It is 9:20 PM and we are standing on the platform in the one track train station in Pyay, Myanmar. To get here Sarah and I have walked, with our luggage, almost an hour, down gravel roads, in the dark, because we were told that there “should be” a ten o’clock train that would get us out of town and on to our next destination, Bagan. A cold wind is blowing across the platform, and we are shivering beneath our thin jackets. A mangy dog is rummaging through trash looking for discards. A couple of rough looking characters are sleeping on the benches just out of reach of the station’s fluorescent bulbs. Three wild looking teens, huddled under rough blankets, stare at us with dark eyes. There are some signs about, but they are all written in Burmese and, to us, only undecipherable squiggles and random numbers. Through the Plexiglas, we can see that the lights are off in the station master’s office and no one is inside. It doesn’t look good. Not good at all.
We went to one of the nearby benches to sit and go over our options. We watched bats chase moths in the street lights. We could hear chanting and drumming from a nearby temple. Since it was a Buddhist holiday many stores were closed, the streets were empty and maybe the trains weren’t even running. There were no cabs or tuk-tuks around for transportation back into town, and it was getting colder and darker.
What would happen if we didn’t find the station master? There are two stations, what if we were at the wrong one? What if we had the wrong time and the train had already passed? What if we tried to buy tickets on board, but couldn’t, and they kicked us off in the middle of an off-limits area? What if the train arrived, but was full? What if the teens under the blankets wanted to rob us? What if we had to share a train car with the dodgy characters sleeping on the benches and caught something? What if the dog, or the bats, had rabies and attacked us? What if the chanting from the temple was a cult with designs on enslaving confused tourists?
Okay, nothing was that bad, but this is an example of a phenomenon known as awfulizing. When the brain is challenged but doesn’t have enough information, fear replaces the unknown with something awful. When our minds don’t have enough information to fuel decision making, they use imagination to fill the void with worst case scenarios. When we should be taking action, the fear created by our awfulizing keeps us paralyzed and beats us into ineffective reacting or nonproductive inaction.
On a more macro scale, I see this all the time from people that say they would like to travel more, but they only have just enough information to keep them firmly anchored in place. “I can’t go to country “A” because ten years ago the government was unstable and it might collapse again when I visit there. I can’t go to country “B” because I saw on the news that a virus that effects turkeys could mutate and infect humans. I can’t go to country “C” because it is so far, airplane seats are uncomfortable, and the food is not compatible with my allergies and other afflictions. I can’t go to country “D” because I don’t speak the language and everyone hates us there” It never ends.
And this isn’t just about travel. Awfulizing impacts all areas of our lives. My significant other didn’t call because they are spending time with someone else, (or, maybe they were just in an accident!) I can’t go to the doctor to have that bump looked at because I can’t afford expensive cancer treatments. I can’t accept that better job in a new city because we would have to move and my children would become drug addicts.
It overwhelms our critical thinking, distorts reality, beats common sense into retreat and replaces it with a reactive deluge of upsetting emotions.
Awfulizing overwhelms our critical thinking and distorts reality. It beats common sense into retreat and replaces it with a reactive deluge of upsetting emotions. Awfulizing replaces ambiguity with our worst fears and, at its most extreme, can rob us of our dreams and ambitions.
So what did we do? Sarah watched our bags while I went and looked for the station manager. I found him coming out of the restroom, and he asked me to follow him to his office. It turns out we were at the right station, and there was a 10 o’clock train. I asked about our options, and he said he wasn’t sure, but he thought he would be able to get us a first class sleeper.
By the time I got back to the platform, Sarah was talking with the scary teens who had been under the blankets. They were going to Bagan as part of a high school history program, and they were enjoying practicing their English on Sarah. Soon, the dodgy looking guys that had been sleeping on the benches were awake. It turns out they were electricians who were going to Bagan for a week long job and had been dropped off way too early at the station by their friend who thought the train was at 8 PM, so they decided to get some sleep.
Long story short, we caught the train, got the first class sleeper and had a fun adventure riding on one of the most historical (and roughest) train lines we had ever been on. It worked out fine, but, even if it hadn’t, Pyay is a perfectly lovely place and somehow we would have gotten back to town and had another great night there.
I shudder to think of the opportunities Sarah, and I would miss if we didn’t take responsibility for our fears and were constantly awfulizing ourselves into inaction.
Also published on Medium.