My essay, ‘The Usefulness of Dread‘ is up at Aeon Magazine today.
Do writers procrastinate more than other people? I wouldn’t know for sure just because I have no idea how much procrastination counts as the norm and what depths practitioners of other trades sink to. But I procrastinate a great deal. (Thank you for indulging me in my description of myself as a ‘writer’; if you prefer, I could just use ‘blogger.’) At any given moment, there are many, many tasks I can think of–not all of them writerly–that I intend to get around to any hour, day, week, month, year or life now. (I procrastinate on this blog too; I’ve promised to write follow-ups to many posts and almost never get around to doing so.) This endless postponement is a source of much anxiety and dread. Which, of course, is procrastination’s central–and justifiably famous–irony.
You procrastinate because you seek relief from anxiety, because you dread encounters with the uncertainty, frustration, and intractability you sense in the tasks that remain undone. But the deferment you seek relief in becomes a source of those very sensations you sought to avoid. The affliction feared and the putative relief provider are one and the same. It is a miserable existence to suffer so.
One of my longest running procrastinations is close to the two-year mark now; this period has been particularly memorable–in all the wrong ways–because it has been marked by a daily ritual that consists of me saying ‘Tomorrow, I’ll start.’ (I normally go through this in the evening or late at night.) And on the day after, I wake up, decide to procrastinate again, and reassure myself that tomorrow is the day it will happen. As has been noted in the context of quitting vices, one of the reasons we persist in our habits is because we are able to convince ourselves that quitting, getting rid of the old habit, is easy. So we persist, indulging ourselves once more and reassuring ourselves of our imagined success in breaking out of the habit whenever we finally decide we are ready to do so. (But habits are habits for a reason; because they are deeply ingrained, because we practice them so, because we have made them near instinctual parts of ourselves. And that is why, of course, new habits are hard to form, and old habits are hard to break.)
Similarly for procrastination; we continue to put off for the morrow because we imagine that when the morrow rolls around, we will be able to easily not put off, to get down to the business at hand. All that lets us do, of course, is continue to procrastinate today. The only thing put off till the morrow is the repetition of the same decision as made today–the decision to defer yet again.
Now, if as Aristotle said, we are what we repeatedly do, I’m a procrastinator; I’m an irrational wallower in anxiety, condemning myself to long-term suffering for fear of being afflicted by a short-lived one. That is not a flattering description to entertain of oneself but it is an apt one given my history and my actions.
Gordon Marino suggests the patron saint of Danish angst, the ‘Danish doctor of dread’, Soren Kierkegaard, can offer us, through his theoretical and conceptual insights into anxiety, a view of ourselves more philosophically informative than the pharmaceutical-enforced rendering of humans as collections of discrete pathologies, each amenable to a piece-meal isolation and ‘treatment’. In doing so, Kierkegaard promises us one of existentialism’s hard-fought rewards, encounters with freedom, found precisely in those spaces where its terrible costs are extracted in encounters with existential dread, anxiety, and angst.
Marino suggests that Kierkegaard, in asking us to read and follow him on anxiety, is encouraging a species of anxious response that enables an understanding of the value of the most persistent, enduring, and subtle of existential responses: the central unease with the very fact of being. Since the confrontations with this sort of fundamental existential anxiety take place at the boundaries or limits of our understandings of ourselves, in moments of quiet self-reflection and intense attention paid to the terrible possibilities of our possible choices, our encounters with anxiety always holds the possibilities of innovative self-discovery. The psychic burden of anxiety is then plausibly understood as offset by the gains in self-knowledge it affords; to experience anxiety is to experience our capacity for freedom. To allow ourselves to experience anxiety is to engage in a very peculiar kind of self-observation, sensitive to one’s deepest affective responses, alert to the shapelessness of our lives and to the anxiety it provokes in bringing us face to face with our responsibility for mapping our lives anew at every lived instant.
In this way, the experience of anxiety–precisely because it affords a moment for discovery, reconceptualization and self-construction–is not something to be medicated out of existence. The experience of the anxiety can be unpleasant and sometimes, precisely because it might have generated paralyzing inaction, trigger the palliative response of intoxication or medication. But a living with the phenomenology and the felt experience of the anxiety, a conscious ‘wallowing’ and ‘inspection’, as it were, can enable an investigation of the self and the particular economy of its lived life. The rejection of anxiety, the desire to not feel it, might be revelatory of another, deeply felt, perhaps-even-more -anxious response; to medicate the anxiety is a rejection of a path to self-knowledge.
So the most significant aspect of Kierkegaard’s paying attention to anxiety is that by noticing it, and talking about it, and acknowledging it, not as pathology, but as informative part of ourselves, it becomes not something to be expelled, but to be welcomed as a message from ourselves, one to be placed alongside, and integrated with others like it in the past. As Kierkegaard says, “Only a prosaic stupidity maintains that this (anxiety) is a disorganization.” In saying this, Kierkegaard is suggesting that our view of anxiety as pathology can only lead to regarding ourselves as pathology. To stay with anxiety, to stop and respond to its challenge, is to accept a form of dialog with ourselves, to engage with a species of inquiry fundamental to ourselves.