"Beware, lest in your anxiety to avoid war, you obtain a master."
-Demosthenes, 2500 years ago.
I get bored with the life-hacks that proliferate on the web these days. I want my simplicity to come with depth. But there are life-hacks staring at us from the pages of philosophy and spirituality of every culture. They are ways of turning suffering into growth, tragedy into triumph. Of course it's easy to romanticise such ideas, rather than face the ways we are vulnerable and damaged in life, yet nonetheless I have no time for being a victim. Not if I don't have to. And a lot of other people feel the same. They want to do something with what's been done to them. They won't to hack their suffering and transform themselves through it. And this is a realistic ambition. Anxiety is a case in point.
Life is dangerous. And trying to live in a richer, fuller way, whether it be through achievement, love, or simply drenching oneself in experience, makes life even more dangerous. To be alive, to exist as a human being, provokes anxiety. Philosophers call this existential anxiety. Psychological techniques cannot solve existential anxiety, because life is not a problem to be solved. It is a challenge to be faced. But does this mean we must cower in the back of our caves? Or be the mere slaves of our anxiety, unable to do anything more than tolerate it?
Yes, there are forms of anxiety that can be solved or cured, so to speak. If your anxiety is a result of past trauma, then you can work on it in counselling, and get beyond it. If your anxiety is a consequence of not knowing what you want, or how to balance different choices or demands in life, then you can work that out and maybe overcome the problem. If your anxiety is a consequence of bad perspectives - you habitually panic and lose your head- then you can work on that. The emotional growth you achieve through counselling, as well as the techniques you learn, help you to reduce such anxiety or even to free yourself of it. Such techniques work because such anxiety is not essential to living - it is not a consequence of your existence. It merely reflects knots in your life which you can straighten out. It can be cured. But as I say, things are different with existential anxiety.
I saw a client who came for counselling because her life was stuck. One week she described a dream. “I was invited to make some important choices, which tricked me - I realised I was being tricked into a dangerous situation.” She said that was the right description, but she was puzzled by what it meant. And yet it had left her disturbed and anxious all week, and felt like it touched on something really important. We explored what it might be telling her. She said that "often when I make choices I feel anxiety." I encouraged her to sit with that feeling and see what was connected to it. As we dug deeper she realised that "making choices feels like becoming defined and limited." I responded that some people feel relieved by becoming that, and pushed her to look further, into the connection for her between such limitation and her anxiety. She paused again, searching, and then responded: "I feel trapped when I make a choice. Like maybe I'm choosing the wrong thing, and will be trapped in regret." We continued to unpack this until she was crying, speaking of deep fears about a future where she was lonely and destitute. And also a day when she would die alone. The conclusion of this session was the starting point for growth and change in her life. She recognised that she was deeply anxious about the risks of living, of choosing and creating her life. "Beware, lest in your anxiety to avoid war, you obtain a master." She was avoiding the war - the challenge of her life - and so she had become a slave, stuck and unhappy. Paradoxically, if she had continued on this path, then her worst fears may have come true, for she was setting herself up for the situation she feared, through avoiding facing it.
The interesting thing with this person, was that her act of avoiding what made her anxious, made her even more anxious. And because that made her stuck and unproductive in her life, her avoidance turned her worse fears into a likely reality. Here is one of the great paradoxes of life. When you avoid existential anxiety - the anxiety that comes with being alive - then it grows stronger, while you become weaker. But when you face it then the opposite happens: its power over you lessens, while you become stronger. This applies also to the anxieties that you can solve or overcome, but it is especially important when applied to existential anxieties.
Let's put this in positive terms. There is anxiety that comes from curable problems, and although I have only pointed to it, the cure often involves emotional healing and growth, or improving the perspective you live by, deepening it so that it shapes your thoughts and feelings. Another word for such perspective is 'wisdom.' And there is anxiety that comes simply from living. From living with your human vulnerability, but also from living and loving, living and hoping, from venturing into the deep waters of life and its possibilities. In both case the first response to anxiety is wisdom. Wisdom at the reflective level, which gradually goes beyond ideas and intellect, to become embodied - wisdom which has sunk into you deeply enough that it shapes your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. One example of such wisdom is Demosthenes' words. Your recognition of the need to face the challenge of anxiety is conscious, and something you push yourself to act on.
By exercising such wisdom in the face of your anxiety, you grow in a range of other strengths and personal qualities. An example is acceptance. Rage, despair, anxiety, often flow from not knowing how to live with hard realities. If you can accept reality as it is, then you become more able to respond well to it. Another quality you develop is courage. Anxiety is a form of fear, and courage is the opposite of fear. Or to be more precise, courage involves fear but it is the opposite of fearful behaviour. As you behave more courageously, you become more courage, for pushing against fear is like pushing against weights at the gym. As you become more courageous, your anxiety diminishes to the same degree. You become less prone to anxiety. You become stronger. In consequence of this, you develop further qualities which are the opposite of anxiety: confidence, calmness, peace. Rather than avoid anxiety and becoming its slave, you slowly master the tendency to anxiety within yourself, through mastering the skills and strengths of living well as a human being in the world. Anxiety is natural, it is painful, and it can be damaging. But it can also be the source of your growth into a much stronger, more capable, happier person.