Anxiety and Anxieties

A few days ago, I wrote a post on ‘The Sunday Evening Blues.’ My purpose in writing that was to try to capture the nature of that evening’s particular mood, which over the years has acquired its own set of peculiar characteristics. In doing so, I was, of course, barely scratching the surface of a much broader issue, that of anxiety.

An anxiety is something insidious, more than just a mood; it is a fever and an occupation, an affliction and a constitution all at once. An anxiety is a lens with which to view the world, a coloration that grants the sufferer’s experiences their its distinctive hue. I refer to anxiety as I do–‘an anxiety’ suggests there is more than one– to emphasize it is not singular, that individual anxieties make up a sufferer’s full complement. An anxiety is a distinctive suite packaged for application to a particular situation of time, place, circumstance and connotation. These suites tap into a deeper, subterranean reservoir of quieter and darker undercurrents, brought forth in their manifold forms to the surface by times and peoples and objects, irritated and turbulent, seeping up, corroding as they go. Our arsenal of anxieties thus makes available a diverse battery of weapons for deployment. The anxiety manifest on Sunday evenings is one of these; it has been refined over the years, and has a distinct identity all its own. When it makes its appearance I almost greet it like an old friend. I can’t quite set my clock by it but it does have an hour of arrival that is its very own, one accompanied, especially in the winters, by a unique spectrum of colors of the day.

It may be that our anxieties interact and recombine—like viruses—to form newer ‘strains’ that course through us, surprising us with their ferocity and visceral feel. Their arrivals are unpleasant harbingers of gloom, an announcement that heralds a new arena of existential discomfort. They tell us too, that anxieties are fertile, capable of bringing forth newer versions, ever more novel imprints of themselves.

Anxieties are not impenetrable; sometimes a soothing surge of optimism, an ‘all will be well’ missive arrives from origins unknown. At that moment, the fog lifts, the burden eases, and for an instant, a giddiness makes its presence felt. The clarity of that moment is intensely pleasurable, so pronounced is the relief from the low-grade insidious chafing at the soul that had preceded it. The drooping shoulder isn’t any more; there is a slight spring in the step. And anxieties are not immortal either; some anxieties die out on their own, subdued by exposure to enough recalcitrant facts about a world to find at least one fear untenable. Finding no traction for their grasping at our selves, no hold in our hearts, they splutter and fade, ebbing away slowly and leaving only the mildest and lightest of traces, the faintest of marks on our psyches. Relief, yes, but always, a cautious one, for here hubris promises to be swiftly punished. Better to give a quiet thanks and press on, modestly hopeful.

If Not a Perfect God, Then a Imperfect God Maybe? Contd.

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post responding to Yoram Hazony’s article at the Stone. In response, Corey Robin sent me the following comments by email:

I was thinking about yours and Norman Geras’s post about Yoram Hazony.  I don’t think there’s any question that you’re both right about what the implications of Hazony’s argument are for a structure of moral obligation. (Or for the atheist, for that matter, who wants some proof of God’s existence.) I wonder though if that question doesn’t matter for Jewish people because Jewish ethics are not really predicated upon there being a God so much as there being a set of rituals and practices that, a la Aristotle, inculcate in you a sense of ethical goodness. (Not quite virtue, but something like that.)  Hazony’s God — and I think it’s quite descriptive of how a great many Jews think about God — is not meant to structure obligation or duty. Our God is meant to do something else: to provide an opportunity for wonder (at the awesomeness of God’s inscrutability), gratitude (that we exist), and hope in transformation (I will be what I will be). Not just hope in transformation, but hope in God’s existence, that something so inscrutable and impossible — and all that it heralds in the Messianic — might in fact be. It’s a frame, a lodestone, more than anything else. Now of course you and Geras could reply that anything could do that — a mathematical proof, a Beethoven string quartet, the Rocky Mountains — and that’s probably true (though I don’t know if one thing can do all of those things at the same time.) But I’m not sure that anything could do that for a collective, which is the other part of Judaism: we’re a collective, not an individualist, religion. Getting everyone together once a week (and if you’re more observant, every day), setting time aside for Shabbat, etc. — all that might not be possible without that particular lodestone of God to attract the fillings.

This is an interesting set of observations. I have some disparate responses to make.

First, as Corey himself concedes, this role could be played by many entities. The mountains do that for many people, and the experience is rich and varied enough to induce talk of ‘spiritual transformation’ by them. (My time in the mountains is certainly the closest I’ve come to a spiritual experience.) It seems to me too, that one thing could induce all the experiences referred to above: mountains amaze, awe and frighten me, they make me grateful that I was born so I could have experienced them, and they have always promised me the hope for transformation. (As I note in this post on this blog some time back.) Indeed, I think the universe itself, with its mysterious expanse and temporal duration does this for many people. And again, it isn’t clear to me why this might only work for individuals and not for collectives. There are many examples of mass group followings of non-divine, non-spiritual entities (cults of all kinds for instance; dunno, Gaia?); individuals can communicate their experiences and shared feelings and come together under their banner to form collectives. If Corey is suggesting that the effect on collectives comes about only because of the peculiarly inaccessible or ineffable attributes of this entity, then it seems to me that somehow the standard theist notion of a God is being invoked, one whose expanse is unlimited, whose powers lie beyond our imagination or comprehension, his goodness unlimited. That is, while the suggestion is being made that the ‘God’ in question needn’t serve as a source of moral obligation, to have the particular relationships to it that Corey specifies, while also stressing its mysterious or inaccessible nature, is, I think, to draw upon the theist conception again.

More importantly though, I wonder why the term ‘God’ is being or should be used here. To ask this question is to engage in a losing battle, of course, because the term has often become hopelessly overloaded in debates about the existence of ‘God’. Hazony’s ‘God’ is a powerful, mysterious entity, one we only dimly understand, but whose rough contours are enough to induce in us the feelings Corey describes above. But why use the term ‘God’ to refer to this entity? In terms of antecedent theological usage, ‘God’ is generally used to refer to something far more expansive, more immanent. If it’s an imperfect entity we have in mind, why not come up with a new term?

I’m musing aloud here, so no permanent position taken. But it’s something I’ve wondered about myself a lot, and Hazony’s account of God tracks my own often inarticulate thoughts on this all. Of course, he and I are coming from a different position from the atheist: we’re trying to make sense of what we do (he much more than I).  It might be that the way he articulates what we do is the best we can come up with to make sense of the rituals, the holidays, etc. It’s not a knock-down argument against the atheist who says why? Or even the child who asks why too. It’s a way of making sense of the person who operates under the assumption, Why not?

I agree with this, but again, I wonder why we should not just retire the term ‘God’, one that is weighed down with so much baggage: creator, guarantor of the moral order, and so on. The qualities of the entity that Corey has in mind could be found in much else. Indeed, as I suggest above, knowledge of the seemingly infinite expanses of space, our being ‘made of stars’, the mysteries of time could do all of this, and we don’t need to use an overloaded term to describe them.

I’ve never felt like a child of the universe more than the time when my father explained to me just how far away the stars were from me and from each other, and how when I looked at them, I was seeing the past. That was magic. When I see the sun, it awes me to think it has borne witness to all of human history and much more before. These experiences are as close as I can get to spiritual ones. It doesn’t seem to me that I need to borrow the term ‘God’ to describe these objects of my reverence.

The Pleasures of Running, Part Deux

The good folks at WordPress have been nice enough to put one of my recent posts ‘The Oft-Missed Pleasures of Running‘ into their Freshly Pressed selection. This has resulted in an overwhelming number of new readers and some very nice comments. I’d like to able to respond to each one individually, but it is looking extremely unlikely. In lieu of that, let me just offer a collective ‘Thanks very much – your words mean a great deal to me’ and some more thoughts on my running experiences.

One of the reasons I developed what might be described as a ‘deep connection’ with running was that it provided aid and comfort through some difficult times. The summer that I referred to in my post, when I became extremely lean, was one such time. I had no financial aid from graduate school and no regular employment (I worked hourly as waiter once in a while, getting called in by my boss when she needed me), and to make things worse, my girlfriend and I broke up halfway through the break. I was up the proverbial creek.

For a few weeks, what kept me from going absolutely stark raving bonkers was running. I made sure to run as often as possible, even if, given my generally gloomy disposition, stepping out for a run felt very difficult. I lived on 95th Street and West End Avenue in Manhattan, and starting my six-mile loop in Central Park meant running first past Broadway, Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues till I got to Central Park West. As I would run, I would second-guess myself: Did I really want to do this? It seemed so tedious; my body felt stiff and lethargic; six miles seemed very long and the park very far away. At every light, I would consider turning back.

Then, magically, I was at Central Park West. I would cross the street, run across the lawn, and find myself on the paved road of the loop. At that point, everything faded away. All I had to do was keep running till I came back to this starting point. The simplicity of it all was refreshing; my actions acquired definition. Some fifty minutes or so later, I was done. Reinvigorated, renewed.

My favorite running story from that summer, unsurprisingly, mentions my grim financial state. Finding my waiter wages insufficient, I went looking for work as a bartender. I wrote up my name, address, and phone number on fifty index cards and starting from Soho one afternoon, slowly walked up Broadway (and later, Columbus and Amsterdam), stopping in at bars, inquiring about employment possibilities and handing out my ‘business card’ as I did so. Finally, after walking some one hundred and ten street blocks, I arrived at home, tired, sweaty, my feet just a little sore from all that pavement-pounding. Evening had set in, and the night lay ahead of me. My roommates were not at home, and I had no engagements to occupy me. No dates, no cold-beer-based encounters at bars awaited me. What was I to do, in this bustling city full of strangers?

I laced up my shoes and ran six miles.

Regulation, Social Norming and Tocqueville’s ‘Majority’

There is a well-known model of behavior modification, a taxonomy of sorts of regulatory mechanisms, due to Lawrence Lessig, which lists four modalities of regulation: the law, the market, social norms and architecture. The law provides punitive sanctions, actively restrains by making visible its power, and points in the desired direction; the market provides economic penalties and incentives, and thus promises to immiserate or enrich; architected spaces can, with varying degrees of force, prevent some actions from being taken; and social norms introduce the disincentive of public obloquy.

It is perhaps idle to wonder which one of these is the most effective mechanism of all, though each is bound to have particular domains in which it finds notable traction. The modalities of the law and of market forces are perhaps most familiar to us in contemporary times largely because of their prominence in theoretical and political discourse. That said, from some perspectives, social norming might be seen as the most influential one of all.

For one, norms are plausibly understood as significantly informing the law’s impingement on behavior. This last point is a familiar one: it forms the dual to the view that law has hortatory, expressive impact.  It suggests the law is a collection of particular social norms backed up by sanctions more elaborate than those made possible by the following of convention. This power of norming is, of course, related to the power of the social and political majority, an influence upon human action that has been noted often in theory and political history. For instance, in Alexis De Tocqueville‘s Democracy in America, Part One, he notes:

The majority has an entire control over the law when it is made and when it is executed;….The authority of a king is purely physical, and it controls the actions of the subject without subduing his private will; but the majority possesses a power which is physical and moral at the same time; it acts upon the will as well as upon the actions of men, and it represses not only all contest, but all controversy….the majority raises very formidable barriers to the liberty of opinion.

Tocqueville’s primary concern here is with political freedom: to hold diverse political opinions, to express them, and to act on them. And the majority he is concerned with is a straightforwardly numerical one. But the opinions and the actions need not be expressly political, they may be concerned with rather more ‘mundane’,  personal sectors of lives: diet, our choice of vice, sexual preferences and so on. Majority norms can significantly attenuate and influence these; they can push and prod us along trajectories that appear ever more desirable precisely because they seem to enjoy such resonance and sympathy with a class already dimly understood as influential. Conformity to tradition is the result of the temporal extension of such momentary pressures, and ideology may perhaps be understood (in part) as the systematic, persistent, theoretical codification of such informal influence.

All too often, the norm can be mightier than the sword.

Why Would An ‘Imperfect’ God Be of Interest?

I find Yoram Hazony’s post at the Stone today genuinely perplexing (and a little pointless). Hazony suggests the notion of a ‘perfect God’ is problematic, that indeed, it is the insistence on such a conception of God, apparently nowhere to be found in the Bible, that is the source of much philosophical head-scratching, disputation between theists and atheists, and perhaps even the source of existential angst. But Hazony’s brief appears misplaced. Yes, theism is an incoherent doctrine, and yes, the theist God is nowhere to be found in the Bible. But how does the conception of a limited God help any of our philosophical perplexities? And, why, more importantly, is a limited God even remotely interesting? Why is the kind of limited God that Hazony attempts to describe in his piece a source of moral obligation or guidance? What qualities does this limited God have that make them morally relevant?

Hazony says:

So if it’s not a bundle of “perfections” that the prophets and scholars who wrote the Hebrew Bible referred to in speaking of God, what was it they were talking about? As Donald Harman Akenson writes, the God of Hebrew Scripture is meant to be an “embodiment of what is, of reality” as we experience it. God’s abrupt shifts from action to seeming indifference and back, his changing demands from the human beings standing before him, his at-times devastating responses to mankind’s deeds and misdeeds — all these reflect the hardship so often present in the lives of most human beings.

Even if Akenson were to taken at face value, what is, again, morally relevant about such an embodiment? The question that Hazony should have taken on, but doesn’t seem to want to is: If the theist God is incoherent, then why bother looking for a substitute? The insistence that the term ‘God’ continue to refer seems to need some explanation. That Hazony does not want to consider. If the God of the Bible is limited, if his perfection is to be understood in metaphorical terms, then it seems the entire arsenal of persuasion that has been built upon a false conception of the central theses of theism needs to be discarded. But if all that is done, then what is left of ‘God’?

As anyone who has spent any time arguing with a theist well knows, arguments about the existence of God are only interesting if the standard theist conceptions of God are taken seriously and refutations attempted on metaphysical and epistemological grounds. Without those conceptions there is no ‘there’ there; if one were to go by the conceptions available in the Bible, as read by Hazony, we are confronted with some indeterminate entity with indeterminate attributes for as noted, ‘the biblical accounts of our encounters with God emphasize that all human views of God are partial and fragmentary’. But then, why base so much moral and spiritual instruction on something so poorly known? And why is Hazony so confident that these partial glimpses are partial to begin with? That presumes a totality beyond. What evidence does Hazony have for that?

Hazony concludes:

The ancient Israelites, in other words, discovered a more realisticGod than that descended from the tradition of Greek thought. But philosophers have tended to steer clear of such a view, no doubt out of fear that an imperfect God would not attract mankind’s allegiance. Instead, they have preferred to speak to us of a God consisting of a series of sweeping idealizations — idealizations whose relation to the world in which we actually live is scarcely imaginable. Today, with theism rapidly losing ground across Europe and among Americans as well, we could stand to reconsider this point. Surely a more plausible conception of God couldn’t hurt.

Right. But to what end? Why is the notion of a Being More Powerful Than Man, But Not All-Powerful useful or interesting?

The Oft-Missed Pleasures of Running

Late into the night of my 28th birthday, I was doing a passable impression of a dancing fool. It was almost four in the morning, I had consumed enough alcohol to administer local anesthetic to a small platoon of foot soldiers, and I was blithely unaware of impending danger. But there it was, in the shape of a hurtling body that belonged to a friend of mine, and which mysteriously, after traversing the length and breadth of the living room in whose corner I was safely dancing, placed itself in a load-bearing position on my right ankle.  When bodies had been moved, I found a rather large protuberance where my ankle used to be. Ice, an emergency room visit, crutches, in that order. And the end of my running career.

Before my right ankle suffered that disastrous third-degree sprain, I used to run. Respectably long distances in Central Park, with an eye on completing the New York Marathon someday. My longest run was eleven miles (2 laps of the reservoir, one loop of the park, and then another lap of the reservoir); my usual run was a morning six-miler, the classic loop of Central Park. I ran in summer afternoons and winter mornings alike; I ran in the rain and I ran in the snow. (My late winter evening runs through Central Park in the winters, when I could see the lights come on in the buildings that line Central Park West and the Museum Mile were as enchanting as anything else I have experienced in this great city.) I ran with professors and graduate students; I ran with roommates. Running made my financial insolvency easier to bear; it provided easy entertainment on days and evenings that sought diversion. (One summer, with my impecunious condition  making it ever harder to indulge in even the occasional beer or large meal, my running transformed me into a whippet-like creature, with sunken cheeks that enabled a resemblance to a prisoner of war at a not-particularly salubrious holding facility.)  I was never a particularly graceful runner but on a good day, I always felt like I glided through Central Park’s beauty, experiencing it in a way that was distinct from my interactions enabled by riding on a bike or by walking.  Running was yet another way to discover New York City, a physically and mentally transformative one.

But a busted ankle that made my right side unstable, and which necessitated the wearing of orthotics (to this day), coupled with sloppy execution of a rehabilitation program, meant that this running was first curtailed and then slowly choked off. I injured myself a year later, when I returned to running a few months later, and then again several years later when I tried again. I became nervous and tentative, and grew hesitant about lacing up a pair of running shoes. My running is now restricted to the occasional lap of Prospect Park, to attempts to run fast 5Ks.

Those occasional laps still manage, effortlessly, to transport me, even if only for much shorter periods, to those days when muscle-powered locomotion at eight miles an hour was mysteriously capable of inducing states of physical and meditative bliss.

My First Thanksgiving

My first Thanksgiving introduced me to the trials and travails of the paid-by-the-hour worker. In 1987, while in graduate school, I worked in the university cafeteria. I made $4.25 an hour for: on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, taking soiled dishes off one conveyor belt, and stacking them on another (the dishwasher); and on Saturdays and Sundays, making sandwiches at the deli counter, and baking pizzas. It was boring work; the dishwashing room was miserable; and I hated having to take the train to Newark on the weekends.  (This last aspect of my workweek meant that I had to deal with using the Newark subway on Saturday and Sunday evening and in that grim inner-city, it felt like I was exposing myself to extreme danger.) But, all this inconvenience and boredom did net me 85 dollars a week, and that kept me financially solvent. I paid 157 dollars a month for rent (sharing a two-bedroom apartment in Elizabeth, New Jersey, with three other graduate students); the balance took care of my modest needs, somehow. Every week’s income was a vital contribution to this barely afloat ship.

And then, disaster struck. I had been dimly aware that the Thanksgiving holiday was coming up, but had not paid attention to its effect on the university’s calendar. I knew my usual Thursday and Saturday classes would not meet, but beyond that, I remained oblivious to its broader ramifications. I was soon disabused of my ignorance: the week before Thanksgiving, as my supervisor walked past me, on her way to the serving area, she casually said, ‘Remember, next week, the cafeteria closes early on Wednesday and we re-open on Monday morning. Enjoy the break.’

Enjoy the break? I rapidly did the math. I stood to lose 16 hours of wages. That came to 68 dollars. With one blow, the Thanksgiving break had wrecked my finances, disrupted the precarious balance I carefully maintained. I would  either have to impose an even grimmer fiscal discipline on myself for a couple of weeks, or borrow money from my friends. The former option could only mean one thing: denying myself breakfast and lunch and waiting  to eat till I got home at night after classes. The latter sounded less painful. but seemed acutely mortifying. I had been proud of my hard-earned financial independence from home; would I now have to seek favors elsewhere?

When Thanksgiving Day rolled around, I was confined to my little apartment with my roommates. None of us had family close by; no one had invited us into their warm homes for a feast. The weather was gruesome: the standard northeastern mix of temperatures in the thirties, grey clouds, keen winds and a depressing drizzle. I do not remember if we watched football or drank beer. We most certainly did not eat stuffed turkey or worry about leftovers. There we remained, suddenly reminded of how small our apartment was when all four of us were at home, and of how spartan our life seemed compared to those families whose homes were sometimes visible to us from our windows.

Monday couldn’t come fast enough.