“It may be when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have, begun our real work.”
Before I can tell you about my despair or really listen to anyone’s I have to be connected to the anxiety that I have numbed, avoided, suppressed and discounted and most of all confused with fear all the while being diagnosed and treated for depression. Doctor Freud tells us that anxiety “is a riddle whose solution would be bound to throw a floodlight on our whole mental existence.”
Anxiety, unlike fear, has no external source, cause, or cure; unlike it’s kissing cousin fear. Fear has an object. If I’m afraid of flying, which I used to be, talk therapy and immersion therapy and then getting in a plane can make the fear disappear. If I’m afraid of the dark then I just keep the lights on. If I’m afraid of lions then I don’t go to the jungle or the park but the anxiety that comes from being bone lonely and confronting my mortality is amorphous, ephemeral but just as damn real as any lion. Kierkegaard says, “Learning to know anxiety is an adventure…He therefore who has learned rightly to be in anxiety has learned the most important thing.”
Whereas fear sharpens the senses, unrecognized anxiety dulls the soul, spirit and creativity not to mention any connection to something divine. Once fear is identified I can fly, fight or freeze. Anxiety is a disorder of desire for something that we can’t put a name to and can’t see, taste, hear or smell but everyone knows it is there if we just get quiet enough. The dictionary says, “Fear is an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain or a threat.” The dictionary goes on to say anxiety, “is a feeling of worry, nervousness, a dis-ease about an uncertain outcome.”
The philosopher Karl Jaspers speaks of anxiety this way, “a feeling of restlessness…a feeling that one…has not finished something…or that one has to look for something.” I came to this quiet, windy mountain to look at my anxiety right in the eye because I have been anxious my whole life. The Catholic monk and mystic Thomas Merton wants me to know, “anxiety is the mark of spiritual insecurity.” When the preacher that baptized me over on Sand Mountain when I was nine years old, laid his bony hand on my should and pronounced that I’d be a preacher I started asking myself, my mom, my god, preachers and priests what to do and not do. However, Merton goes on to say anxiety comes from“being afraid to ask the right questions because they might turn out to have no answer.”
So am I poised to start asking the right questions answer or no answer? Am I ready to follow Paul Tillich’s advice who says one of the cures for my despair and anxiety is to “believe you are accepted” and to accept myself questions, despair, bone loneliness and all in the words of the old spiritual, “Just as I am without one plea…”
The post-modern novelist Walk Percy says, “Anxiety summons us to an authentic experience,” and if I strip down to all that I have learned, felt, seen and heard then one way to move out of despair and anxiety is to stop the frantic and exhausting pursuit of happiness.