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.