The Age of Anxiety

The primal energy that is the essence of Creation can be expressed by humanity along a continuum from fear to compassion. Relatively more fear creates more reaction and more suffering whereas relatively more compassion has humanity experiencing more response in the present moment and the many benefits that a relatively higher level of awareness creates.

When we are not in the present moment, that is to say, when we are experiencing the guilt, shame and regret of the past or the fear and anxiety when anticipating the future, we are choosing to create neuroses or afflictive emotional reactions. Anxiety is a specific kind of fear regarding the future in that it has no immediate, identifiable cause; it is a vague uneasiness or dread that is existential.

Now let’s get down to brass tacks. “It’s the economy stupid,” has become a common campaign slogan of late in presidential elections which is understandable given the anxiety people have concerning their material well-being. This concern of the electorate whether they are having financial problems or not has targeted the wrong issue. “It’s the story stupid,” would be an all-purpose, always accurate campaign slogan.

W.H.Auden won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for his poem entitled “The Age of Anxiety.” Psychologists among others are keen to characterize modern humanity as hyper-anxious due to such frightening threats as environmental degradation, nuclear war, religious fundamentalism, pornography, violence, terrorism, pandemics and violence to name a few. The title of this essay was also the title or subtitle of more than two dozen books since 1990.

What are the facts regarding the growth of fear in the world? Readers of Simple Reality have a more profound understanding of the fear reaction than most people but we will confine our initial examination of anxiety to the context of P-B.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders now affect 18 percent of the adult population of the United States or about 40 million people. By comparison, mood disorders—depression and bipolar illness, primarily—affect 9.5 percent.  That makes anxiety the most common psychiatric complaint by a wide margin, and one for which we are increasingly well-medicated. …The anti-anxiety drug alprazolam—better known by its brand name, Xanax—clocked in at 46.3 million prescriptions in 2010. No other psychiatric drug even made it into the top 25. 

We are not saying that ours is an age of greater anxiety than in the past, perhaps we are just better at diagnosing and medicating our dread. In the 14th century Europeans had perhaps more reasons to feel apprehensive as they let their minds wander to the experience of or rumors about famine, peasant revolts, waves of pillaging barbarians, plague and religious wars. The story skillfully narrated by the Church didn’t help allay fears when church officials seemed to want to keep believers in doubt about which way they were headed on the journey to heaven or hell. Anxiety helped manipulate and control the faithful.

Despite the harsh realities of life in medievalEurope, we can find reason to believe that the religious story containing the medieval peasant resulted in an identity less anxious than the post-modern mind when we remember that their worldview was not as fragmented as ours. In harmony with the natural world, their close-knit communities and at least some hope for a rewarding afterlife (which could be guaranteed if money could be found to buy an indulgence from the Church), the medieval peasant probably suffered less existential anxiety than we do today.

Descartes (1596-1650), considered by some to be the father of modern thought, supported the shattering of Reality that forms the basis for the modern expression of P-B. He held that ego and consciousness were separated from the world and from other persons.  Rather than living in harmony with nature as did medieval man, Western humanity since Descartes has long been in a struggle with our environment attempting to control and subdue Mother Nature from which we have long since become estranged.

Notice as we move forward in history how anxiety increases in large part due to the story humanity tells itself. The Industrial Revolution and capitalism has Karl Marx (1818-83) blaming materialism for the human tendency to value things in the objective world in terms of money. “It’s the economy stupid,” had its genesis in the mind of this brilliant socio-political scientist.

Alienation from nature is followed by alienation from one’s community and one’s self. In his story The Stranger, Albert Camus (1913-60) describes a man who is a stranger in his world, a stranger to other people whom he seeks or pretends to love…doomed to wander in quiet despair, incommunicado, homeless, and a stranger. 

We can thank Freud (1856-1939) for identifying anxiety as a psychiatric concept describing “the nodal point at which the most various and important questions converge, a riddle whose solution would be bound to throw a flood of light upon our whole mental existence.”  Simple Reality reveals how the intellect can be used to give us the illusion that we have escaped our anxiety and that can include modern IT technology which can both connect people and prevent authentic relationships. Freud defined the schizoid type—that is to say, problems of persons who are detached, unrelated, lacking in affect, tending toward depersonalization, and covering up their problems by means of intellectualization and technical formulations. 

Following Freud we have had an explosion of papers, books, studies and practitioners dealing with anxiety. Even The New York Times is beginning a new series (2012) at nytimes.com/opinionator.

It is no exaggeration to say, as we do in Simple Reality, that human suffering including human anxiety is determined by the context or culture. The psychoanalyst Rollo May affirms this conclusion in relation to guilt which is closely associated with existential anxiety. Ontological [existential] guilt does not consist of I am guilty because I violate parental prohibitions, but arises from the fact that I can see myself as the one who can choose or fail to choose. Every developed human being would have this ontological guilt, though its content would vary from culture to culture and would largely be given by the culture.

Failure to face the truth regarding the origins of our suffering and to take responsibility to make healthier choices will only increase our existential anxiety, neurotic anxiety is the end product of unfaced normal ontological anxiety….

In the context of Simple Reality anxiety can be a reaction caused by identifying with the body, mind and/or emotions and by these reactions giving energy to an illusion. Anxiety is, in short, a choice, an option just as the antidote, a response, is an option. This option is exercised at The Point of Power. Notice how the description by Daniel Smith, the author of the column entitled “It’s Still the ‘Age of Anxiety.’ Or Is It?” parallels our description of this modern day plague.

Anxiety begins with a single worry [mind centered reaction], and the more you concentrate on that worry [continue worrying by feeding energy to the storyline], the more you worry. One of the best things you can do is learn to let go [breathe and choose to respond]: to disempower the worry altogether. If you start to believe that anxiety [attitudes, beliefs and values form the components of such a story], it is a foregone conclusion—if you start to believe the hype about the times [illusion] we live in—then you risk surrendering the battle before it’s begun.  Bravo Daniel Smith, we couldn’t have said it better.

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References and notes are available for this essay.
For a much more in-depth discussion on Simple Reality, read  Simple Reality: The Key to Serenity and Survival,  by Roy Charles Henry, published in 2011.

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