Anxiety, Uncertainty, And Death

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.

I responded:

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. 

What Is Philosophical Counseling? Part IV: Aristotle on Effective And Practical Knowledge

In their Introduction to ‘Philosophy as Therapeia’ (Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement #66) Jonardon Ganeri and Clare Carlisle write:

For Aristotle, technical knowledge deals with the correct means of achieving a given objective, and practical knowledge is knowledge of ends as such. A technical approach to life will view an existence led without pain and suffering as the means to another end, such as the satisfaction of desire. A practical approach to life, meanwhile, will seek to achieve an existence that is an end in itself, the realisation of a way of life in which action and experience need not be directed towards anything other than that life.

Philosophical counseling seeks to provide forms of practical and technical knowledge alike to those who seek counseling. For instance, we may seek relief from anxiety (or from grief, or from the emotional trauma of the end of significant relationship) in two forms: we may seek relief from anxiety to do something else, to preserve a relationship or even a job, to be able to concentrate on work, or we may seek relief just to seek relief from anxiety, to not experience anxiety any more, to find a ‘safe space.’ In this sense, philosophical reflection and insight and self-examination can be genuinely ‘practical’ (in the current sense of the term) precisely because they provide us with knowledge directed toward ends-in-themselves and toward practical relief. 

These forms of knowledge are first, a kind of ‘know-how’: we learn how to live a ‘good life’; we learn how to exercise some distinctly human, moral or ethical ‘skill.’ Remember that for Aristotle, behaving ethically is a skillful activity, one requiring patience at working through the process, through repeated, sometimes flawed, efforts; excellence in this domain, as in all others for Aristotle, is not a state but an enduring process through time. Second, they are a kind of ‘knowing-that’; we learn that some things are more important than others, we learn some inferences are faulty; we learn that some things are not like others and thus should not be conflated; and so on. We learn how to do certain things; and we also learn the truth of some claims. 

Viewed in this light, philosophical counseling can be thought of as imparting a ‘life skill’. The ‘patient’ or ‘client’ has not come to be cured, but instead, has come to learn something. Their ‘life problem’ is, more often than not, not a ‘mental illness,’ but a state of affairs that needs a ‘practical solution,’ one that requires the agent in question to possess a skill, which, they have come to realize, they have found lacking in themselves. So, they go to a ‘teacher,’ someone who can impart to them this skill. It is crucial that this ‘guide’ and ‘teacher’ know what competence in that skill looks like, even if s/he is not so competent themselves. Much like the sports coach can ask an athlete to perform a feat s/he is not capable of, while still being capable of correcting an incorrectly performed action. 

The philosophical counselor is as much teacher as ‘healer.’ 

What Is Philosophical Counseling? Part III – ‘Dolls That Remove Worries’

In Anxiety: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2012, Daniel Freeman and Jason Freeman write:

Parents in Guatemala employ an unusual technique for helping children to overcome their worries. They give the child a small bag containing six tiny dolls fashioned from cloth and wood. Each night, the child tells one of the dolls a particular worry, and then places the doll under their pillow. The doll’s job is to take on – and take away – the worry, thereby allowing the child to sleep soundly. During the night, the parent may remove the doll. When the child wakes up in the morning, their worry has disappeared along with the doll.

Muñecas quitapenas – literally, ‘dolls that remove worries’ – are generally given to children by their parents, but adults use them too. And there’s a reason why their use has persisted since Mayan times: they really do seem to work. This is because simply expressing your worries is often enough to neutralize them. If you, or your child, are struggling with night-time worries, you might like to make your own muñecas quitapenas.

‘Simply expressing your worries is often enough to neutralize them’ – this observation dovetails with the common intuition that talking with anyone–no matter what their theoretical orientation, and in some cases, even their level of professional education and preparation–about what ails you will make you feel better. I want to suggest that a philosophical counselor is a doll that removes worry, or rather, could be one.

But wait: if talking to anyone could help with anxiety, even an inanimate figure, then why bother with a counselor at all? Because some kinds of ways of talking are likely to be more effective than others–you will ‘improve’ or ‘get better’ no matter who you talk to, but talking to some kinds of folks might work better for you. And the ‘improvement’ in question might be more ‘fundamental’ and ‘far-reaching.’ 

To see this note that almost all of the best evidence based therapies for dealing with anxiety are cognitive ones, like cognitive behavioral therapy – these are not neurobiological or purely behavioral. That’s because the ‘best theories of anxiety’ are metacognitive or cognitive. They treat the various ‘disorders’ associated with anxiety – panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder–as metacognitive or cognitive. We panic, obsess compulsively, or suffer from anxiety chronically because:

  1. We hold ‘incorrect’ beliefs that don’t ‘work for us’ (where ‘don’t work for us’ simply means ‘produces emotions and affect we find unpleasant and debilitating’);
  2. We hold beliefs about these beliefs that don’t work for us;
  3. We interpret events in light of these beliefs and our beliefs about our beliefs; these interpretations ‘don’t work for us’;
  4. We draw ‘incorrect inferences’ from these beliefs.

These cognitive theories of anxiety hold that it is not a event per se that causes us anxiety; it is our beliefs about it and the way we interpret that event that does so.The formation of these beliefs and the inferential patterns based on them can come to constitute a ‘personality,’ an established, enduring pattern of behavior. The success of cognitive behavioral therapy becomes evident; it constitutes an intervention in this pattern, diverting it to new norms of behavior and reasoning. 

Put this way, it becomes ever more important to examine our beliefs, our beliefs about them, and our inferences based on them. Talking about them, exposing the relationships between them, and facing up to the coherence of our interpretations is a therapeutic intervention, one that can be aided by a sympathetic audience, an engaged interlocutor, someone who understands the significance of such revisitation and can guide it when and as needed. In short, a philosophical counselor.  

Why might philosophical counseling work better for some folks? Because philosophers are often better placed to question justifications for beliefs and the interpretations and inferences that issue from them–this is part and parcel of ‘our trade.’ For some personalities, such firm yet sympathetic questioning can work better in eliciting further inquiry. This is where the analogy with the ‘doll that removes worries’ breaks down. For the philosophical counselor is not a passive listener, like a doll, but an active participant, one who does not direct, but listens, reflects, and questions. 

What Is Philosophical Counseling? Part Two: The Counselor’s Work

In the first post of this series, I attempted to provide a brief introduction to ‘philosophical counseling,’ and closed on a promissory note to provide a description of the task of the philosophical counselor. Here it is. The philosophical counselor’s job is to be a guide and a partner, helping the counseled explore the issues which brought them to counseling, through philosophical insights, interjections, annotations, that clarify, deepen, resolve or reevaluate the issues ‘presented’ and at play in the counseled person’s life. The philosophical counselor’s ‘job’ is to work sympathetically and empathetically with the counseled, whose questions, insights, and queries dictate the resultant conversations. Through such conversations, counselor and counseled alike can discover what the client’s  beliefs and values are, what the relationship between them is–that is, work on figuring out the ‘philosophy at play’ is , and figure out, how it can best work for the person seeking couneling. The philosophical counselor, to reiterate, is not here to impose a way of thinking on the counseled, a glib ‘philosophical solution’ as it were, but rather to help the counseled inquire into themselves, as a key to a greater self-understanding of their own particular beliefs and values and the constraints and capacities that arise from them.

Is the counselor there to listen, to guide, to advise, to assign reading? The answers are unsurprising: all of the above. The counselor listens, the counselor guides through both questions and suggestive responses, through pointers for inquiry and investigation, the counselor directs by pointing to sources of ‘philosophical wisdom,’ working through which can inform future discussions and aid in a greater self-understanding. What special wisdom or skill does the counselor possess?  The counselor is knowledgeable, of course, but more to the point, the counselor has thought about the relationship philosophy bears to living ‘the good life.’ On a personal front, the counselor has applied philosophy to his or her own life, finding within it the means and methods for bringing understanding and self-knowledge within one’s reach. This is not a task that has been accomplished; indeed, it cannot be. But it remains ongoing, and the counselor seeks to continue it through conversation with others engaged in the same task.

This discussion of the task of the philosophical counselor very naturally raises an interesting question: What is the relationship of such a species of counseling to modern therapeutic traditions like psychotherapy (and its many variants) and psychoanalysis? These traditions, theoretically, find their roots in philosophical models of the mind and in claims about the nature of the self, and its relationship, social and psychological, to others. For instance, Freudian psychoanalysis’ roots lie in models of the mind developed by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche; and existentialist psychotherapy is overtly informed by the insights found in these philosophers and in the existentialist tradition more broadly.

Psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic method, too, borrows a great deal from philosophical method in its reliance on conversation and listening and interjection and questioning, on ‘reflecting’ the client, on directing the therapeutic conversation. Viewing this borrowing, we may consider ourselves justified in assessing philosophy as being the original ‘talk therapy.’ A Socratic dialog, let us recall, is a directed, prompted conversation that brings the interlocutor’s beliefs and their justifications to light; we find out whether we know or not. (And yes, Socrates was the original philosophical counselor.) In philosophical counseling, the knowledge (or its lack thereof) brought to light is that which pertains to the greatest mystery of all: ourselves.

What Is Philosophical Counseling? Part One: The Basics

Philosophical counseling is committed to the claim that philosophy can aid us ‘therapeutically.’ This is not a novel claim: philosophy understood as therapy has a long and honorable tradition in the history of philosophy. As a recent supplement of the Royal Institute of Supplement dedicated to ‘Philosophy as Therapiea,’ edited by Claire Carlisle and Jonardon Ganeri, makes clear, Spinoza, the Buddha, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, all in their own ways, either conceived of philosophical thinking as a species of therapy, or offered philosophical doctrines as forms of therapies. Historically, both Buddhist and Hellenistic schools of philosophy maintained that “philosophical argument could bring about tranquility by changing the beliefs on which emotional turbulence depends”. Some understandings of philosophy as therapy treat some distinctively human problems as illnesses requiring cure; yet others are committed to an understanding, and thus a displacement, of a problem. That is, what appears to be a problem is no longer one because I have modified my beliefs about it and the very identity of my problem has changed as a consequence; and in the process of modifying our beliefs, we have changed who we are by dint of changing our emotional response to the problem at hand. For affect is not impervious to philosophical reflection; as all of us realize, what we believe makes a great deal of difference to what we feel.

The therapeutic potential of philosophy then, can be stated succinctly: first, a specific doctrine’s details may offer us a prescription for how to rid ourselves of the particular affliction that ails us (by ‘affliction’ I do not mean ‘mental illness,’ a dubious notion at the best of times); and philosophical method—self-introspection and reflective thinking—may help us understand ourselves and our ‘problem’ better. Many of us are curious about what the purpose of life is, how should we seek meaning in our lives, work, and relationships, how we should make ourselves understood to others and arrive at acceptance of ourselves. We are often confronted with moral and existential dilemmas that call for exploration and inquiry. The seemingly simple decision to change majors in college can very easily be transformed into a question of how to resolve parental authority, to find meaning in one’s chosen career, and most fundamentally, what one’s sense of identity is; divorce very often forces a fundamental personal and existential reckoning; it may cause us to grapple with anger, regret, jealousy, forgiveness, reconciliation, compromise. The questions that these crises raise play a significant role in how we conduct our personal and professional relationships–our lives. When we find ourselves in crises and turn for therapeutic aid, very often, we are looking for a way to revisit and reexamine such queries and our relationship to them.  Both philosophical doctrines and method can aid in such examination and inquiry. 

Philosophy is dedicated to inquiring into the fundamental questions noted above, to applying their enduring lessons to life’s deepest problems. Philosophy can and should, enable thinking and acting to bring wisdom and acceptance to our relationships with ourselves and others. Counseling employing the philosophical method, that is, directed dialogue with a sympathetic partner to gain new perspectives on our lives and forge a new understanding of ourselves—which is what psychoanalysis and psychotherapy do—can aid in bring such a measure of understanding to our lives. Such philosophical counseling applies the tools of philosophy, doctrinal and methodological, as described above, to the enduring questions and perplexities of everyday life that sends people to the therapist’s couch. The ‘problems’ which may bring someone to philosophical counseling may include: crises in interpersonal relationships; seeking meaning and purpose in our chosen careers; managing anger, conflict, and compromise; finding happiness and ‘balance’ in work and life; aspirations, choices, and regret; change, loss, grieving, mortality; balancing personal and professional values and aspirations; crafting a meaningful life. This is quite a grab bag, and that is as it should be, for the diversity of human perplexities is indeed great. Addressing these provides a framework for thinking about what matters most in our lives and how we would like to live in accordance with our values.

Most fundamentally, philosophical counseling enables us to discover ‘my philosophy’: my beliefs, their justifications, and the relationships between those beliefs, which regulate and determine my intellectual and emotional responses to this world’s offerings. By engaging in this act of discovery, I can come to understand myself better, and orient myself toward the rest of my life.  

Self-knowledge has always been philosophy’s most ambitious therapeutic claim as a guide to understanding our place in this world, and thus our conflicted relationship with it, better. Philosophical counseling can aid in this project by the simplest of tools: a directed, sympathetic, curious conversation, consisting of questions, answers, and their joint examination by the interlocutors in this conversation. This mention of ‘interlocutors’ raises the question: What is the philosophical counselor’s work in all of this? I take up that query in the second part of this series of posts on philosophical counseling. More to follow, anon. 

A Problem With Analytic Philosophy: The Case Of ‘Forgiveness’

‘Forgiveness’ is a ‘big topic’ in contemporary philosophy–part of its current preoccupations in moral psychology. A quick search of journal articles, books, book chapters, edited collections, conference proceedings, and invited talks throws up many titles and topics; clearly, philosophers are working on a topic of great interest in the personal and moral domains. Forgiveness, healing, regret, guilt, anger–this cluster of concerns animates many. Present company included: I bear grudges, I carry around the anger of unresolved personal disputes within me, I regret my many moral errors and omissions, I seek to introduce healing into my many conflicted personal relationships–forgiveness plays a crucial role in addressing these personal zones of conflict and contestation. Philosophy is doing salutary work in addressing these in its current ruminations. So far, so good. 

But how does contemporary philosophy really ‘tackle’ forgiveness? Here is one wholly impressionistic take. 

I once attended a talk on forgiveness by a noted contemporary philosopher; s/he began by talking about ‘two kinds of forgiveness’ and after offering definitions of the pair, then went on to argue that in fact, under some kinds of conditions, the ‘two kinds of forgiveness’ collapsed into one, or entailed the other. Or something like that. Pardon my vagueness here, but that is merely a reflection of the fact that my attention had drifted, away and out of the seminar room. I went into the seminar expecting to find something that would resonate with my personal experiences of moral and political domains where forgiveness, or its lack thereof, played a crucial role. I found instead an exploration of the various logical and conceptual relationships that obtained between various definitions of forgiveness. The descriptions of the conditions under which these definitions of forgiveness were to be shown to be identical or logically related was mildly interesting but nowhere in any of this was to be found any of the emotional dimensions of forgiveness or of any of the human encounters that make forgiveness so interesting to a ‘normal’ human being. 

The problem, as I saw it, was quite simple: analytic philosophy is concerned with all the right topics; it delves into the domains of perplexity that are rightly of great and enduring interest to mankind; in this regard it is fulfilling its ‘social function’ and also its ‘cultural responsibility”; but,  it employs a style of argumentation and reasoning and, er, analysis that ensures its efforts fail to engage the concerns that animate those folks–i.e., most of us–who grapple with forgiveness in their lives. 

Forgiveness is a difficult business; perhaps among the most perplexing of all in human relationships. We cannot build structures of family and friendship without dealing with its challenges. But we will find no guidance in this regard from formal analytic philosophy. If I need guidance in my struggling with forgiveness in a crucial relationship, I will not turn there–and neither, I suspect, will anyone else. (Literature, the movies, perhaps a good play–all of those would be more useful.) In this moral domain, as in many others, analytic philosophy simply makes itself irrelevant.  

Mindfulness On The New York City Subway

Shortly after I began attending my first and only meditation training class, my teacher began a session by claiming meditation could be done anywhere; the ‘meditator’ should not worry about finding the best or the correct place to do ‘sits.’ Sit anywhere; find a support for your back so you can sit upright; but if you can’t you can meditate lying down. I found this catholic attitude to the position and location of the meditation sit refreshingly non-stifling. I found the last of my many excuses to not meditate melting away: no longer could I complain about the discomforts of meditation sits. So I began meditating. I would meditate at home in my living-room, sometimes in my daughter’s room when our household was busy, in an academic library, at a friend’s home. All I needed was a chair and a quiet spot.

And it didn’t have to be too quiet either.  All I had to do was sit comfortably, close my eyes, and meditate. If noise was present, then I had to be mindful of that too: acknowledge the noise, notice its presence, but don’t dwell on it; do pay attention to what happens if you find yourself trying to ‘process’ the noise. The key was to acknowledge that meditation was about mindfulness, not about escape from the every-day, or beguilement. Meditation asked me to be present in the present, not absent in the present. In a mindful way.

With all that said, one logical venue for meditation became apparent: the New York City subway. I often read in subway cars; indeed, they were one of my primary reading venues in my daily life in the city. But I never thought of them as a place of tranquility even though, quite clearly, they were for an experienced New York City commuter like me. All I had to do was find a seat, open a book, and very often I would be ‘lost’; a reading reverie had caused me to miss my intended station of disembarkation on more than one occasion. So why not meditate?

An opportunity presented itself soon enough: one day, while working in the library, I missed my afternoon meditation session by the stacks. Now, time was running out; I still had to catch the subway back to Brooklyn to pick up my daughter from after-school care. I would have to meditate on the subway if I wanted to get my session in before nighttime parenting duties began. And so it came to be that I took the Q train downtown, scouted for a seat, found one, plopped myself down, secured my backpack between my legs, pushed myself back, and closed my eyes. 

I sat for twenty minutes, while the subway took me from downtown Manhattan to downtown Brooklyn, through Chinatown, over the Manhattan Bridge. All around me I could hear sounds, feel sensation, smell aromas: the train scraping and screeching on the tracks, station and delay announcements, phone notifications, the occasional murmured conversation, french fries being eaten, my body moved and swayed, my head drooped, bodies around me moved and shifted as fellow passengers arranged themselves in various configurations for standing and sitting. 

I was in a subway car; I was present, not absent; I was mindful. I’m a human being; sight is my overpowering sensory modality. With the eyes closed, a different world pops into view. That day, while supposedly ‘checking out,’ I was more aware and sensitive to a certain dimension of the interior of a subway car than I had ever been with my eyes closed. I hadn’t gone anywhere; but I was still in a different place. On the subway, that was true literally, and figuratively. 

 

Vale Jay Jankelewicz (1989-2020)

On Thursday, I learned that Jay Jankelewicz, our young, dynamic, and effervescent office manager of the Philosophy Department at Brooklyn College, had passed away from complications following from COVID-19. Our department is united in grief; we are shocked and appalled beyond measure at the cruel hand fate has dealt to Jay, his parents, and all those he touched during his life.

In the many tributes and testimonials that poured into the department and college following the announcement of Jay’s passing away, there was a unifying theme: Jay’s affectionate and caring personality, his helpfulness, his sincere interest in, and passion for, the college community, which included faculty, students, and staff. No one who came into contact with Jay came away untouched; nor did I. Reading these testimonials, which have brought me to tears as I read them has brought that home to me all over again.

Jay, without exaggeration, made our office a home away from home; it bore his stamp in every fashion. The chair of the department could not do his job without him; we, ours. In the bad old days, before Jay took over the office, there was little administrative assistance available to faculty members; more often than not, we just did the administrative and logistical work of academic work ourselves. All of that changed once Jay–a graduate of Brooklyn College himself–took over; he expertly supervised a skeleton staff of students, assisted the chair in his many functions, and reorganized and revitalized the department’s administrative profile and function from beginning to end, from top to bottom: student assistance in all shape and form, advising materials, interactions with facilities management, content on the department web page, college forms, interactions with other college units including facilities maintenance, departmental events like social hours, movie nights, holiday parties, birthday cakes for his co-workers, the list goes on and on. (Those students who worked with Jay in the office found him a generous and supportive supervisor, one keenly attuned to their challenges navigating their way through college.) On more than one occasion, I commented to my wife on how well our office functioned; no request for assistance went unheeded; every task I assigned was fulfilled promptly and courteously. In the best possible sense, Jay made it possible for me to concentrate on matters that really needed my attention. I could not have asked for a better co-worker.

Underwriting his prolific work, his seemingly unbounded work ethic, was his spirit, his humor, his sheer good will and warmth. I took my daughter to work on several occasions; without fail, Jay would greet her, treat her to samples of candy from the office’s collection–maintained and stocked by Jay, of course–engage with her with curiosity, all the while beaming with pleasure at the opportunity to connect with his fellow workers in a personal dimension. He was warm and generous with time and assistance for faculty, students, and staff; he infused our workplace with a warmth all his own. (His brand of humor had something to do with it; all of us traded corny lines with him on every entry to the office; almost all of us, I’m sure, had running gags going with him. In my case, it was his ‘thanking me’ every time I warmed up my lunch in the office! His presentations at the faculty department meetings were a hoot; we would be awed by, and grateful for, his work ethic and organization, even as we groaned at his jokes.) The department’s holiday party was really where it all came together; the way Jay beamed on those days, you could tell he thought this place was his own, in the best possible way, and he loved every second of it.

RIP Jay: you were one of the best, a rare gem, and you’ll be missed by all of us. Thanks for everything you did. We love you very much.

The ‘Irrelevance’ Of The Human World

I remember, quite clearly, the day my mother showed me her cancer. There it was, a curious, nondescript region within the scan, a zone of irregularity to be sure, visibly distinct from the cells surrounding it, its shape and shading setting it apart. And yet, it looked of a piece too with its ‘environment’; in one sense, it looked like it belonged, ‘fitting in’ and making room for itself. That was it, the thing that was killing my mother, slowly, but surely. It seemed remote and distant but most of all it seemed impervious: it just didn’t care. It didn’t care for my grief and sorrow, the horror I felt at the impending catastrophe; it didn’t care for my mother’s pain, both psychic and physical. It merely did its thing, working toward its cellular and molecular teleology, doing what it had to do to stay alive and flourish. At its level, in its world, my mother and I did not intrude. We were irrelevant to the cancer’s considerations; we did not enter into its various calculi for survival and expansion and reproduction. But it couldn’t care about us; it did not know we existed. If only I could have reached into its membranes and given it a good shake, or perhaps written it a strongly worded letter. Maybe it would have listened, persuaded by my eloquence and my visible pain, my need for my mother to survive, my terror at the thought of a life thrown off course by this trauma; perhaps, it would have taken pity on me. But it wouldn’t because it couldn’t.

The virus that stalks us now, across closed and open borders, from sea to shining sea, that hunts down the old, the poor, the infirm, the weakened, with particular intention and direction, seems particularly malevolent. But it isn’t. It’s merely indifferent. It knows nothing of us, of our dreams and hopes and plans and loves. It does what it does according to its telos. At its level, matters are considerably simpler: here is the cell to be reproduced, there is that molecular cluster to be colonized next. The economy of intention is stark: simplicity reigns at the level of execution. We don’t factor into this calculus; we have not been discarded; we were never in the picture.

There is something terrifying about this, and yet something deeply reassuring and beautiful too. Something we’ve always known whenever we’ve seen death come visiting and noticed the world carry on regardless: there are many worlds about us and in us, many besides the visible human one, the one that is the repository of our dreams and fears. This one might end but the others persist; we’ve always lived among and alongside them. As the virus moves on, setting up home, laying claim, conquering and colonizing, laying waste, it builds a new world all its own. One in which we may co-exist or not. Previously negotiated terms of co-existence are of no use; negotiations must begin anew. 

We have been reminded, all over again, of our transience, our embedding in the world around us, our connection to everything else; time to stop everything and listen. 

On Not Being Anxious About Anxiety

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. 

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