[Pyramid of Biscuits]

Juggling with anxiety as we (finally) put 2016 behind us

Be like Delaney.
Illustration: Ian Racoma
Stacy J. Willis

A 2007 Japanese medical study called “The Effects of Juggling Therapy on Anxiety Disorders in Female Patients” concluded that juggling “significantly” reduced anxiety, depression and hostility. The doctors wrote that after six months of juggling, women in the juggling test group showed more “vigor” than those in the non-juggling group. “Three-ball cascade juggling facilitates the growth of gray matter in the mid-temporal lobe,” the report noted.

I have no idea why the study was conducted explicitly on women, and it heightens my anxiety to dwell on it, so let’s move on. In any case, purely by coincidence, I am a female with anxiety who used to juggle a teeny bit, thanks to fourth-grade coed summer camp. It really is a deeply engaging, meditative activity. So when I visited Juggle Vegas, part of SkillCon at the Rio last weekend, I was looking forward to the kind of mesmerizing joy that comes from watching highly skilled jugglers do their thing.

I was not disappointed. Not only did jugglers juggle, but super-enthusiastic cornholers cornholed, under-celebrated athletes played table tennis with their heads in a game called Headis (yep—all headers, no paddles, bigger ball) and another fascinatingly talented group played volleyball with their feet, a sport known as sepak takraw.

After making the rounds, I sat down to chill watching some jugglers onstage. Two men were juggling brightly colored juggling clubs—one set, green; the other, blue—side by side. Each had brilliant hand control, and the rhythm of the cascading clubs was indeed mesmerizing. But then the blue guy took his club and smacked the green guy’s club in midair. And then the green guy ran directly at the blue guy while still juggling, stepping in his way. They began swatting at each other’s clubs, all the while maintaining the cascade above their heads, trying to screw each other up. Apparently, combat juggling is a thing. While their concentration was intense, my anxiety ratcheted up a notch or two, and soon I began yelling, “Get him! Knock it down! You got this!” like I was at a UFC match.

In Sun Tzu’s classic The Art of War, something I’ve been rereading since the election, we learn that “All warfare is based on deception” and “If his forces are united, separate them” and “The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent.” This does nothing for my anxiety, either, but it does clarify what has happened to our nation—for starters, we don’t read enough books, and for enders, we’re ridiculously easy to distract and divide.

Which reminds me of this story about a battle between two Chinese states, Chu and Song, in 603 B.C. During fighting, Chu warrior Xiong Yiliao laid down his weapons and walked into battle juggling nine balls. The 500-soldier Song army got so confused and distracted, it was handily defeated. I need not spell out the similarities to current events—perhaps instead I should apply this lesson to my anxiety, and juggle/distract my frayed nerves until they acquiesce.

Of course, distraction is something in which Las Vegas specializes, and after a hellish 2016, our city is expected to be the No. 1 American tourist destination this holiday season, far ahead of, say, the Library of Congress. Fair enough—people need a break and we need an economy.

Sun Tzu wrote, “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” It’s a matter who takes advantage of it. Who maintains concentration, who keeps their foot on the foot-dart (yes, it’s a thing), who cashes in on the chaos.

Later on in the bustling SkillCon exhibit hall, while a raucous crowd cheered in one corner for a video game competition and another group watched spinning kicks on the sepak takraw court, I saw a young woman juggling six rings onstage. There was no combatant. There was only Delaney Bayles, 18, of Utah, in deep concentration, building her gray matter, reducing her worry and becoming this year’s World Juggling Federation Overall Champion.

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