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On long walks, female friendship and the mysterious power of the three-second rule

Seal Press: The title of your memoir is irreverent, but it also reflects the zeitgeist in 2016 as you were writing, and in 2017 as the book is being published. Were you thinking about issues like politics and climate change while writing this book?

Torre DeRoche: Absolutely. The word ‘worry’ means, in ancient English, “to choke or strangle,” which is a good way to articulate how it feels to read the news these days. My hunch is that we’re living inside a mass existential crisis. People do weird stuff when they’re inside a crisis, like leaving their marriage or buying a motorbike or voting for autocratic governments, ya’ know? Through the vehicle of my personal story about moving through a lifetime of crippling worry, I’ve tried to speak to this collective existential crisis. By creating a map of insights through my own recovery, I’m hoping I can perhaps motivate others to take on their own anxiety, because it’s not until we’ve mastered our own inner space that we’re going to be effective in the face of the storm outside us.

SP: Your story captures a very dangerous adventure you lived out: walking 240 miles along busy roads in India, full of pollution, wild dogs, snakes and leering men. Where is the line between adventure and recklessness?

TD: I don’t think there is a clear line! I think it’s most often determined by whether or not you make it out unscathed. Look at Christopher McCandless from Krakauer’s book Into the Wild: had he survived that journey, he would be a hero—a “true adventurer.” He’d be a columnist in Outside magazine with a public speaking circuit. Instead, he’s remembered as a reckless hermit with emotional problems.

There’s a lot of hypocrisy when it comes to adventure verses recklessness, and the side of the line that common opinion ends up falling on depends entirely upon the luck of the adventurer. This is also true of, say, business start-ups—or any other bold pursuit. Successful people become legend. Failures get publically shamed. It’s opposite sides of the coin. And I suppose that is all a part of the tension that makes adventure exciting. You’re not just facing death; you’re also facing humiliation.

SP: In the book you mention how women especially are taught to be fearful, given that they are physically more vulnerable, and how this can have a negative and limiting effect on her life. Can you tell us a bit more about this?

TD: The unfortunate reality is that no matter where in the world a woman is born, from the moment a girl can speak, she’s warned—from parent to politician—to be careful: You’re fragile, you’re weaker, you’re less capable, you’re rape-able. And because women hear that story over and over again, it can easily flourish into a spectrum of generalized fears. Fear of the outdoors, of adventure, of being alone, of men; fear of wearing the wrong clothes, taking the wrong street, inviting the wrong person in. Fear that an act as harmless as a long walk might lead to rape, death, and public shaming. This single story is perhaps the biggest oppressor of women. It can keep us in self-doubt. It can keep us inside comfort zones. It can narrow our vision and blind us to opportunity. It can limit our ability to find our own potential and impair our willingness to put ourselves out in the world with all our power and all our courage and be a force for positive change. But actual monsters and the fear of monsters are two very distinct phenomena. While we can’t control the fact that barbarians exist, we get to choose whether or not we want to be oppressed by the single story. We get to choose.

SP: What is the three-second rule?

TD:  Apparently, three seconds is the duration of a single present moment. Researchers did a frame-by-frame analysis to measure the length of post-competition hugs given and received by eighty-nine male and ninety-six female Olympic athletes and found that, on average, each hug was 3.2 seconds long. But what is odd about this phenomenon is that this same pattern of three seconds appears repeatedly throughout cross-cultural studies in everything from music to speech, movement to poetry. Poets often write three-second lines. Spoken language follows a three-second rhythmic structure. Infants have been observed to babble and gesture in three-second patterns. On average, the length of time we can keep something in mind without writing it down is… yep, you guessed it: three seconds. Psychologists call this window of alert perception “the feeling of nowness.” And incredibly, it’s not just humans who have been shown to experience this beat. Animals also display patterns three seconds in length—from chewing to defecating. Giraffes, pandas, kangaroos, roe deer, and raccoons living in zoos all show signs of moving to the same tango beat of the universe.

Life, when imagined in full, is so overwhelmingly complex and long and short and slow and fast and frightening, but when you break it down into simple beats, you get a series of tiny, manageable windows through which to peer and observe, to know the sensations of being alive, to smell and feel, to love and be loved. Three seconds. That’s all there is to surrender to: the magic of a single moment. Walking—especially for very long periods of time—helps me do that.

SP: Worrier’s Guide is partly a story of the power of female friendship. Do you find that female friendships—or other forms of love—are held in the same regard as romantic ones?

TD: Philosopher Alain de Botton believes that fiction—specifically the Romantics—ruined love for everyone by creating a cultural obsession around romantic love. We’re sold a happily-ever-after fantasy through pop culture, a goal that promises wholeness and a permanent cure for loneliness, and from that so many of us assume that romantic love is the only truly worthy form of love. This puts a lot of pressure on that one relationship! Marriages end because fictional expectations around love aren’t met. Single people over age 30 are stigmatized, assumed to be failing at life. Toxic relationships are endured because people believe that, without romantic love, they’re destitute.

But romantic love is only one iteration of love. Love for the self is another. Friendship is another. Strangely, I’ve found that when I form close bonds with female friends, people make a leap of assumption: “Are you lesbians?” as though all closely bonded relationships must therefore be sexual. But love can be powerful and transformative without sex. The best part about making connections outside of romantic love is that you end up with a network of loving support.