What worries us? Countless pointless things. We worry about our social status, whether we have a large enough bank account/an impressive enough job/a prestigious enough degree. We worry we’re “falling behind” because our closest friends are buying houses and having babies. We worry about our appearance: do we look boyish and flat-chested compared to those voluptuous Victoria Secret models on fashion runways? is our ass too flat? are our tits too small? are our thighs too big? We endlessly worry about what other people think: do our mother and father approve of our unconventional choice of career? do they brag about our accomplishments at family dinners or sit in silence while the other relatives boast of their children’s community service trips to Somalia and admissions to the Ivy League? is our date— whom we care little for and see absolutely no future with— charmed by our attractiveness and captivated by our conversation? do our Instagram photos in far-flung, exotic places provoke the envy of our high school friends? does our neighborhood barista refuse to make conversation—not because they’re exhausted or introverted or having a bad day— but because there’s something fundamentally wrong with us as we’ve always suspected?
As a curator of wisdom and diehard devotee of The Great Gatsby, I was delighted to discover what chronicler of the glittery excess of the jazz age F. Scott Fitzgerald had to say about worry. Found in Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience, a printed treasury of one hundred and twenty five letters that began as a digital museum of the same name, Fitzgerald’s letter reminds us very few things are worthy of worry. His advice? We should care about living in accordance with our deepest values and beliefs; we shouldn’t give a single damn about what other people think.
On August 8, 1933, Fitzgerald wrote the following to his daughter, whom he affectionately called Scottie:
I feel very strongly about you doing duty. Would you give me a little more documentation about your reading in French? I am glad you are happy— but I never believe much in happiness. I never believe in misery either. Those are the things you see on the stage or the screen or the printed pages, they never really happen to you in life.
All I believe in in life is the rewards for virtue (according to your talents) and the punishments for not fulfilling your duties, which are doubly costly. If there is such a volume in the camp library, will you ask Mrs. Tyson to let you look up a sonnet of Shakespeare’s in which the line occurs “Lillies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”
Things to worry about:
Worry about courage
Worry about Cleanliness
Worry about efficiency
Worry about horsemanship
Worry about. . .
Things not to worry about:
Don’t worry about popular opinion
Don’t worry about dolls
Don’t worry about the past
Don’t worry about the future
Don’t worry about growing up
Don’t worry about anybody getting ahead of you
Don’t worry about triumph
Don’t worry about failure unless it comes through your own fault
Don’t worry about mosquitoes
Don’t worry about flies
Don’t worry about insects in general
Don’t worry about parents
Don’t worry about boys
Don’t worry about disappointments
Don’t worry about pleasures
Don’t worry about satisfactions
Things to think about:
What am I really aiming at?
How good am I really in comparison to my contemporaries in regard to:
(b) Do I really understand about people and am I able to get along with them?
(c) Am I trying to make my body a useful instrument or am I neglecting it?
With dearest love,
Including letters ranging from literature’s finest writers like Emily Dickinson and Anais Nin to history-making public figures like Benjamin Franklin and Winston Churchill to iconic rock n’ roll singers like Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger, Letters of Note is an invaluable addition to any library. If you love encyclopedic compendiums of timeless wisdom and want more insight into the art of writing specifically, read the Paris Review interviews in Women Writers at Work, which include Anne Sexton on how poetry helped her exorcise her demons and find a sense of purpose, Maya Angelou on the exquisite torment of the creative life, and Joyce Carol Oates on the myth of mood.