This follows on from a previous reflection on anxiety. Here are two universal truths:
At the emotional and moral level there is a contradiction between these two truths. Your child can be absolutely precious to you, of infinite value. And yet their existence does not correspond to that, for it is finite: they can die, and they can be harmed in ways that deny their value. The same is true of you. We may try to close our eyes, and yet in our heart we know this is true. And it terrifies us. It is the source of our deepest anxieties.
I have spoken to many people who have tried to take their life. In many cases they said that in that moment they felt completely worthless. And that to feel that worthless, automatically leads to feeling that you should eradicate yourself. This illustrates how fundamental this contradiction is. It is a life and death issue.
The above two truths are universal, which is to say essential to the human condition, to human existence. Hence we call them existential truths. Hence the anxiety that follows from them is called “existential anxiety.” While some anxiety is purely biological, and some represents a psychological disorder, a lot of the anxiety that people bring to counselling is existential in nature.
There are many aspects of the human condition which feed existential anxiety, such as the element of chance in life, and the fact that action and time lead to ever increasing finitude, on a pathway toward our ultimate finitude in death. For example:
As the ancient Greek tragedians so wisely recognised, much about happiness is a matter of luck. So long as we are alive, we can lose what gives meaning, purpose, and direction to our lives. We can lose what we love most.
In case it sounds as though I am operating too deeply, speaking at the level of Greek tragedy, I will relate a common example. A client once described a dream which disturbed her. “I was invited to make some important choices", which "tricked me into dying.” At first we could not make sense of why these choices were presented in the dream as a “trick.” Further exploration revealed that, when she makes choices in her waking life, she often experiences anxiety, because choosing is an experience of excluding other possible choices. By choosing to exclude other possibilities, her life becomes ever more fixed on a path, more limited. Rigamortis slowly sets in, so to speak. Although it is not “so to speak,” it is more literal than that: because we equate life with possibility, the experience of choosing is, implicitly, of moving toward death. It is the movement from infinitude to finitude. This client's dream expressed her anxieties about ageing and death. And it revealed that she was responding to those threats by avoiding making important choices. Through her use of this dream in counselling, you could say that it invited her to come to terms with what she had been avoiding: the big choices she needed to make, but which she had avoided making because of her existential anxiety. She was avoiding her inevitable vulnerability to death.
I quoted Demosthenes at the beginning of the first reflection. We are often desperate to avoid the war, the anxiety-provoking recognition of our vulnerability. We do this through strategies such as distracting or numbing ourselves, or by becoming angry, or even depressed (as the philosopher Sartre argued). By avoiding a war we gain many masters. But fortunately, as one therapist used to say, "You can run but you cannot hide". Life will repeatedly, painfully, 'invite' us to recognise our evasions and face our fears. Something fundamental in our nature always calls us to do better.
People typically come to therapy when their anxiety seems overwhelming. At such times they are at a cross-roads. Assuming it is existential anxiety, they can choose to retreat from the challenges of life (and there are superficial professionals who will collude with such temptation), or they can choose to face their anxiety and to grow.
A final word on the value of existential anxiety. As I said, you can grow stronger through facing it. But you can also learn from it. Your particular existential anxiety teaches you about your particular fears, which reveals your particular loves and values. It will teach you, if you will listen. It will teach you about your distinct way of being, about what really matters to you, about the reality of the human condition, and about what most matters in life. Dealing with anxiety properly is the path to wisdom. Of course this in turn requires courage, it demands that you find greater courage within you and draw it up, so in dealing with anxiety you become more courageous as a habit. You develop a character of courage. When I help somebody with their anxiety, I am looking beyond 'symptom reduction', beyond their acquisition of psychological techniques and skills, to the point where they face anxiety well, in some respects overcoming it, and in other cases accepting it through growth in wisdom and courage. Growth, that is, in wisdom and courage regarding anxiety, but ultimately growth in wisdom and courage about life. Existential wisdom - lived wisdom. Existential courage. As a counsellor I am helping them become a wiser, more courageous person. And that is surely what this counselling is ultimately about.