Kierkegaard offers us a brief, pithy, definition of anxiety:
What is anxiety? It is the next day.
This pair of sentences is truly remarkable in capturing a central dimension of anxiety: it is our reaction to the ineluctable uncertainty present in our lives. As human beings, with our lack of divine omniscience, we do not know; we cannot know. And yet, despite this lack of knowledge, we must press on, into the domain of choice and action and fearful consequence. We cannot stay in the present; we look into the formless future, which reminds us of our inability to construct and define its contours with any greater precision.
David Rondel noted in response to my posting this Kierkegaard quote on Twitter:
It’d interesting to think about the relationship between anxiety and death on this view. After all, death is the one thing we CAN be certain about. And yet, for many, especially in the existentialist tradition, awareness and fear of death is at the very root of anxiety.
One relationship is that death is certain, but its manner, nature, and time is not. This itself is a great, anxiety provoking uncertainty. Yet, when I conduct informal thought experiments [in my classrooms], students don’t want to know the details; this is one anxiety we are willing to tolerate. In some apocalyptic literature, when people do know how they are going to die, they ‘calm down’ and get down to basics: finding the company of those they love so that they can be together when they die.
(The novel I had in mind when writing the tweet above is Nevil Shute‘s On The Beach though Lars Von Trier‘s Melancholia also came to mind. I had used Shute’s novel as a text for my class on Philosophical Issues in Literature and it sparked some interesting discussions in class; one on this very topic, and another on a matter of normative epistemology.)
The reasons people do not want to be acquainted with the manner, nature, and time of their death can only be a matter of conjecture, so here is mine. First, this knowledge of ours is unlikely to remain private; we will share it with our loved ones and friends, and possibly induce anxiety and fear in them; we might shrink from the kind of knowledge which will distress our loved ones. (Mothers might obsess over the manner and nature of their children’s deaths for instance; and offspring might suffer the dissonance of keeping such a secret from their parents.) Second, while our anxiety about the uncertainty about the manner, time, and nature of our death has been replaced by fear at the manner and nature of our death, there is now a new anxiety, one associated with not not knowing how we will react at the time when we are actually dying. That is, I know I will suffer pain and fear it; what I dread now, remain anxious about, is my reactions to the pain.
Pain has two components: the sensation of pain that we experience, and our emotional affect in response–this affect is very much a function of the pain-causing situation. The trail runner experiences pain going up the hill; his affect differs considerably from the injured soldier suffering pain from a wound. So, our fear is now directed at the particulars of the death while our anxiety finds its roots in the uncertainty regarding our response to death. We don’t just dread pain; we dread the affect associated with it. We know, we sense, that pain is not unmediated, not solitary, that it comes as part of a package, the particulars of which place it into relief and provide it definition. So, one anxiety is dispelled, to be replaced by a new fear and new anxiety–small wonder we shrink from occupying this space.
As always, this remains speculation, and I’m curious to hear from readers on whether they would seek to dispel the uncertainty regarding the greatest certainty of all.