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?