What, Me Worry?

On Friday a great plague of worry was cured. Nine months ago my wife, Kim, was in a serious car accident while travelling in Asia, and we had been waiting ever since to find out if her massive medical and transportation expenses would be covered by her travel insurance — about $45,000 (Canadian funds, almost exactly the same as US dollars lately). We worried throughout the worst of the aftermath of her injuries, and then for months beyond. It was finally resolved by phone, quite breezily, in the space of a minute. Our deliverance from this anxiety was delayed by some red tape and trivial fate — a claims agent that went on a maternity leave.

I have probably never worried so hard for so long about anything, despite my best efforts not to.

Three disasters

Three particularly awful things have happened to me and mine in the last three years: Kim’s accident, an apartment flood, and a freak legal scuffle. There was no warning about any of these. I did not worry about what was about to go wrong — I had no idea, in two cases, that such hazards existed at all.

For instance, I didn’t know that bathtub overflow drains do not actually work. Most are too small. They choke once they are covered by water and entirely cease to drain, defeating their purpose. The cost of not knowing this little gem of plumbing lore? $8000 — by far the most money I’ve ever paid for nothing. Although not quite in the same league as some of life’s really savage misfortunes, it was a harsh setback, coming as it did right on the heels of paying off student loans, and mere months before the recession. My life would be different today if not for the incompetence of that overflow drain.

I can certainly comprehend the danger of an overflowing bathtub in a 4th-storey apartment. But, like most reasonable people, I assumed that an overflow drain would mitigate the damage of such an error. Why even have an overflow drain, if not to swallow all of the overflow, or at least most of it? I had never imagined consequences worse than a sloppy bathroom floor. I was dumbstruck to discover an inch-deep pond spreading well into the apartment.

Lesson expensively learned: overflow drains do not work as their name would suggest. (Incidentally, the overflow drains in two bathroom sinks and our kitchen sink work perfectly: you could leave those taps running all day with no ill effect, other than wasting a lot of water.)

The point is that the danger was out of left field. Right up until the moment I was in trouble, I had no idea that I was in trouble.

Worrying about the improbable

I have spent some large, unpleasant chunks of my life worrying about and preparing for worst-case-scenarios that never came. The things I have worried about were quite unlikely — less likely than the surprising disasters that have actually occurred. The mental dissonance of this clearer to me now than ever before, having actually survived a run of improbable misfortunes I couldn’t see coming.

Despite the reputation of insurance companies, Kim’s claim was always likely to be paid without fuss. Her case was straightforward, and TIC Insurance has an unusually good reputation among Canadian insurers. Cynically I expected and feared the worst — some bullshit legalistic reason for denying the claim — but rationally I always knew that there was no reason her claim would be denied, and it could be effectively appealed and fought even if it was denied. Of course it would have been quite unpleasant to have to fight for her benefits, but having to do so was far from the worst case scenario. The worst case scenario was actually extremely unlikely. By contrast …

How unlikely was Kim’s car accident in the first place? Not at all unlikely. Car accidents are probably the single most common kind of personal disaster.

How unlikely was an apartment flood? Another rather routine disaster, actually. I’ve noticed since our incident that restoration company vans are about as common as ambulances.

How unlikely was my “legal trouble”? The particular flavour of legal trouble I had was certainly unusual — but being legally threatened is hardly unusual.

Every day of our lives, there are a thousand things that might happen to us, terrible things that could go wrong, but we mostly pay no attention to these possibilities. And yet we do more or less constantly worry about other kinds of threats. Why? What’s the difference? Why was I obsessed with the threat that Kim’s insurer would refuse to pay benefits, which was probably an order of magnitude less likely than several other dangers I barely spared a thought for this year? Even dangers I’ve actually been bitten by? And why is it so easy for people to relate to worrying about these highly implausible dangers? Why did nearly every friend ask me “how’s it going with that insurance claim?” instead of the much more statistically rational “so, are you scared to get in cars?”

What is it about worrying about an insurance claim that is so much more irresistible than worrying about another car accident?

Primates. Why’d it have to be primates?

I think we humans have a knack for worrying about dangers that are in the hands of other humans. We aren’t wired well for concern about dumb bad luck — it is particularly pointless, and it seems that way. What we assuredly are wired for is worrying about anything threatening in the social dimension. We have large quantities of gray matter that evolved largely for the purpose of managing relationships. And so we do not worry too much about the possibility of arbitrary misfortunes — not because they aren’t scary, but because they don’t “compute” for us. But when the outcome of a situation is influenced by the decisions of other primates?

We’re definitely hypervigilant about that.

Example: One day a miner deep in a coal mine, a big guy well known as a bully, threatens a smaller and weaker miner. The chances that the threat will lead to anything serious are extremely low. It’s posturing, like most primate threats, and many social forces will limit the danger. Even if they scrap, serious harm is unlikely. But what fears will dominate the consciousness of the threatened man that night? The vastly greater danger of the equipment and rock he works with every day? Or his aggressive co-worker?

The answer is obvious: the cold math of the dangers of the mine is completely overshadowed.

This was also the case with my legal troubles. I had a motivated ideological enemy with some power over me. Although it was always unlikely that they could actually get a pound of my flesh — I had many defences, and a strong legal position — it was well nigh emotionally impossible not to get a little obsessed with the possibility that real damage might be done to my career by people who had chosen me as a target. The tragic irony of such threats is that the danger does not actually have to be great to wreak havoc, precisely because our social minds are so affected by being threatened.

The threat was the danger, then. In human affairs, threats rule our days and our nights, whether the danger is real or not. Terrorists understand this, and they won that battle on 9/11 — many Americans have been terrified ever since, freakishly out of proportion to the real danger.

This is not the Grand Unified Theory of Worry. Obviously there are other factors, other ways of worrying. (For instance, I do indeed now worry about my bathtub.) But I do think that the essential reason that I worried so much about the insurance claim — and the reason that everyone could empathize with my worry so strongly — is because the outcome was up to someone else. Somewhere out there there were people who would decide our fate.

And I found that hypnotic.

The call

Getting “the call” about a loved one is one of the great horrors of life, as I now know from personal experience. In my case, it came mere minutes after discussing the science of brain injuries with a good friend, an expert in such things. As I chatted about brain damage out of scientific curiosity in a pub, Kim was actually experiencing it, thousands of kilometres away in the basement of an overcrowded hospital in Laos. A thin, scratchy phone connection and a man with an odd accent — Australian, it turned out — asking for me in a formal, cautious tone were the only clues I needed to know that something awful had probably happened; before he even confirmed it, my neurons were ablaze and an exotic cocktail of stress hormones was pouring into my blood.

I had trouble walking away from that phone call. My legs didn’t work right. My heart has never pounded like that, and the experience is scarred into me. Yet I will remember 2010 just as clearly for the painful wait for the insurance claim to be settled, the wait for unknown and seemingly unconcerned primates to determine my fate.