature, which, he says, only fills the sufferer’s head with more anxious distraction.
The middle chunk is more rigorous, offering a philosophical critique of worry as the product of a society that is rooted in the search for reason and characterised by an abundance of choice. He considers the optimistic ambition of John Stuart Mill that empowering mankind to make free and reasoned decisions would boost wellbeing. But he concludes that all this choice makes us ever more fretful, with some likely to fixate on the least welcome outcome to whatever dilemma they might face. It’s all quite enlightening, especially about O’Gorman’s own mental state; but if it’s not a self-help book, then I’m not sure what the point of it is. My advice to the author would be to stop fretting about how people perceive your work and practise what you so eloquently preach.