Worry: The Salt of Imagination

There’s a quotation floating around the internet in the form of various inspirational memes, and I feel the need to respond to it.

“Worry is a waste of imagination.”

On the surface, it seems like a sweet piece of sentimental encouragement, but I’m going to take a strongly oppositional stance: it’s not only wrong, it’s toxic.

Why is it wrong?

From an evolutionary perspective, worry is one of the fundamental functions of imagination, if not the wellspring that makes the ability useful enough to survive in a population over time. Worry is, by definition, a state of anxiety over actual or potential problems, right? In the context of survival, worry is a thing of beauty. The ability to imagine everything that could possibly go wrong is a valuable step towards preparing a functional response that will keep you alive.

And while you can make the argument that the original problems that worry helped us anticipate (tiger attacks, for example) might be less pressing, you’d have to be a fool to think our world is functioning so beautifully that we have no use for solutions that spring from the imagination’s worries.

Worry might lead us to imagine living in abject poverty, which we might respond to by showing up for work on time consistently or being sensible about the debt we take on. Worry might lead us to imagine the return of smallpox, which we might respond to by getting our shots and advocating for good vaccination policies. Worry might lead us to worry about triggering World War III, which we might respond to by working really hard to keep the Drumpf from getting elected.

Far from being a waste, worry is one of the critical tools of imagination.

Okay, fine, maybe the quotation isn’t completely accurate. But toxic? Really?

Yes, really. Even if you brush off the worry about what it would be like to live in a world run by irresponsible adult-children who are incapable of applying forethought to situations that might be beneficial for us to avoid, shutting down the people who are good at worrying is just mean.

In my observation, social groups are more effective when you’ve got a good balance of naturally negative people and naturally positive people. Not necessarily a 1:1 ratio. 3:1 might be closer to the mark. If you look at “negative” people as “problem seers” and “positive” people as “problem solvers,” you can see how that balance might be useful. Three people whose primary talent lies with fixing things for every one person who’s primarily good at noticing what might need fixing could mean good odds for fixing those identifiable problems.

The difficulty is that “positivity,” being a trait that is useful in larger quantities, becomes “normal,” while “negativity” becomes seen as less desirable. (And let’s face it: negative people are not often the ones who are good at helping to foster group cohesion, which adds to the perception of negative thinking as inherently bad.) So instead of recognizing that these two habits of imagination (problem seeing and problem solving) are complementary skills that need each other, there’s a tendency for worry and negativity to be seen as something that has to be fixed by the positive people. And to treat negativity as something that needs to be fixed is to treat people who are better at seeing problems as if they are broken.

Labeling people as broken for the habits of mind they were born with is a toxic behavior, and that’s exactly what this quote is doing.

Come on…you’re not saying worry is always a good thing, are you?

I’m not. Really, and truly, I get where that quote is coming from. Worry can drag people down without serving a purpose. Just like blind enthusiasm.

Any trait that’s too far out of balance is going to lead to problems. In a world that’s a lot safer, statistically speaking, than the world in which worry was initially useful (i.e., Tiger Attack World), our imaginations are certainly capable of latching onto ridiculous scenarios to fret about and spiraling into obsessive panic attacks. That’s not good. That specific variety of worry is a waste of imagination. But if you lump all worry into the same category of wasted brain power, you will accomplish exactly two things:

  1. You’ll make the habitually positive people feel smug and self-congratulatory about their own lack of worry, leading them to feel justified in further telling negative people how broken they are.
  2. You’ll make the habitually negative people feel more broken and give them something else to worry about.

That quotation does both of those thing. I do hate to deprive the internet of a pithy conceptualization of a rampant topic, of course, so here’s a suggested alternative:

Worry is the salt of the imagination: too much could give you a heart attack, but it’s still essential to life.