THR Blog   /   April 9, 2020

The School of Anxiety

Anxiety teaches nothing but possibility, but I, at least, am a finite being.

Matt Dinan

( Lonely man covers his fan in fear. (Via Wikimedia Commons.))

I got tenure in December. The seven years I spent off the tenure-track, I was anxious. Low level as it was, this simmering anxiety was nevertheless the structuring condition of all of my choices. My perception of the precariousness of my job became a blanket excuse for thoughtlessness and distraction, for ignoring the very family I was ostensibly working so hard to support. The truth is, I have been very well-treated. My positions were full-time, even if they lacked the stability of a tenure-track job. I loved my work, and I’ve had very real, very good friends looking out for me all along the way. But reality, limited and particular, is a poor competitor with the infinite character of anxiety, which scours all possibility for latent disaster. Søren Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author of The Concept of Anxiety, Vigilius Haufniensis, “The Watchman of Copenhagen,” says that nobody could torment or ensnare more effectively than anxiety, which “never lets go, not in diversion, not in noise, not at work, not by day, not by night.”

When I finally got tenure, my anxiety persisted. With Lent approaching it occurred to me that I might feel better if I gave up Twitter. After all, the firehose blast of terrible news I saw every time I went online (which was often) had to be making me anxious. But climate change and Donald Trump, small irritations and inside jokes, things to read and people to meet, were doing more than I realized to anchor me to actuality. The Thursday after Ash Wednesday, I was more anxious than ever. Twitter, it became clear, was actually a way for me to manage my anxiety. My attempt to attribute my anxiety to a specific cause was definitionally mistaken.

Deprived of my go-to way of evading it, I have been trying something novel: just letting myself feel anxious. It’s working in the sense that I really am feeling it—down into my bones. It has been an unpleasant, but not unedifying, discipline. Lent this year has been my chance to stop running from myself. I am not anxious about anything, but because of everything, and, as strange as it sounds, this has been a liberating realization. I’ve learned that I can neither will myself away nor make myself into someone else. Anxiety teaches nothing but possibility, but I, at least, am a finite being. In a certain light, anxiety even lends helpful perspective, routing my petty concerns and sanding down my ego.

This is the surprising conclusion of Soren Kierkegaard’s anxiety book—allowing oneself to be “formed by possibility,” brings an “inner certainty” that “anticipates infinity,” a prelude to faith. As Vigilius puts it: “When the individual, through anxiety, is formed to faith, anxiety will then eradicate what it itself produces.” One way past anxiety, it seems, is through it.

Vigilius says something else, too, which I read minutes before my university announced our classes would be moved online for the rest of the semester to attempt to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. For the hypochondriac, he suggests, the actual illness can never be so bad as the imagination of the thing; how much more then, does the school of anxiety prepare us to manage anything the real world can throw our way? We certainly now have a unique opportunity to test Vigilius’s thesis.

But this virus, undetectable to lay people, producing different symptoms in different segments of the population, and spreading exponentially, rightly makes us, all of us, very anxious. Is this feeling truly anxiety, however? Isn’t it a very specific, very rational fear? Of course. But a large part of what we fear is not so much the virus itself but the possibilities it opens up: We do not know how long we’ll be quarantined, nor what the virus will do to us if we are infected. Nor do we know what will become of the economy or our ability to live together for some indefinite period of time. We don’t know if the warmer weather will improve things, when a vaccine will be coming, of even if one can be made. It is unclear whether the organization of our lives will stay as it is or will undergo some fundamental shift. The future is not ultimately subject to our control, and any attempt to chart a clear course dissolves in the infinity of possibilities. This virus is uniquely anxiety-producing in its recalcitrance to prediction and mastery. To make matters worse, the only meaningful action most of us can take—physical distancing—leaves lots of time to sit around, feeling anxious. A quarantine, like Lent, is a good time to face yourself.

Aside from the possibilities this plague opens, it has struck a nerve because it makes us feel precarious. “Pandemic” means “all the demos, all people”: including we rich, safe, North Americans, who usually have the luxury of forgetting about the precarious ones. Our immediate reaction to this virus dramatically shows how, in the face of precariousness, we grasp at comfort—we deny and prevaricate, we hoard and stockpile, we close ranks, we distract ourselves. For Christians, our Lenten quarantine is a chance to embrace the anxiety of poverty and precarity. Dorothy Day, who spent her life fighting destitution in others while attempting to live in poverty herself, says that “daily, hourly, to give up our own impulses and wishes to others—these are hard, hard things; and I don’t think they ever get any easier.” For Day, even when you are voluntarily impoverished, “you still reach out like an octopus to seek your own comfort, your untroubled time, your ease, your refreshment. It may mean books or music, or it may mean food and drink, coffee and cigarettes. The one kind of giving up is no easier than the other.”

Day sketches the varied faces of poverty and precariousness, finding it not only in the slums, but in “outwardly decent economic circumstances [that] are forever on the fearful brink of disaster.” Writing seventy years ago, for instance, she highlights how an “accumulation of doctor and hospital bills” “may mean a sudden plunge into destitution.” Service industry workers, healthcare workers, and small business owners will be exposed to the cruelties of sickness and poverty. Even those relatively well-off who played by the rules and saved for retirement will be hit hard, while big corporations, flush with bailout money, will profit and reinvest while the markets are down. Business as usual. Politically speaking, there’s little “we” can do, because in an almost uncanny irony the virus makes embodied solidarity untenable. Even if the rougher edges of this crisis might be smoothed under socialism, the precariousness revealed by the virus is nothing but the fragility of human life, which politics, however humane, cannot solve. And yet, the way this virus exposes us to possibility might help us imagine something better. Any future that excludes the good is a poor possibility. Quarantine is a type of voluntary impoverishment, there’s no doubt about that. We’re giving up on air and light and time and space, and the enclosing presence of others. But our isolation and desolation are not meaningless; they make space for repentance and open us to love.