Goals

The view from the top.

The view from the top.

I have managed to get up onto the log many times but only occasionally have sustained standing, no less walking and running as it tumbles in the current. It is exhilarating and whelming to sustain that pace as it rolls. Progress at two scales: the immediate step-after-step that keeps me fixated on the task at hand; and then the warm, dry travel down the river toward the places I want to be, things I want to have done. Yes! I shout at the mist flailing off the bark. Sometimes it feels like music and I am playing the log like an instrument, or dancing. The beautiful edge of chaos. The timelessness of flow.

It can last, but it doesn’t.

Eventually, a rock or a ripple or a wind or even my cocky dithering attention allows a waver, then a wobble, then a roll that oscillates beyond my control. I am wet. The water is cold. I must start the process over again. Find the log. Cling to it. Take a moment to breathe. Assess the upcoming rapids. Pull myself up onto a rolling cylinder, which by my very pulling spits me back to where I started. Groping. Clamouring. Tiring. Daunting. Resting. Repeat.

It seems that others are able to manage this with greater focus and organization. Obsession is not a natural state for me. On the contrary, I am a satisficer, quick to doubt the necessity of making it down river upright and dry and warm. Clinging to the log still gets me there, so what if I am soaked and cold? I can be a petulant child vainly trying to deny the tormenter the pleasure in my demise: I don’t need your stupid log, nyah!

But I do. I will drown, as eventually we all do, succumbing to the effort and drifting into the long sleep. But before that day, upright, dry, warm, and singing and whelmed is worth the effort.

Today I started clamouring again.

Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Black Hole

old growth.jpg

I used to live adjacent to an old growth forest. The main difference from your run-of-the-mill forest that has been significantly disturbed by humans is that it is undeniably clear that death cannot be isolated anywhere. Trees that ceased to be upright are in various stages of fodder for moss and mushrooms, insects and progeny. Trees that fell millennia ago are now the soil from which currently living trees form leaf, sinew, and bark. The cycle of life is just that, a cycle of life not death. Everything is in a process of transformation from one arrangement to another.

And so it is with life everywhere. A metaphysical profundity underlying spiritual traditions and atheistic naturalism alike. Despite our urges to rage against the dying of our own light, we can be consoled by being temporary vessels, part of a larger cycle in which our energies transform from one arrangement to another.

Our anxiety that death is an abyss, a finality, is just that, anxiety. Even the most facile gander at the bigger picture, at the cycle, reveals the conflict between the selfish desire to persist in this form forever and the grateful appreciation that we were able to ever take this form at all.

 

Then last night I watched Janna Levin’s NOVA special on black holes. Artistically presented with pleasurable clarity, as with all of her output, I learned some things I did not know. Always ready to assimilate more knowledge of the universe with what I have previously come to understand, I was struck in the first few minutes by the similarity of stars and organisms here on earth.

On earth, organisms are temporary arrangements of energy working against entropy, fighting against dissolution. For a short while a cell or collection of cells transform molecules or other cells into energy to stave off collapse. Without this energy creating the structures of our bodies, we return to the elements of which they are made. That is the dynamic tension of life, a battle that every living thing ultimately loses.

It turns out that stars are also fraught with this dynamic tension. The energy of a bazillion atoms crashing into one another creates more elaborate order – hydrogen to helium to lithium and so on up the periodic table – releasing vast energy exploding outward. But this energy does not just keep expanding away from the core like a miasma of energy cooling as it ripples through space. It is contained, balanced by an equal force. Gravity. Well, not a force, really, as Janna explains, but a curvature in space-time that is a result of the enormous mass of a star. And so, for a period of time, there is a celestial object we call a star that has a finite though fluctuating diameter and mass. Explosions pushing outward, gravity pushing inward, more or less balanced and, for at least one of these stars, providing energy to nearby planets that can be further organized into temporary forms of flagella, frog, fruit, and farmer. All is right in the universe…

Eventually, frogs die, people die, stars die. When stars die it is because gravity wins. The energy provided by its explosions is no longer sufficient to stave off the inward pressure. Ultimately, this collapse results in a singularity – all of the mass that once was the star collapses into an infinitely small point. This is a black hole, where no light escapes, nothing nearby escapes, a relentless vacuum sucking up not just the detritus on the carpet but the whole house, and neighborhood, and continent, and planet.

But it does not stop there. Eventually other things drift by and the black hole sucks them up too. With each addition of mass, it gets bigger and more powerful so it can suck up even more space stuff.

So here is where I have to reconsider this generalization that consoles me about life and the meaning of death, the cycle that seems to govern all battles against entropy. The black hole from a star’s death is cold and selfish, like a Pharaoh being buried with thousands of others who just happened to be in his orbit at the time of his death. I can imagine the voice of a dying star sounding like a petulant narcissist, “well if I have to die then you all have to die too!”

 

The universe is not an old growth forest.

 

Damn. Not the dust-to-dust story.

 

Are carbon-based forms unique or special in the universe some way? Is death really the abyss we all fear it to be and it is just that life on earth obscures that reality? I cringe against such elitist attributions of how special we are, as it is too easily an appeal to the bias of self-centered experience. Everything in the universe is governed by the same atomic and subatomic organization. The peculiarities of carbon do not deviate from general principles of atomic interactions. We do not have one explanation for how things work on earth and another for the heavens.

Nah. Black holes are different but not exempt from universal laws. Perhaps black holes somehow “feed” other aspects of the universe. Newton’s first law, right? Nothing is being destroyed by black holes, just transformed. Into what, for what? Don’t know (yet). I think I’m ok with that.

At some point our sun will collapse and suck up all of these atoms we have cycled through lifetime after lifetime. Perhaps we will collectively rage against this dying of the light, but ultimately, there will be some new arrangement, some different battle against entropy, something as yet unimagined. And it will be beautiful and temporary and tragic and so on as atom by atom we remain perpetually in the middle of the flow.

In the meantime, I will use this tiny bit of warped space-time that envelops the body I think of as mine and enjoy the bodies that come into my orbit.

spacetime.jpeg

 

 

 

Bisecting the world for the sake of anxiety

Contemplation of the world we were born into can be daunting, to say the least. Our first reaction at the moment of departing the womb is a cacophonous wail, railing at the departure from a complex but still relatively simple environment into the assaulting abyss outside. Gifted with not just one or two senses but an astonishing five, we begin the process of trying to assemble those sensations into something coherent, reliable, predictable. Some sights and sounds occur together; touch can feel good or bad; smell feels like taste at a distance. Slowly, with millions of moments of trial and error, infants find regularity and consistency as the background with which to consider novelty, the as-yet-unknown.

But rather than an inexorable march toward a greater and greater proportion of knowns in a sea of unknowns — a growing wedge in the pie chart of knowledge — development progresses toward a greater appreciation of the scope of the unknown — an ever-expanding pie chart diameter.

The entirety of one’s known environment expands from womb to nursery to house to neighborhood to city to country to earth to solar system to galaxy to universe, at which point the infinite space between electrons brings to bear the depths of the micro-universe. And that is just a spatial dimension. The range of possible sensations, the complexity of the biome, and the conundrum of time also expand. However, the most perplexing of all, the dimension that appears to have the greatest contribution to this rapidly expanding pie chart, is the human condition. Why did that person do that? Why am I doing this (and not that)?

It is not surprising then that anxiety should flourish in such a milieu. With expanding knowledge comes expanding uncertainty. This is true as history unfolds across generations, as well as within a given generation or human life.

What is surprising is that culturally, we have only recently come to accept anxiety in any comprehensive sense, but so far that sense is relegated to pathology. Through the ministrations of big pharma and the neuroticism of many prominent 20th century writers and artists, North American culture has lifted the first veil. Anxiety is now an open discussion, and in children’s vocabulary. Unfortunately, this revelation has been met with bellicose intervention, a war with the very existence of anxiety. We have wars on cancer, obesity, drugs, crime, terror, and, so they say, Christmas. No surprise that we include newly appreciated emotional struggles. In doing so, anxiety remains the “other,” the enemy.

When I was young, we used to tease each other that “your epidermis is showing” on the playground. The basic ruse was the construction of a virtual in-group of those in the know. But it was much more cruel and insidious than that. On the surface, it was biased against younger and perhaps less savvy kids who did not know what epidermis was. The cruelty emanated from the difference between those who accepted their ignorance, thus denying the basic premise of the game like a kid who refuses to search for anyone once he is “it”, and those who cared to know, sometimes desperately. Whether by insecurity, anxiety about being on the outside (we didn’t call it FOMO then), or a fear of exposing something shameful, these were the kids who provided the game’s central sadistic pleasure.

Some feigned knowledge with certainty, which was quickly exposed either by their refusal to share what they knew or, eventually, a pathetically wrong guess. Others fitfully examined every part of their body, trying to identify the exposed culprit. Occasionally, the desperately shame prone would cry, unable to enact their go-to coping habit of hiding any potentially offending aspect of their selves. The true torture was in the arrogance and superiority of those that were in the know, those who knew a Greek term for something so simple, natural, ubiquitous, and real.

Today, we are but children with the application of “scientific” terminology for our basic human functions (don’t get me started with my tirade about all the doctors who proclaim an “-itis” as a diagnosis rather than a feeble description that something is swollen, a symptom not a cause). We have incorporated “anxiety” into our public — and public school — discourse with all the sophistication of playground epidermis accusations. We have a term, now let’s divide the world by that term. Watch how some feign understanding. Feel the otherness of those writhing with the struggle to understand. Most importantly, reinforce the hiding of those who feel exposed by some “flaw” they don’t understand.

In published research on anxiety, there is the inexorable reference to 10, 15, and sometimes 20 percent of the population that “has” anxiety. It is the primary justification for interest — we need to know more about this so we can relieve suffering. Don’t get me wrong, this is absolutely the right motivation. However, the purely clinical view of anxiety, in the framework of “disease”, makes the anxious into “them,” desperately scanning their being to find this epidermis of thought and feelings.

Digging deeper into prevalence rates starts to unravel that outgroup stereotype. Point prevalence — how many people are diagnosed or diagnosable (ala DSM criteria) at any one timepoint — is different from lifetime prevalence — how many people reach diagnosable levels of anxiety at any point in their lifetime. Lifetime prevalence rates are in the realm of 35–40%. These are people who would qualify for a diagnosis based on the presentation of a certain number of symptoms. If you are short by one or two symptoms, you are not diagnosed, even though anxiety may be interfering with your life. If we include those people, then lifetime prevalence may climb to 50% and beyond. If there is something that affects 50% of the population or more, it is either an epidemic or something pretty darn normal. Anxiety is not an epidemic.

First and foremost, anxiety is an emotion. It is the tension between the experienced now and the imagined future. In less intense ways, we experience anxiety many times a day. If I get to the gym too late will I be able to get the elliptical machine I like? I hope the rain will hold off so I can mow the lawn before the dandelions go to seed. I must have a salad tonight before the lettuce goes bad.

Anxiety is the engine of thought, propelling us forward into planning. It results from eons of evolution forming this wonderful cortex that allows artists to create their visions, scientists to test their hypotheses, parents to foster children’s development, and organizations to provide goods and services year after year. The imagined future may not always be rosy, but, motivated by anxiety, we can take action now to avoid or reduce potential negative impact. Such is the nature of being functional and effective in the world.

 First and foremost, anxiety is an emotion.

 

Ah, but what about when anxiety is more intense? It is going to be awful when I have to fire my employee tomorrow. What if my manuscript is rejected? I hope she does not ask me about how I feel about X. Now the engine has shifted up a gear, making the consideration of the imagined future more pressing. Anxiety the emotion helps us to prioritize perceptions and thoughts about that imagined future. Attention is narrowed, other information is ignored, we are vigilant. Again, this is functional and helps us to be effective in the world. Anticipation begets preparation.

Anxiety the problem begins here as well. This narrowed focus comes at a cost. Maybe the other information is also important. There are other things to take care of besides your employee, manuscript, or relationship. As the intensity of anxiety increases, the myriad possibilities of the world get narrowed down to just two categories — things that are relevant to the anxiously imagined future and those that are not. In essence, intense anxiety moves the location of processing in the brain from the wonderfully flexible and adaptive cortex to the evolutionarily older and more rigid limbic system. The amygdala in particular becomes more dominant than usual, applying its efficient dichotomization mechanism to categorize incoming information as bad or good. Is that the bad thing? Is that evidence of the bad thing? How about that, is that the bad thing? Like a quality control worker on the factory assembly line — is this one broken? This one? This one?

So it is no accident that we bisect the world for the sake of anxiety. Uncertainty is always the largest wedge in the pie chart of knowledge. But rather than accept that uncertainty, we create certainty even if there is none to be had. Bisecting is one of the primary plots of the stories we tell ourselves. There are two kinds of people in the world…nature vs. nurture…man vs. nature…mind vs. body…dorsal vs. ventral…conservatives vs. liberals. Dichotomizing to achieve the illusion of certainty is a result of anxiety precisely because it relieves anxiety. We concoct stories that reduce the tension between the experienced now and the imagined future. We are entertained by stories built upon interpersonal or existential threat — will the protagonist get the love interest, die, escape, prevail over the enemy? The stories we use to narrate our own lives are no different, even if typically more banal than a bestseller.

All of this is great fodder for another post, however, as here I only want to point to the central meta irony:

We use our anxious dichotomization to create a bisected story about anxiety.

Anxiety the problem has become anxiety the disease, which only some people have. It is viewed as an organic defect, an invasion of the purity of the mind, the enemy from within, alien, other, the neurochemical equivalent of hemophilia, cancer, or lead poisoning. Viewed in this amygdalar “bad” category, it is easy to see it as something to be eviscerated, eschewed, excised, or exterminated.

Unfortunately, that is not how it works. Is anger, guilt, or sadness a disease? No. When people successfully return from living under intense anxiety’s grasp, do they no longer experience anxiety? No. Can parents prevent their children from ever experiencing anxiety? No. Would any of us want to live without anxiety? No.

The point is that the existence or occurrence of anxiety is not the problem. It is how we use that emotion as a signal, a motivation, a guide for our behavior. The best and most successful means to lasting relief from experiencing too much anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy, is to provide the tools to work with anxiety when it arises. Successful therapy returns a person’s ability to use anxiety effectively, much in the same way that we can use anger, guilt, or sadness effectively but not excessively.

Hopefully, the next veil to be lifted from our understanding of anxiety is to not be anxious about it. The dichotomization of anxiety is one of the sources of stigma that, in its endemic recursive process, fosters greater anxiety. Anxiety is an emotion. We all have it. We all have the potential to experience it in a debilitating way. We all work with it day in and day out. Let’s work with it.

Reflections on my Social Baseline: Keeping up the Energy to Go it Alone

The prognosis for single middle-aged men like me is not good. The overwhelming evidence is that I am part of a demographic with higher rates of physical and mental illness and lower life expectancy. In my private Lake Wobegon effect, I like to believe that I could be an exception to that trend. My improved diet and exercise regimens over the past 5 years have certainly fostered that beneficent delusion, but so has the content of my research – how people regulate their own emotions and the emotions of others. Trying to understand the human condition more broadly has provided at the very least a narrative framework for my own personal growth. As I am currently working on a grant on Social Baseline Theory, these ideas have infiltrated my most recent contemplative strivings for eudaemonia.

Today, while reading Sapiens in the tub during my morning coffee, I reflected on my past 2 days, and the low energy state that persisted, in light of my ability to self-regulate and relative dearth of immediate social support....

 

 

The first 4 months of 2017 have been intense. Only this week have I begun to make the transition to summer mode – sustained effort on research projects, writing regularly, and working on the garden and yard. Every year, this transition is a bit of a challenge.

On the one hand is the glorious exhale and release of the stress from a relentless schedule. Thoughts are more expansive and contemplative. I have time to read. “Need to” shifts to “want to” as choice of what to do today blossoms overnight.

On the other hand is the confrontation of the many, many things that were put on the back burner - everything from the things I planned to do when I bought the house to getting the hardware to hang my new hammock to drafting up a job description for a new position in my lab. They pile up on the “should do” list. It is a long list.

At times like these, the shoulds and the wants battle it out to the point that I shut down a little, take stock, and work on my acceptance through temporary avoidance. Everything will get done, or at least all of the shoulds and most of the wants, and I will be happy and satisfied with steady and sometimes fitful progress. Apparently, if I allow myself a few days of relative indolence, indulging a TV series binge or a game of Civilization 2 or reading my current book, the overwhelm turns to whelm and I am back to advance my various causes.

This used to be a source of depression for me as I beat myself up for taking the phone off the hook and disappearing for a while. Over the past 5 years or so, however, depression has ceased its insipid pull. I have stopped shoulding all over myself. This feat of self-regulation is a source of pride but also mystery, as I know I have not slain the dragon but merely banished it to a remote cave. Now, as my research shifts to understanding “co-regulation”, I am working through how to make sense of my life through that lens.

I have written about Social Baseline Theory online as well as in scientific journals, so I won’t go too deep into it here. The gist is that our brains and bodies expect to share burdens and resources with others, going it alone is evolutionarily and functionally anomalous. These burdens and resources can be material, like food and safety, as well as psychological, like emotions and stress.

This may not seem like a big insight as many a poet (No Man Is an Island), song (Lean on Me), and movie (Groundhog Day) grind this into our collective consciousness. But both science and American culture get this backwards. The assumed story is that the presence and support of others enhances individual functioning. Both the isolated scientific study participant and the idealized pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps American ideal begin with the individual and then extol the benefits of adding lover, spouse, family, and friend. That is, the baseline is the individual. Thus, people live longer and better because they have added significant support. Biology and neuroscience now indicate that the opposite is true, our baseline is social. Going it alone is a deficit, the burdens of life are not shared and therefore a solitary individual must effortfully and inefficiently expend a great deal of energy toward self-regulation.

For many aspects of my life, I have built a foundation of self-reliance. Although I continue to have some intimacy in friendships and work well in teams of researchers, I have tended to go it alone. To the point that now I have constructed a satisfying and meaningful life living single and working on what I find interesting. Still, as with probably many or even most people, challenges occur, whelm becomes overwhelm, the shoulds loom large. These (now very) short-lived low energy states that I get into, like the past couple of days, may be a metabolic balancing act, a replenishing of my self-regulatory stores, recovery from having all the burdens on my shoulders alone. Because I have the luxury of making a living that allows me flexible scheduling and working from home, I can periodically indulge this need to replenish. Accepting this need has kept me buoyant. I no longer confuse low energy with a failure and thus evoke depressive appraisals; instead, like just simple fatigue inspiring an early bedtime, I clear the decks for a day or two to recharge the battery.

Maybe that will be the trick to improve my prognosis…

 

 

Off-key

One of my many jobs when I was in my 20’s was in a Harry and David call center. Originally, it was only meant to be a temporary, Christmas season job – October-December. But this was the year that they implemented a new computer system and sometime around the solstice discovered that a very large number of recipients had not received their gift baskets, towers of chocolate, or first installations of the fruit of the month club. By this time, I had proven myself as both computer literate and an over-qualified worker, so they asked me to be one of the elite few to remain well past the holidays for damage control. Over the next few months, we went through stacks of orders gone wrong and, when the computer system was up and running (still a tall order in the heady days of the early 90’s), deftly tried to assuage irate doctors, receptionists, and guilty grandchildren with refunds, reshipment, or just plain empathy.

 During the frequent computer outages, we literally had nothing to do. We would wheel our chairs together and shoot the shit. The most interesting member of our special ops unit was a retired guy who had worked for the CIA as a language expert. We played his parlor game of guessing where someone was from simply by hearing the accent. He was freaking amazing. This was way beyond guessing the South after hearing a “y’all.” His invariably accurate guesses would be something like “you were born in Michigan, upper peninsula I think, but then moved to northern California before you were a teenager, although you have tinges of Boston – did you go to college in Massachusetts?” It was uncanny. I envied that kind of expertise that comes with years of experience, probably why I recall it to this day.

But some expertise does not result in greater connection to others. For example, for some folks, music is both pleasure and torture. The growing ubiquity of sidewalk speakers announcing each merchant’s musical brand, the Starbucking of cafés, and buskers in the subway chew on their brains like an earwig, often despite being accomplished musicians themselves. Some estimates are that 7% of Americans suffer to the point of severe agitation when they hear the non-autotuned soundtrack for the arrival of birthday cake. These people have absolute or perfect pitch.

 On the surface, absolute pitch appears to be a marvel, an ability to envy. Being able to name any note played or to recall the key of any song after hearing it only once years ago might be a great parlor trick akin to the CIA guy’s geo-linguistics. But the tones of both professional and amateur music-makers never achieve the perfection demanded by absolute pitch and are therefore torturous, like a din of fingernails on a blackboard. The music of the world is inescapably off-key.

Although I have the good fortune of only possessing relative pitch, I have developed something similar that undergirds my status as a single man.

I am a beta male, an observer, a witness to the emotional language we share with each other and with ourselves. As a child, siblings would safely bitch to me about the annoyance of another sibling or the rigidity of our mother. I yearned to understand the muddle of feelings and intentions, the he-said/she-said world of interpersonal relationships, the coexistence of blindness and insight. So began my approach to becoming a competent human being.

My first serious girlfriend exposed how little I knew of my own emotional landscape. Through intimacy and learning a deeper emotional language, I started to overcome that deer-in-the-headlights speechlessness whenever I was emotionally challenged. I began to understand sadness and depression. The next long-term girlfriend came with a teenager in tow. I learned more about anger from that boy than anyone else. After that, I met friends from my karass[1] who taught me about the safety and trust in sharing any emotion, including anger. With them, I also came to understand shame as profoundly important emotion, a motivator for a great deal of behavior and a strong undercurrent of my depression. Finally, I have become an official expert as a scientist who studies – measures and theorizes about – the purpose and meaning of emotions. Now, partly as a result of a steady stream of students that I have mentored over the past decade, I have come to understand anxiety. More ubiquitous than shame, I see how anxiety runs the world. I have become an emotional “expert.”

Like all clusters of experts, because of this expertise, I gravitate toward those who share insight into human relations and self-awareness. Like a musician with absolute pitch, I prefer to play with those who appreciate an A at precisely 440.000 Hz. Like most people, a frequent topic at the dinner table is divining the reasons for this behavior or that social problem, except in my circles we tend to rely on a common language and prefer the criteria of scientific evidence. This emotional literacy is a source of meaning and intimacy for me.

On the other hand, humans on the whole are bulls in emotional china shops. They frequently bang into each other like riders on invisible bumper cars, dismayed by sudden and inexplicable whiplash. The expertise I have developed allows me to often see those bumper cars. Perhaps in the same way that synesthetes hear color or feel numbers, I have a non-linguistic sense of people’s emotional states as they careen into each other. I can “see” the mix of longing and foreboding in the woman at the table next to me as she tries to connect with her man across the table shielding his panic by feigning confusion and interest. At times it is like watching the first few minutes of the Usual Suspects and figuring out it was Kevin Spacey the whole time[2]

This is where the absolute pitch metaphor breaks down a bit, however. One result of this emotional literacy is compassion, an acceptance of the world as it is, combined with a desire to support those who wish to improve it. Witnessing the couple at the table next to me is not agitating, not a scrape across the blackboard. However, the other result is consistent with those with absolute pitch – feeling somewhat socially distant or at least selective about whom I am interested in spending time with. Low self-awareness and emotional rigidity are turn offs, a matter that has certainly contributed to my singlehood of late. My dating experiences of the past decade have been frequently something out of a Seinfeld episode. There was the fast talker, the one who failed to ask a single thing about me during a 3-hour dinner, the one who spoke only about her ex-husband, the one who craved certainty to the point of never moving house or travelling. My lack of interest in date #2 continues to be due to unshared emotional literacy.

Lest I appear too arrogant about this literacy, it should be clear that expertise does not mean perfection. It is a process, a moving toward greater understanding that inherently comes with greater comprehension of what is not known. I strive to sing on key but there are many times that I fail to get there, especially when figuring out harmonies. I strive, imperfectly, for self-awareness and using my emotions for good and not evil. But here is the fallout of the isolation borne of emotional literacy: I have not been particularly challenged emotionally in a decade. The jolts as I ride my bumper car have not been violent. Friends do not demand much – we get together and do things and then go home to our separate castles. If I am being intransigent about something, they can let it go. If they are in a less social phase, it does not impinge on my goals or happiness.  I am a team of one.

As a result, I may be literate but I am reading mostly only what I have written. I know there are whole chapters of my self-narrative that are bullshit. There are plot lines that are pure fiction, characters that don’t exist. Sure, I have been able to examine and correct many dysfunctional stories I tell myself, but there are some that can only be challenged by someone with a vested interest in being a co-author.

At least that is the story I am telling myself, the song that I am singing, right now…

id = "notes"

[1]Bokononists will understand what I mean.

[2] I trust that the movie has been out for a sufficient amount of time that this is not a spoiler.

 

What if?

I once saw the Cirque de Soleil Imax movie Journey of Man. It was exquisite. Unlike the theater shows in which the observer, me, is in a fixed position, with film the viewer’s perspective is under creative control as well. Sweeping aerial shots combined with detailed close-ups across various ecosystems, at the scale of evolution and individual development from birth to death. It was transcendent. As I left the theater, I had an epiphanous feeling that if humans could make something so beautiful and moving, then we as a species are going to be ok. We will figure it out, whatever “it” threatens us.

We will figure it out because of the driving force of “what if?”

This question propelled mammals and ultimately humanity forward through millennia. What if we let the dense and bitter root soften in the fire before we eat it? It is the backbone of modern scientific and technological development. What if DNA is shaped like a double helix? Our most lucrative entertainment franchises are an exploration of the possible, the improbable, or the unbelievable. What if there were genetic mutations that gave a select number of people superhuman powers?

The modern mantra, especially in the US, is that you can become anything you want. Freedom means freedom to choose, choose your favorite fate or mate. Millions have died to secure opportunities of possibilities for future generations. Now that this ideological abstraction has become the reality for more and more people, humanity should be thriving, awash in actualized possibilities.

We are. But then why are modern people so anxious? It is estimated that approximately 1 in 5 people (in North America at least) experience severe anxiety symptoms and this proportion can double if you include those who have elevated but not clinically diagnosable levels of anxiety.

Soren Kierkegaard argued that anxiety is the engine of creativity. It is how we face the “yawning abyss” of freedom, the possibilities before us. But it is the engine of shame as well. Freedom begets choice, choice can result in success or failure, failure can fuel guilt or shame. Like many characteristics of the human experience, anxiety is neither good nor evil. It is a source of energy that can be harnessed, bottled, or left unfettered.

In the age of profit from diagnoses (and anxiety is one of the most profitable diagnoses out there) it is imperative to understand anxiety in all of its forms. There is anxiety the cognition, anxiety the emotion, anxiety the mood, and anxiety the pathology. This is why one of the core themes of this blog is Anxiety Runs the World.

For this blog theme, I will consider answers to many questions, including: What is anxiety? How is anxiety different from fear? How and why did anxiety evolve? Are there people who do not experience anxiety? How do you create an anxious kid? Are people more anxious today than they were in the past? How does play relate to anxiety? What is the difference between anxiety and stress? How has religion been the primary means for managing anxiety? How does anxiety relate to aggression? How does anxiety influence public policy, legislation, and politics? Could the 24/7 news machine survive without anxiety? Is there a downside to freedom of choice?