Sunday, November 8, 2009

Anxiety

Being human, we naturally all have quite a bit to worry about. For starters, we may be the only species that has to deal with knowing for sure that we are mortal. Back when existential humanism was mainstream, Ernest Becker wrote a book worth reading called “The Denial of Death.” He noted our difficulties with the hard cold fact that we really have zero control over how and when the grim reaper arrives. Becker felt that denial of our impotence, when it comes to mortality, could bring out either the best, or the worst, in us. This impotence in the face of death could lead us to delusions of omnipotence (think dictators, charismatic cult leaders), on the one hand – or to benign uses of power, such as the empowerment of others (think, say, civil rights).


This was what the Buddha, centuries ago, was trying to work out: how do you live if you’re not wearing blinders? if you actually see the suffering all around you, and the impermanence of everything – how do you bear the pain, why do you even bother? The Buddha’s solution was the attainment of equanimity – the opposite of anxiousness - and countless volumes of elaborations on that idea, including countless workshops and seminars, have mushroomed ever since.

Controlling anxiety is not just a matter of philosophy and faith, though; it’s biological and it’s psychological, too. It’s built in to the most ancient part of the human psyche-soma, a survival mechanism meant to alert us and heighten our responsiveness to danger. In other words, it’s in our nature, and it’s not always a bad thing.

For some, anxiety is all over the place, they know it and everyone around them knows it. For others, anxiety is more subtle, and may be disguised as irritability, anger, moodiness. Obsessive anxiety can be persistent and highly resistant to being explained away. Often, there are deeper reasons for obsessive anxiety, rooted in the ways we were brought up, the things we learned about anxiety from our parents. This kind of anxiety is depressive, and can lead to panic; the feeling of never being able to have enough control. If it’s really chronic, and not just about this or that situation, it’s a good idea to talk to a mental health professional to get some help with understanding and managing it better.

One thing that may be good to bear in mind as you try to deal with your anxiety, whether it’s mild and occasional, or persistent and debilitating, is that you are not the only one. It’s something that challenges all of us, and something we can spend a lifetime learning to understand and regulate.

These days, there is climate change and economic downturn, not to mention that old standby, nuclear proliferation; they are just no help at all when it comes to anxiety. It’s probably easier to go ahead and sweat the small stuff, than to fully confront the big stuff that really makes us feel helpless. But even with huge things that are worth worrying about, we somehow have to go on living, as creatively, as lovingly as we can, don’t we? It’s a conundrum – there are some things we should actually be worrying about more, not less. But then what about everyday life, family, friends – shouldn’t we be trying to make the most of what we have? If you have this all figured out, let me know.

The mid-century Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, wrote a fine book called “The Courage to Be,” in which he referenced a medieval drawing by Albrecht Durer, titled “The Knight, Death and the Devil.” When I read about this drawing, I got a print and hung it in my office. There’s the knight in his armor, on his horse, looking straight ahead, resolute, determined to reach his goal. To his right is Death, an ancient man holding an hour glass, following the Knight, not letting him forget the dark, terrible fears that the future might hold; a constant reminder of the ultimate annihilation. And behind him, a horned beast, the Devil. I think of the Devil as metaphorical for the demons, all the guilt and shame, that so many of us drag around behind us; the feeling of never being good enough, worthy enough . With fear of what’s ahead, guilt about what’s behind, shame about what is - it’s hard to go anywhere.

Death, the Devil, fear, guilt – that’s life. They follow the Knight every step of the way. But he just keeps looking forward, eyes on the goal, unswerving, committed, determined. He’s an ideal, the Knight - quixotic, mythically possible - but maybe not humanly possible. Nevertheless, he certainly can be an inspiration.