I've been saying "No lions" to myself quite often the past few days.
Not because there aren't any lions in my life, because there also aren't any elephants, black holes, or starfish in my immediate vicinity, and I don't go around commenting on their absence via my inner thoughts.
Rather, recently I started reading Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, a book by Robert M. Sapolsky. First published in 1994, it's been updated regularly, with the current 3rd edition coming out in 2004.
Naturally I checked the index under "ulcers" to see if Sapolsky talks about the research that implicates H. pylori bacterial infections and non-steroidal inflammatory drugs like Aspirin and Advil in the formation of stomach ulcers. Not surprisingly, he does.
So contrary to what was thought for a long time, stress isn't the primary cause of ulcers. However, stress is a risk factor for ulcers, and can make them worse and more difficult to heal, according to the Mayo Clinic.
My interest in the book comes from my desire to worry less and enjoy life more.
I agree with my psychotherapist wife (now retired) that worrying can be productive if it leads us to recognize potential or actual problems that we can do something about.
But as Sapolsky notes early on in his book, modern life for us humans tends to be filled with stress that bears little resemblance to that felt by a zebra being pursued by a hungry lion, or to that felt by a hungry lion desperate to find food needed to survive. Instead, we often worry about things that are far removed from clear and present dangers.
That's why I've started saying "No lions" when I find myself getting worked up by thoughts or feelings that aren't connected to a genuine problem that I can do something about.
I combine those silently-spoken words with a mental image of zebras grazing peacefully on an African savannah. Of course, I'm aware that my carefree zebra-mind can, just as with actual zebras in the wild, be jolted into full alert by an actual problem at any moment.
Which comes with being alive. A problem-free life doesn't exist. Our only choice is how to deal with problems, not whether they're going to appear.
The genius of Sapolsky's book title, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, is that it points to a truth that zebras intuitively understand, but we humans have a lot of trouble grasping. Namely, problems should only be a source of stress when they actually exist.
If there's no lion in sight, go back to grazing. If a lion appears, run. Then go back to grazing. Worrying about lions isn't going to make lions disappear.
For zebras, there's no way to guarantee a lion-free life. Similarly, there's no way any of us can guarantee a problem-free life. Something is going to go wrong before too long, guaranteed.
Cars break down. Bodies fall prey to disease. A nasty email gets inadvertently sent to the person being complained about. Our job demands too much of us. Family members are fighting. A beloved sports team has a nasty losing streak. What we care about most gets a yawn from politicians. Noisy neighbors make it impossible to sleep.
Etc. Etc. Etc.
That's why I enjoy saying "No lions" when my mind conjures up a problem that is imaginary rather than real. I should be saving my energy for dealing with genuine problems in my life, just as zebras go back to grazing after a lion attack because they need to be able to cope with the next appearance of a lion.
Sure, it's wonderful that we humans can envision a future or past that doesn't actually exist. This enables us to plan, learn, create, and so much more. But that capacity also leaves us prone to stress, anxiety, worry. We often find it difficult to let go of a problem that has already occurred, or to stop thinking about a potential future problem.
Since I'm sharing this post on my Church of the Churchless blog, I want to add that religious beliefs can also be a non-existent lion that leads to stress.
People worry about their afterlife even though there is no solid evidence that life after death exists. Ditto for sin, whether God is pleased with us, and a host of other sources of worry that lack any demonstrable foundation. No zebra spends its day anxiously wondering, "Am I doing the right thing?"
And neither should we, without good reason.
Life is too short to spend it in a state of concern over supernatural imaginings. Be concerned about real problems in the real world. There's no lack of them. Don't add on extra religiously-inspired worries that almost certainly are non-existent.