Lifestyles of the Jittery & Terrified: Why Nervousness Is A Magic Power

I come from a long line of nervous people.

Every time there’s a storm outside my grandmother stares out the window, groaning and praying that someone she knows isn’t on the road. She knows a lot of people.

My childhood memories are filled with images of my grandfather sitting in his rocking chair, lower lip protruding, sighing deeply. Worrying, incessantly, about everyone.

My sister has a nervous breakdown when she sees spiders. My mother is afraid of many things. Mice. Driving. Calories. Her children; mostly her children.

I have inherited my own nervous nature from many relatives. Though my anxiety has improved a lot over the years, I can name many phobias, past and present.

Agoraphobia. Emetophobia. Mild claustrophobia. Also driving. Planes…

But this isn’t about me.

I think it’s safe to say that everyone on planet earth has anxiety in one form or another. To declare “I have anxiety!” is simply to identify yourself as a human being. Hell, my dog has anxiety. It’s a side effect of living.

And I want to challenge what it means to be nervous–maybe not just run-of-the-mill nervous, but something a tick above that. The kind of nervous that can easily rule your life. The kind of nervous that, to the outside world, looks like weakness.

Nervousness shouldn’t be equated with weakness. As a Certified Nervous Person, I believe it’s a strength, even a magic power. Here’s why.

A Threat Around Every Corner

A nervous person is fine tuned to threats. Emotional, physical, existential. Real and imagined. Things you would never even think of.

What if I have too much soda before the plane lands and then the plane gets stuck on the tarmac and the flight attendants won’t let me go to the bathroom, and if I defy their orders and go the bathroom anyway the air marshal tackles me and I end up on the news?

What if I’m standing in this line forever, so long that I start getting hungry and then I miss lunch, so my blood sugar plummets and I start to feel dizzy and nauseous, and I cause a scene because I either faint or vomit on the person standing in front of me?

What if I walk through that tall grass and a tick latches on to my ankle and I don’t notice for a week, and by the time I do, it has given me Lyme Disease and I end up developing celiac disease?

Are these reasons to be overly nervous? Not really. They’re silly worries, unlikely scenarios, and only serve to add undue stress to a situation that might not be stressful at all.

But the important thing to remember, before you laugh at a Certified Nervous Person, is that all of these scenarios are possible. Who do you think is going to take the proper action to prevent such a crisis: the calm fellow who never worries about anything? Or the nervous Nelly who has imagined exactly that chain of events?

The nervous Nelly, of course. She would drink soda sparingly as the plane reached its destination. She would pack a protein bar in her purse before heading to the DMV. She would wear tall socks and tick repellent before going hiking.

Nervous people are always prepared. We expect the worst, and worse than the worst. So when a crisis arrives, we’re not upset. We don’t falter or cave. Instead, we give that crisis a dirty, unimpressed look and ask why it arrived so late. We were born ready.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

Every waking moment of a nervous person’s life is a struggle.

We are constantly fighting an internal voice that points out new things to be afraid of. We have no control over it. We also talk to this voice constantly, telling it to shut up or telling ourselves not to listen.

When I’m nervous, I feel like I have two minds: the rational one and the irrational one. One side tells me I’m not in danger and I don’t need to fret over something so silly, while the other maliciously reminds me that I should be very scared of everything.

It’s a back and forth that doesn’t give up. A prompting to be scared, fighting with a determination not to be.

And that inner battle is perfect preparation for any real life obstacle. Nervous people possess expert coping mechanisms and stress relieving techniques. Our brains may be a tad fragile, but they’re protected by emotional callouses formed over years of fighting.

We’re also used to crawling through and over our nerves to get what we want. The nervous person knows very well that if you give in to every single little fear, you’ll never do anything at all.

And this makes us are unstoppable.

Sensitive Souls

I believe that nervous people are simply people with overactive emotions.

We experience the difficulties of everyday life on a higher frequency. Call it Mountain-Out-Of-A-Molehill Syndrome: we have a hard time distinguishing between an actual big deal and something that we just think is a big deal.

After a social function, my mother will lie awake at night recounting every single thing she said. As the hours in the dark tick by, she gradually convinces herself that she insulted someone or made herself look like a fool. And of course, she did nothing of the sort. But it doesn’t matter, because she’s worked herself into a nervous state and will end up falling asleep, finally, at 5 a.m.

There is no calm for a Certified Nervous Person. Quiet moments are just free, undisturbed moments to fret about something. Our base line is bothered. Our emotions are always on the surface.

And these emotions aren’t always directed at torturing ourselves. We direct this energy at other people, in the form of constant worry. We agonize over what can go wrong in the lives of the people we love, following that “if, then” thinking to its terrifying conclusion.

With our minds attuned to every emotional stimuli–internal and external–nervous people often absorb the emotions of complete strangers. When we see anyone suffer, we feel it, too.

Nervousness and empathy, in my personal experience, go hand in hand. One causes and feeds the other, allows the other to exist. And the ability to intimately understand and appreciate the internal lives of other people is the most powerful skill you can possess.

Of course, there are plenty of Certified Nervous Persons who are held captive by their over-active nerves. There are certain aspects of my anxiety that I can’t overcome.

But perhaps if we look at nervousness as a unique way of seeing the world and a special struggle that makes us tough, we can convince other people that we’re not weak at all.

We are stronger than they–and we–think.

Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels

The Criminal Character: Tommy Shelby, Walter White & The Audience Who Loves Them

Movies and TV have made the gangster kind of…sexy.

Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders. Tommy Darmody in Boardwalk Empire. Billy in The Departed (no, not a gangster, but pretending to be one). Ray Liotta in Goodfellas (yes, I’m serious…) Johnny Depp in Public Enemies. Nucky Thompson in Boardwalk Empire…

No. I’ll stop right there. Sorry Steve Buschemi, but ewww. Not even for a second.

The gangster as presented in movies and TV is physically magnetic and alluring, fodder late night fantasies. The bad boy who needs a good woman to tame him. The man who takes what he wants, without hesitation. Who comes home from his latest brawl with boo-boos that need to be mended…

But the appeal of the gangster is far deeper than that.

I was pondering this question as Cillian Murphy strutted down the gritty streets of early 20th century Birmingham in the second season of Peaky Blinders. I’m now in the fourth season and I absolutely love this series, like everyone else. And it dawned on me that I’ve been this place before–enraptured with a story about gangsters.

Some of my favorite movies and TV series revolve around this law-breaking characterBoardwalk Empire, The Departed, Public Enemies, Goodfellas, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, The Untouchables, Breaking Bad. Even Oscar (and if you haven’t heard of or seen this movie, your life is not complete).

I have a thing for criminals, apparently.

As I was admiring Tommy Shelby’s beautiful face, I asked myself: why? Why do I enjoy movies and TV shows about criminals? Why does anyone, because I am definitely not the only one.

Gangsters Reach for the Stars…By Breaking the Law

The first answer that came to my mind was that the gangster–or generally, the criminal–as dramatized in movies and TV, rises above society’s rules to take what he wants in life. We enjoy watching his successes because we, here in the real world, are tamed and obligated by those same rules.

And the gangster, of course, wants exactly what we want: happiness, achieved when our dreams are fulfilled and our daily struggles are over.

The beautiful house and a comfortable life. Freedom from a hated job, and the obligation to work that hated job. The safety and contentment of the people we love, and providing for those people. The ability to snap our fingers and get what we want or do what we want. Money often achieves all of these things.

In our normal, everyday lives, there are obstacles everywhere, preventing us from reaching these goals. We can’t get the job we want because of nepotism in the workplace. The bank won’t give us the loan we need to buy the nice house. Rules prevent us from moving forward as quickly or as easily as we want.

The trouble is, we all have our place in this world, based on where we were born and into what family and circumstances. Often, we only have so far to move from the place we start from, especially if that starting point is closer to the gutter. How far we go depends on our grit and determination. Only the extraordinary person can rise above challenging circumstances to reach their apex of their dreams. Legally, that is.

Not so for the gangster. Those rules don’t exist for him. He rises above society and its trappings to make his own rules and capture success on his terms. That is very appealing. Seen from this viewpoint, a life of crime is a kind of freedom (fictionally speaking).

Take Walter White in Breaking Bad. He spent his whole life doing things the right way, following the rules, even as he faced a terminal cancer diagnosis. Society put up a wall that he could not climb. So he went around that wall.

On the other side is something we rarely enjoy in real, everyday life: being on top and in control, a master of your own fate.

How Movies & TV Explore Light & Dark, Good & Evil, & Everything in Between

In all the gangster-themed TV and movies I’ve watched, such characters are used in two ways: to expose man’s utter cruelty and inhumanity, or to confuse the audience by revealing his many contradictory sides.

The gangster can do very bad things. But he’s also human. He wants what we want, and despite his evil acts we can empathize with him. It may be uncomfortable to admit, but the bad man can also have a good heart.

Richard Harrow in Boardwalk Empire is a serial killer. Let’s not mince words. He’s killed dozens of people and does so seemingly without hesitation or remorse. But when he’s alone in his room at night, he cuts out pictures of happy families and pastes them into a scrapbook, dreaming about what he believes he can never have: a normal life. Service in World War I stole that normal life from him, turning him into a sniper who couldn’t switch off that killer instinct when he got home. It also gave him a ghoulish face wound, which he covered up with a rather eerie prosthetic mask.

He’s a fan favorite, I believe because he was a contradiction. He had an evil side and yet he was a tender, broken man, who loved and cared for a young orphan, fell in love, and created a little family just like he dreamed. We rooted for him.

For this very reason, I’m excited for Tom Hardy’s upcoming Al Capone flick, Fonzo, which I expect will paint an unexpectedly sympathetic side to a famous psychopathic gangster.

This contradiction of good and evil is fascinating, because it lies in all of us. We all want simple, normal things, to be surrounded by people we love and to protect them,  and to achieve our dreams. But we could also become killers, if the circumstances were right. Light and dark is in all of us.

Of course, fiction gives us a miraculous gift: the ability to see and analyze all these different sides and hidden motivations. We aren’t afforded the same access in real life. We rarely know why people do things, and so are resigned to watch life unfold from the outside and shake our heads, utterly confused by the events around us.

But stories give us a good window into understanding inscrutable people. It allows us to empathize, to walk in the shoes of someone we normally wouldn’t understand, to find common ground.

And yes, it’s possible to find common ground with a criminal.

Featured image courtesy United States Bureau of Prisons [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Your Turn

Can you think of any other reasons why the gangster character is so appealing? If you  disagree, I’d love to hear why. If you have a favorite fictional criminal, tell me about him or her.