Unraveling the Worry Beads

British artist Cornelia Parker put a replica of the house from Psycho on top of the Met. Parker’s first idea was to put up a red barn, but that wasn’t feasible. Then, while studying the paintings of Edward Hopper, she discovered that Alfred Hitchcock based the Psycho house on on of Hopper’s paintings, The House By the Railroad (1925). Parker worked with a restoration company to make the house from an actual red barn. The resulting paradox contains what Parker calls the “wholesomeness” of a red barn, mixed with all of the “dark, psychological  stuff you don’t want to look at.”

When something becomes a cliche, “they resonate with a large amount of people for a reason,” explained Parker. “The inverse of the cliche is the most unknown place.” By placing this house on top of the Met, Parker questions why this image has become so cliched; what draws people to this image? It symbolizes the “dark, psychological stuff” brewing in Norman Bates’ mind that made him into a murderer.

The theme of fear keeps reappearing in the writers and artists I am studying: Rivane Neuenschwander, Gavin De Becker and Tatiana Istomina each deal explicitly with fear as a subject. They are interested in the psychology of fear, which runs rampant in contemporary society. Just to name a few of my own fears, for example: cancer, glacier melting, the oppression of women’s rights, the presidential election, terrorism, the Zika virus, someone slipping a roofie into my daughter’s drink….

Usually one fear is a symbol of a larger, bigger fear, said the Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander in this artist talk about a project she did with children. Neuenschwander asked children to draw images of what scared them, and then she collaborated with a costume designer to make capes based on the drawings. Each of these super hero capes is original in design and color, and the children get to wear them around.

One boy feared biscuit crumbs, explained Neuenschwander, but he was perhaps more frightened of getting in trouble with his mother, of getting yelled at for having crumbs in the bed. His cape is light blue and white, with round circles, symbolizing brown crumbs, pinned onto it. It’s fun to watch the kids put on the capes, and see how their fear gets transformed into something they can manipulate and have power over; they are playing with the capes made from all of their fears.

“What you fear is rarely what you think you fear—it is what you link to fear,” explained Gavin De Becker in The Gift of Fear. “Fear says something might happen. If it does happen, we stop fearing it and start to respond to it, manage it, surrender to it; or we start to fear the next outcome we predict might be coming.”*

When I was growing up, if I heard my mother scream from somewhere in the house, I knew the reason was probably a spider. She was afraid of any spider, but the threat of a possibly fatal bite from a black widow or brown recluse was the primary source of her fear. In De Becker’s terms, her fear of spiders was linked to her deeper fear of pain or death.

It is important to distinguish between fear, which is the visceral response to a real perceived threat, and worry/anxiety. My mother was always worried about us, in a normal mother kind of way. She didn’t trap us inside and keep us from living our lives, but she worried about us the whole time we were doing so. This New Yorker page reminded me exactly of her worry-inspired, morbid inventions.

As an adult, I learned that the spider was a Jungian symbol for the negative mother archetype. We all have both the good and bad mother archetypes in our minds. The negative mother is the shadow side of mothering, the smothering instead of nurturing, a manipulative, interfering energy that doesn’t observe personal boundaries. Louise Bourgeois’ giant spider sculptures appear terrifying and creepy to me, not just because they are spiders, but because they are representative of this negative energy. The over-scaled, enormous presence suggests the power that such archetypes can have in our psyche.

Yet Bourgeois said the spiders she created were positive. She was thinking about her own mother was so productive, and how spiders are, too, as in spinning webs. Everyone has different fears and associations. That’s what Tatania Istomina illustrates with her ongoing project, Scary Stories. Istomina interviews people, asking them to tell her their scary stories. At the same time, she asks them to draw on an electric tablet. Istomina then edits down the interview into a cogent story and plays it along with the drawing. Viewers put on headphones and listen to the story being told, while watching a recording of the drawing being made on a screen mounted to the gallery wall.

Without the physical presence of the hand of the illustrator, the drawing seems to self generate. It mimics my thought processes—how, when I am listening to something, I am visualizing parts of the narrative in my mind. Some of Istomina’s subjects are clearly artists, as their drawings are technically very representative. My images are vague, just like my ability to replicate them.

To distinguish between worry and phobia is easy, since “real fear occurs in the presence of danger and will always easily link to pain or death,” said De Becker. Because fear is a visceral response from a perceived threat, when people react to a fear signal it is an involuntary reaction. Whereas, reacting to a worry signal is voluntary. “Worry is the fear we manufacture—it is not authentic.” So when I’m wondering if my college-aged daughter made it home safely from a party, I have to realize it is a form of worry, not a real fear.

De Becker says, since worry is a choice, however, people are doing it because it serves them in some way. But how? Worry, he explains, is “a way to avoid change; a way to avoid that we are powerless over certain aspects of our lives. Worry can also be a “cloying way to have connection with others,” (for example, worrying about someone because you love them). Worry can be “a protection against future disappointment.”

I’ve always wondered about worry beads, and how they were used, but after reading De Becker, the concept makes perfect sense. People use worry like “a magical amulet to ward off danger,” explains De Becker. So fingering those beads must serve as a physical outlet for anxiety.

Running is my form of worry beads. The ways we deal with our fears are as different as our fears, but there are definitely healthy and unhealthy ones (wine, queso and chocolate). But most importantly, worry “interrupts clear thinking, wastes time, and shortens life.”

De Becker suggest this exercise. If you are worried, ask, “how does this serve me?”

According to De Becker, “To be freer of fear and yet still get its gift, there are three goals to strive for:

1. When you feel fear, listen.

2. When you don’t feel fear, don’t manufacture it.

3. If you find yourself creating worry, explore and discover why.

*All quotes by De Becker taken from Gavin De Becker’s The Gift of Fear.

One thought on “Unraveling the Worry Beads

  1. Enjoyed this piece very much. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch would say “It’s not time to worry yet.” So when is a good time to worry? You address this question so well here: worry “interrupts clear thinking, wastes time, and shortens life.”
    LOVED the mother’s obits on her daughter’s demise(s)!

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