CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With all the startling news about the spread of swine flu, it's easy to see how we could succumb to fearful thoughts. Even the word "pandemic" makes you stop and wonder.
It's a good thing our health professionals have been preparing for an outbreak like this and have plans in place. Still, those maps we see every day with new dots showing locations of confirmed cases give pause.
"Be prepared" is the Boy Scout and Girl Scout motto. Generally, this is good advice to live by -- unless your preparedness takes on a life of its own and leads to obsession.
It's one thing to have your car trunk stocked with flares, water and blankets in case of emergency. Some folks even opt for kitty litter, sand or chains in the winter. And then there's one guy I know who is so prepared that he alphabetizes his canned vegetables. (Now I'll admit to alphabetizing spices, but vegetables?)
The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines preparedness as "the quality or state of being prepared -- subjected to a special process or treatment; especially, a state of adequate preparation in cases of disaster." Obsession is defined as "a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling."
So, the trick is to think and to plan enough to be prepared, but not to think and to plan so much that you become obsessed.
This got me thinking about other areas of our lives in which good intentions to be informed and prepared lead to obsessions. Know anyone who is obsessed with the weather? Sure, it's helpful to stock up on materials in case of hurricanes, tornadoes or storms. And you may want to have a Plan B in place for an outdoor wedding. But when you have to consult the 10-day weather forecast for every activity in your life, you may be going a bit too far.
Students of all ages put a lot of pressure on themselves to be prepared for tests and exams. I'll bet some of them (and/or their parents) may be obsessed with grades.
Workers prepare sales pitches, proposals, plans and legal arguments, to name a few. Know any obsessive salesmen or lawyers? Probably so -- because it's not easy to draw the line.
In fact, a hard-driving, ambitious person with a good work ethic is admired in our society -- and for good reason. Again, it's just helpful to monitor if and when you're going over the edge. And the barometer of measurement isn't the same for everyone. All you need to do, though, is look at the other areas of your life to see where imbalances are occurring.
If you're focusing too much on your career, for example, take a look at your relationships (spouse, children, parents, extended family and friends). And vice versa.
My sister, Paula, told me about a model she used for a while that was helpful in uncovering imbalances in her life. It was a three-legged stool, and the legs were labeled Work, Play and Love.