Anxiety is the illness of our age. We worry about ourselves, our family, our friends, our work, and our state of the world. If we allow worry to fill our hearts, sooner or later we will get sick. (Thich Nhat Hanh*)
So enmeshed are we in anxiety that, for many, unless the weather is either beautiful (as it is today) or threatening, anxiety is often the first thought to come to mind whenever one meets another. And when we think of starting something we have not tried before, we immediately utter anxious thoughts, perceptions, or even stories of others who have tried and failed at our ‘new’ endeavor. We are bombarded with negative news about pandemics, about terror threats (and new apps just released in France), about trade imbalances, unemployment charts, burning forests and cities, be-headings, arrests of drug lords, rapes, assassinations of law enforcement and innocent men....and the cataract pours down over us, into our ears, into our world view that continues, ineffectually, to absorb and adjust to the waves....rendering many desperate, depressed, and even more anxious.
Daily, our conversations either begin or certainly include, if they do not end, with someone expressing anxiety. Whether the emotion is authentic, or whether people in general have come to the point where the conventional conversation must focus on anxiety, perhaps in order to make the ‘other’ feel better. (Isn’t that notion at the root of the commercial success of the television soap opera industry, the presentation of desperate lives of desperate people, in the belief that such drama can and will only provide hope and relief, when they compare their lives to those on the screen?’
There is potentially another dynamic in play, in our social discourse: the false modesty that says, either overtly or implicitly, to anyone we meet that we do not wish them to think that we think we are ‘better’ than they are. I recall asking a middle-aged woman, while teaching a class, how she would react if, at a house party, she was confronted by a racist joke told by one of the guests. “Well, I would leave the room, but I certainly would not say anything that indicated my displeasure.” When asked “Why?” she responded, “Well I would not want those people to think I thought I was better than they were.”
And that sad, depressing and inappropriate response, demonstrates another of our shared anxieties: the need to be seen to be perfect by the rest of the world. In some quarters, people use the term “politically correct” as a blanket-coverage for restraint, repression, for furthering careers, and for escaping both notice and notoriety. Undoubtedly, such circumspection is appropriate in matters directly relating to how we address specific ethnic minorities; however, political correctness has become a template by which people judge, measure, approve, disapprove, snub, and perhaps even idolize. How many times have we all found someone in our presence wince, or make facial gestures that indicate how disapproving they are of something or some way we have spoken. (And, this observation is not about swearing, or any comment deemed legitimately inappropriate.) We are, it seems, hard wired, to judge, and the occasions of judgement, whether by words, or by gestures, or even more impactfully, by gossip. And those “memories” are stored forever, in our memory bank, for future retrieval when we have grown mature and stable enough to unpack those ‘films’ with a view to how we might respond now, if a similar situation were to present itself.
We are anxious about our work performance, our athletic performance, our performance in bed in our sexual relations, our performance in our social interactions especially if there are people present whose judgements could and would have a serious impact on our lives or careers. So anxious about “performance” are we, that a social research scientist from Mars, upon landing here would be likely to observe that we are so tightly wired that we are prospective candidates for either the cardiac unit or the cancer ward. And, to some extent, some social science researchers already trained and conducting serious research right now, right here, would do well to consider probing the potential relationships between our level of anxiety and our health care requirements and costs. So deeply imbedded in our own performance that it can legitimately be posited that we have succumbed to a transformed definition of what it means to be a human: from a human being to a human “doing”. It is our doings that come to define our public persona, with only rare instances in which others might inquire as to our intent, our motivations, our visions or our rationale for doing something(s) others find puzzling, or more importantly, upsetting.
So not only are we subject to our own and others’ judgements under the political correctness lens, we are also in danger of being cast out if we do not “fit” into a social group’s defined expectations. And herein rests another source of anxiety. Under this anxiety lies a very serious caution: it is not truth-telling that will endear us to others, given a social commitment to whitewash most unpleasant features of our encounters, and another social expectation that truth belongs in the privacy of our kitchen tables. In fact, our culture’s resistance to “tell the whole truth, nothing but the truth,” is so monumental, at the individual level, at the organizational level, the corporate level and even the spiritual level is another of those invisible bindings that separate us from ourselves, from each other, and from God. This is not an argument for viscious truth-telling! Rather, it is a call to learn both verbal language and body language that can and will convey even the most subtle and sophisticated thought, emotion and truth in the most sensitive and compassionate manner. (And, just a note to any male readers: this kind of communication art is accessible; it can be learned; and if men were to take up this invitation, all of our relationships would be enriched!) And so, as we bury the truth of our feelings, our thoughts, our imaginations and our spirits, we, quite naturally, grow increasingly anxious. We are, to use a well-warn phrase, ‘hiding our light (truth) under our bushel (pride).
Another source of our individual anxiety, and our collective anxiety, is our public obsession with making, saving, investing, and spending money. The implications of defining “success” in money and status terms leave millions of worthy, honourable and necessary dreams and ambitions on the sidelines for our children. This dynamic funnels millions of our best brains and our most creative minds into courses, careers and lifestyles that impede their full development, while simultaneously depriving our society of many of the works of art, the inventions and the free rein of the most outlandish characters. For it is inside the “corporate” and the “for-profit” buttoned-down roles that are thrust upon our children, by their ambitious and driven parents, to the rejection of other more organic and more authentic and more ‘giving’ models for our kids to emulate.
And there is no word, and there is no thought here expressed that everyone reading and everyone around the world does not already know. And yet...
We continue to tred familiar roads, well paved roads, roads already taken by millions of “stars” (in our minimal galaxy of our restricted vision of what is possible for us individually and collectively) and pile anxieties of not attaining our highest inherent purpose, in comparison with others (another deep and full fountain of anxieties), even though we do frequently enter moments in which real people see through our mask of drivenness. We all know that through both kindness and thankfulness we find peace, happiness and contentment. We all know that our obsessions with our anxieties, we each deprive the world of the many lights of kindness and gratitude that we could otherwise offer.
We build war machines, and we rationalize their development as security, when we know profoundly and paradoxically, that we become less secure with each machine’s deployment. We build cyber-security apparatus costing billions, “to keep us safe,” when we know that only if and when we all turn our attention to teaching, learning, researching and adopting strategies and tactics of trust, of self-possession, of deep tolerance of the many diversities in our circles, we will begin to walk a different road, with potentially fewer anxieties and less over-weening anxieties.
And that will only be feasible if we acknowledge that we would like different results. We will not fashion those different results in our culture, and in our individual lives, by continuing to focus on all of those things that cause us anxiety.
No matter how ephemeral hope and dreams may be considered, the hope and dream that we can live purposeful and meaningful lives with fewer anxieties is not ephemeral; it is not beyond our reach! In fact, the change is minimal or marginal, and perhaps that fact alone leaves us wondering why we do not pursue it. We think, perhaps, that a drop in our personal and collective anxieties is outside our own power. Yet, it is only through the exercise of our own unique and individual discipline to confront ourselves with both the cost and the burden of anxiety (those we imagine and those thrust upon us from without), and pursue alternative energies, ideas, creations and dreams.
And, without the courage to discern the differences between the anxieties that really do endanger from those that merely threaten, we will be barred from such a transformation. And yet, such a transformation is not only our opportunity and our challenge, it is the task humanity fervently desires. Regardless of whether your path of choice is theological, spiritual, artistic, political, athletic or scientific....it awaits your footsteps!
* Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh is a global spiritual leader, poet and peace activist, revered around the world for his powerful teachings and bestselling writings on mindfulness and peace. He is the man Martin Luther King called “An Apostle of peace and nonviolence.” His key teaching is that, through mindfulness, we can learn to live happily in the present moment—the only way to truly develop peace, both in one’s self and in the world. (From PlumVillage website)