Do you suffer from anxiety? Of course you do – you’re human! We all get that stifling sense of dread from time to time. We all feel worried about stuff that lingers over us like a dark cloud. We all suffer from the idea of an imminent threat that sticks to our conscience like tar – an all-consuming viscous ooze of unshakable concern. The degree to which one suffers depends on myriad factors – the type of character you are, your inner biological make-up, your environment, the people around you, and the way you’ve been brought up, to list just a few. Some are swamped by anxiety on a daily basis – others not so much. Some psyches are pretty robust and able to cope with that looming feeling of dread – others are a bit more fragile and in need of support.
Anxiety is an insular, subjective experience, and often it’s difficult to actually recognise a sufferer – unless they actually tell you that they’re swamped by it. Which is difficult in itself, because no-one wants to show their ‘weakness’, as that will just lead to more anxiety. It manifests itself in many ways – from simple nail-biting to panic attacks to full-blown depression. And however it displays itself, those feelings of dread, uneasiness, worry, uncanniness and a ceaseless, nagging threat can be, at best, uncomfortable and, worst, utterly debilitating.
Anxiety and its related issues have long plagued the human subject. But the great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, the founder of existentialism and all-round literary powerhouse, is probably the man most famous for capturing and illuminating the subject from a philosophical standpoint. He wrote many books which featured the subject as a prominent theme, with the The Concept of Anxiety (1844) arguably the most well known of them. For Kierkegaard, anxiety originates from our existential freedom. The fact that we have choices to make, and the responsibility to think and act as we wish, is fraught with the potential for dread and angst.
Kierkegaard was a devout Christian; a deeply religious person who lived in an eternal struggle with feelings of guilt, sin and anxiety. But he also realised that our anxiety, and this existential freedom, choice and responsibility we have, can essentially ‘save humanity’. Kierkegaard felt ‘truths’ came from passion, intensity and commitment. There is an obvious objective uncertainty about one’s belief in God – after all, we’ve never actually seen him/her/them/it! But for Kierkegaard, that fiercely committed, unwavering passion made it an existential truth for him. A later disciple of Kierkegaard’s, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, rejected any notion of belief in a deity, but built on Kierkegaard’s work with similar ideas placing our sense of choice, responsibility and freedom at the heart of our humanity.
Anxiety helps us to realise that we are responsible for our own existence – it is not up to God or any kind of spirit to shape our lives for us. We have the freedom to act as self-conscious beings in control of the paths we choose to take. The anxiety of that existential freedom, as the masters of our own destiny, and the contingent, random nature of life, might be dizzying, unsettling or even terrifying. But that is the nature of the human condition – anxiety is a part of our being, and we simply have to cope with it, one way or another. Anxiety gave Kierkegaard the potential to feel the dread over sin and shame, just as it gave both him and Sartre the potential to experience true freedom. This realisation is as dread-inducing as it is liberating.
There is a beautifully concise article illuminating anxiety, and how it makes us human from a Kierkegaardian perspective, by Clare Carlisle for Prospect magazine. She explains how Kierkegaard was interested in the human condition and the ways that peace and joy could be experienced by actually confronting suffering – true joy comes from “the depths of the human heart”. As well as this, Kierkegaard makes it clear that we all suffer – and this is “curiously comforting”. And it does warm the heart in a weird way to know that we’re all in the same boat – that we’re all tussling with anxiety or unhappiness in some form at some time. Carlisle explains how Kierkegaard’s “existential restlessness” was also a “vital sign of life”. “It is in this restlessness that we are most fully human,” she writes. “Curious, questioning, searching, moving, growing.”
The reason I have decided to write this post (which is a relatively short one for me, you’ll no doubt be pleased to read!), is because I have been suffering with anxiety in various forms for some time (like everyone). But I have felt recently like my cause for anxiety has become more accentuated – what I mean to say is, there always seems be The Thing (of the moment) which seems to encapsulate all my feelings of paranoia, fear, imminent threat and concern. And The Thing is pretty fluid. One day The Thing might be a work issue – the next, The Thing transfers to a Twitter flare-up; maybe someone has questioned my work or unfollowed me unexpectedly.
The next week, The Thing might be money troubles, then The Thing switches to a health concern of some kind. And then it’s some looming deadline I have to fulfil. And when The Thing takes hold, it becomes difficult to focus properly on anything else. Now, it’s never so bad that I can’t actually live my normal life – go to work, look after my son, write this blog and such. But The Thing is still pretty powerful – it dominates my thoughts, gives me restless nights, gnaws my finger nails to the bone and causes me to act in irrational, immature, selfish or even spiteful ways.
And the worst part is that The Thing always seems to be present in some form or another. Just when I think I might’ve shaken The Thing, it comes back stronger than ever in a fresh guise – is that person upset with me? Am I helping out my wife enough? Am I being too hard on my son? The truth is, I can’t even go on a night out any more without feeling a sense of dread in the preamble – will I end up getting more drunk than I should? What if I send a needlessly stupid message when I’m drunk that I end up regretting? Am I going to feel awful tomorrow? I can’t even enjoy the prospect of a few beers with mates without thinking of the overblown perils that might befall me (or, rather, that I bring upon myself unnecessarily).
Anxiety and uncanniness
It simply wouldn’t be a Being & Niceness post without a tad more philosophical input, so let’s introduce a couple of my fave big hitters for a little more context. Martin Heidegger, the master of ontological inquiry, wrote a lot about anxiety in Being and Time. He believed it provided the ‘phenomenal basis for grasping the primordial totality of the being of Dasein’ (his notion of human existence). It’s as if our capacity for experiencing anxiety is what distinguishes our sense of humanity – as a separate being in a world of other beings that is able to appreciate and reflect upon its being.
“Anxiety’s being reveals itself as care (sorge)”, writes Heidegger – with care being a key Heideggerian term. If you’d like to read more about that aspect of his work, check out this introductory blog from my ontological series Accessible Inquiries into the Nature of Being. “Anxiety does not know what it is anxious about,” he continues. I find this idea particularly illuminating. The Thing is there – and I feel it so prominently every single day. Yet I often cannot really understand exactly what I am fretting over, and how it manages to consume me so readily. “It is so near that it is oppressive and takes away one’s breath – and yet it is nowhere,” adds Heidegger. He speaks about the uncanny, unhomely feeling of anxiety and how Dasein (our sense of human being) fetches itself back out of its entangled absorption in the world when it experiences those feelings.
“Everyday familiarity collapses,” he says. And, naturally, it always comes back to Kierkegaard, and how the uncanniness of anxiety pursues Dasein and threatens its everyday lostness in the they (the comfort of the public realm of acceptance). Heidegger writes of how anxiety individualises – it reveals to us our authenticity and inauthenticity as possibilities of its being. “The fundamental possibilities of Dasein, which are always my own, show themselves in anxiety as they are, undisguised by innerworldly beings to which Dasein, initially and for the most part, clings,” he says. “Wanting to have a conscience becomes a readiness for anxiety.”
And this, as one might expect, eventually brings us to the topic of death: “The indefiniteness of death discloses itself primordially in anxiety.” The insignificance of the world disclosed in anxiety reveals the nullity of what can be taken care of. Anxiety is anxious about ‘naked Dasein’ thrown into uncanniness. It brings back one’s thrownness as something to be possibly repeated (something manifested in our obsessive compulsive tendencies). Anxiety – from Dasein itself – is a ‘thrown being toward death’.
Another heavyweight of the existential/ontological/moralist sphere, Friedrich Nietzsche, saw all this guilt and sense of conscience as a relatively recent construction – from law-making and our creation of a social structure. He illuminated this repression of instincts and development of rationality as a precursor to the great unhappiness we all suffer on a daily basis. The tussle over instinct and morality gives us the platform to ceaselessly punish ourselves. Whether or not we mean to, we give life to The Thing. We feed it daily – and The Thing is only too happy to feast on our lack of conviction or certainty.
The brilliant Kierkegaard suggested that life can be understood backwards, but that it must be lived forwards – and that is true for all of us. And I think that applies here especially. It’s difficult to think about doing anything without always having that nagging feeling of past mistakes in the back of one’s mind. The question is – how does one shake off The Thing? Moving forward, how can I learn to cope with The Thing? How can I stop The Thing being a Thing? The existential nihilist in me might suggest that nothing really matters anyway, we’re all going to die at the end of it all and that nothingness is the final destination for us all, so why sweat the small stuff?
But we all know that human beings don’t work like that. We can’t stop caring about the world and the people in it. Life doesn’t play out that way – unless of course one suffers from some kind of pathological abnormality. Or if they’re just a heartless, selfish dickhead. One simply cannot just deny The Thing or refuse to acknowledge it’s there – if you’re prone to being sucked in by its powers, then it will always be present in the back of your psyche, nibbling away at your ego. One’s super ego cannot help but keep a watchful eye on our behaviour and dish out a dose of guilt to keep us in check when it feels you need/deserve it.
So I guess the reason for writing this post (which is slightly different to my usual offering) is because I need your help. I want to know what you do to cope with The Thing. How do you overcome your anxiety? Can you overcome it? Do you simply just have to let it pass in its own time? I constantly feel uneasy or guilty about things that are happening in my life – even though I know they don’t really matter. I’m constantly battling The Thing, telling myself that I have a wonderful family, friends, job and home, and that the small stuff that’s making me anxious really isn’t worth worrying about. But The Thing is relentless. It really does take prisoners – and that prisoner is me. If you have any advice that you’d like to share about how you deal with The Thing, please tell me about your experiences in the comments section below. And hopefully we can beat this Thing – together.