On Not Being Anxious About Anxiety

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 02/04/2020 - 1:30am in

There are two ways in which philosophy can help us with anxiety: a specific doctrine may offer us a prescription for how to rid ourselves of anxiety; and philosophical method—self-introspection and reflective thinking—may help us understand our anxiety better. While fear and worry (and their resultant stresses) are grounded in specific objects and circumstances, ‘anxiety’ is inchoate, that formless dread left over after these causes—perhaps, strange new viruses—have been identified. Why do we feel it, and must we suffer it? Philosophy’s doctrinal and introspective answer is that anxiety is a constitutive aspect of the human condition; we must live with it. We, as humans, will always be anxious in some measure, but we do not have to be anxious about being anxious. This answer is empowering rather than debilitating, an insight found in both ancient and modern philosophy.  

First, consider that Buddhism’s First Noble Truth notes the undeniable existence of suffering, an acute human dissatisfaction with existence, an indelible component of which is our anxiety. The Buddha then noted that our first step toward ‘relief,’ as expressed by his Second Noble Truth, is a true, unblinking understanding of the nature of the world and of human existence’s place in it: if we misunderstand the nature of the world we will be anxious, and suffer, in ways far worse than need be. A clue to a crucial characteristic of this transient, dynamic, world, one in which our wants can never be satisfied, is supplied by the American pragmatist William James, who described his struggles with anxiety as “a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach … a sense of the insecurity of life.” This profound “insecurity” James speaks of is generated by two foundational facts about the human condition James was acutely aware of and sensitive to: we—even the wisest and most knowledgeable—are uncertain of what the future will bring; and this uncertainty is facilitated by the choices we make, by the freedom we ‘enjoy.’   

Soren Kierkegaard, a patron saint of philosophy’s existentialist tradition, claimed our freedom of will and choice makes us responsible for our self-creation; he imagined us artists, bringing a work of art, our evolving self, into being with our actions. Our choices are destructive of an older self and life; what awaits is an unknown entity, our new self, our new life. This freedom to ‘construct’ ourselves promises us relief from a future written out for us, our parts in it predetermined and known; without such existential freedom, our existence would be little more than a cruel windup play. But such freedom comes with a price: to be free is to experience anxiety because we must reckon with the uncertainty of outcome and consequence associated with our actions and choices. For Kierkegaard, anxiety informs us of the possibilities of our lives, of the uncertain and not yet decided future to be determined by us. This is a gift we cannot decline, because to refuse to choose is also a choice. We are, as existentialists noted, ‘condemned to be free.’  

Kierkegaard’s take on anxiety insists that to be human is to not know, and to not know is to be anxious. A crucial component of the classical theist definition of God was omniscience, from which followed God’s beatific calm: how could a being assured of all-encompassing knowledge be anxious about any eventuality? If we were not ignorant and uncertain, we would be as gods; because we are not, we are humans, anxious ones. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes spoke of anxiety animating our curiosity as we sought to push back the darkness that enveloped us: “Anxiety for the future time, disposeth men to enquire into the causes of things.” We romanticize this inquiry by calling it ‘the love of wisdom’; philosophy itself then, is an expression of our anxiety: ‘I’m anxious, therefore I inquire.” Our theories of the world, our illuminations of the unknown, are our antidotes to our anxieties. Our search for knowledge pushes back the unknown that encroaches, making the world more predictable, making us less anxious. And as we continue to live with anxiety at the edge of the unknown, its nature informs us of the directions we may seek relief in, the trajectories of lives we may live. Anxiety is not mere pathology; it is an active part of our selves.  

There is a reason then, a preternatural calm overtakes those confronted by catastrophe; the human mind can reconcile itself to anything when known; that ghostly, unnamable disaster that underwrote our anxiety is now upon us, and we can call upon our lifetime’s acquired resources to face it.  The perennial injunction ‘to stay in the moment’ works as an antidote to anxiety because it bids us be unconcerned with the unknown and unknowable. Accepting our constitutional uncertainty and its crucial role in driving our onward inquiries and actions is the key to understanding that we cannot not be anxious—so long as we are human.   

Our age, like others before it, must confront the optimism of material progress with the sinking feeling that none of it matters very much; the powerful, rich, and famous, are struck down in mid-flight; you can buy your children the best education, but you cannot protect them against all misfortune. The realization that our growing technical mastery of nature leaves our fundamental predicament untouched is cause for terror; there is no way out. ‘Common unhappiness’ is the realization that this anxiety will not, cannot, go away; ‘hysterical misery’—to use Sigmund Freud’s pungent phrasing for these states of being—occurs when we refuse to accept our anxiety; neurosis is the failure to accept constitutive conditions of our being.  

The Buddha was most concerned with our inability to accept crucial aspects of our limited human condition. He famously spoke of the ‘second arrow,’ a pointless inquiry that did not address the original angst of suffering—the ‘first arrow.’ Anxiety about anxiety is the second arrow; it is what we do not need to suffer.  

Note: An edited, shorter, version of this essay appeared in Forge on March 26th. 

Boris Getting the Coronavirus Shows How Seriously He Took It

The big news today is that the charlatan passing himself off as prime minister has personally come down with Covid-19. He showed mild symptoms of the virus, including a temperature, was tested for it, and the results were positive. He is therefore self-isolating in some corner of No. 10. Nevertheless, he was still keen to show that he was, in the words of one BBC news presenter this morning, ‘Tiggerish’. He was not incapacitated, and would carry on the business of government through teleconferencing and other methods. And if he does become too ill to govern, then the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, will take over. Lord preserve us!

Boris, as the Prime Minister, was in an especially exposed position because his duties mean that he has to meet many different people every day. Just like Prince Charles has, who has also contracted the disease. Fortunately, Boris has come down with it several weeks after he met her Maj, so she doesn’t have it. But it’s partly BoJob’s own fault that he’s got it. Mike today put up an article reporting and commenting on the fact that Boris was warned not to shake hands. But he carried on regardless, even boasting that he was. He would be all right, you see: all you needed to do was wash your hands, that was the important thing. Er, no. That’s why the health authorities have been telling everyone to stand 2 metres away from each other. Hand washing’s important, but on its own it won’t stop anyone getting the virus. As BoJob has just found out.

But this shows very clearly how seriously Boris and the Tories, or at least his circle, took the virus: not very. Mike quotes the New York Times, which comments on the woeful leadership our comedy prime minister has shown in this crisis. He’s been cheerful when he should have been grave, and presented a muddled message when clarity was needed. It’s a poor performance from someone who was selected because of their communication skills.

I think part of the problem comes from Boris’ own attitude to his briefs. George Galloway remarked during an interview that he’s know Boris for 20 years, and he doesn’t read the information given him. It’s why his performance as Foreign Secretary was such an embarrassing disaster. He went to Moscow to soothe relations with Putin, only to make matters worse with remarks about the Russian autocrat when he returned. And then there was that embarrassing episode when he visited Thailand, and the British ambassador had to ask him to be quiet when he was being shown round the country’s holiest temple. He started to recite Kipling’s ‘Road to Mandalay’, and couldn’t understand why that may not have been appropriate.

But there’s more than an element of willful ignorance in his attitude. Medical experts have said that he should have imposed the lockdown seven weeks ago. Boris didn’t, because he accepted Cummings’ bonkers, malign idea that all that was needed was herd immunity. The disease should be allowed to spread through the general population. No lockdown should be imposed, as that would damage the economy. This took priority over people’s health, and if some old people died it was just too bad. This policy is nonsense, the kind of Bad Science Ben Goldacre attacked in his book of that title. But even after Boris took the decision to close some businesses, pubs, clubs and other social gatherings were allowed to continue. Many Tories said that they were still going out for their pint, despite the government advising them – but not actually forbidding them – not to. Those still heading down the boozer included Boris’ own father, Stanley. The pubs and other establishments were only shut down, apparently, because Macron told Boris that if he didn’t, he’d close the French border. And that would seriously harm the economy.

And this lunatic attitude is still fervently embraced by some parts of the Tory establishment. This afternoon the Sage of Crewe put up a piece about another bonkers article in the increasingly desperate and bizarre Torygraph by a hack called Sherelle Jacobs. Jacobs has decided that Cummings was entirely correct, and BoJob has been panicked into adopting the present strategy by Imperial College research. She claims that there is ‘no consensus’ on how to handle the virus, but, as Zelo Street points out, she cites no sources for that view. And she also rants about how the strategy is also due to ‘liberal managerialism’ and ‘global elites’. She’s spouting dangerous nonsense, but she was supported in her delusion by Toby Young. Young declared that Boris was spooked by ICL’s modelling, but we don’t know how reliable that is, and that it’s beginning to look as if ICL exaggerated the risks of not adopting hard suppression measures. Which is more nonsense for which Tobes provides absolutely no data to back it up.

I’ve said in several previous blogs, as have many others, like Buddyhell and Vox Political, that Boris’ attitude is rooted in the Tories’ own eugenicist views. They regard the poor and disabled as ‘useless eaters’, who should be allowed to die so that the fit and the able, and most of all, the rich, should be allowed to prosper. Boris was content to tell the nation that many of their loved ones would die before the time, but wasn’t going to do anything about it, because their lives simply weren’t important. He and the others in his circle were fit and, as the rich and privileged, biologically superior according to their Social Darwinist views. Only the biologically inferior would catch it, whose lives don’t count and are an encumbrance to the right of the rich to do what they want and pay as little tax as possible. Now Boris has shown how irresponsible and stupid that attitude is by coming down with it himself. Positive thinking and a clean pair of mitts are important, but they won’t save you on your alone.

But the Torygraph’s refusal to accept that a lockdown is necessary is part of the Tories’ wider refusal to believe experts. The Heil and other right wing papers have published claptrap telling the world that global warming is a myth. Michael Gove famously declared a few years ago that people were tired of listening to experts. And I believe I recall that when one of the Tories – I think it was Iain Duncan Smith – was actually confronted with evidence showing his policies wouldn’t work, he had nothing to say except that he believed it.

Well, the Tories prefer belief and pernicious pseudoscience over reality. As a result, Boris has now got the disease and thousands more people are in danger of dying from it.

See: https://zelo-street.blogspot.com/2020/03/toby-young-jumps-virus-shark.html

Has hand-shaking Johnson taken his whole cabinet down with coronavirus?