Saturday, January 4, 2014

The age of anxiety

The poet W. H. Auden proclaimed the mid-20th century the age of anxiety, but every age, it seems, can lay claim to being so called--at least if we judge by the number of anxious people around.

In a revealing article in the new Atlantic, the magazine's editor, Scott Stossel, describes the extreme phobias he has experienced and the remedies, none of them effective. He seems to have tried everything. He takes Xanax along with vodka when he ask to speak or fly in a plane. Not too wise.

Like chronic fatigue syndrome, imagined by outsiders to be imaginary, severe, crippling anxiety is often little understood or acknowledged.  Having suffered from a milder form of anxiety than Stossel's most of my life, I can identify with his agony and frustration yet agree that many accomplished people, like him, have plunged into work, having successful careers in spite of intense fears and worries. I do not mean garden-variety worry and fear but the kind that leads to panic attacks.

It is comforting to know that Cicero, known for his oratory, panicked before his speeches and that stage fright has crippled Laurence Olivier, Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, Hugh Grant, and countless other performers; that Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Jefferson and Gandhi, Freud and Proust are among those who seem to have had some form of this emotional disorder, which is largely genetic but reinforced by habits of worry.

Yet the worriers of the world are often sought out by smart employers who know that anxious people will be excellent researchers or financial advisors because of their compulsive attention to detail. The person who imagines the worst is also highly imaginative and creative.  What is painful and often shaming can become a source of strength.  Kierkegaard went so far as to say, "The greater the anxiety, the greater the man."

Well, I doubt that. It is sad that all the medication and therapy in the world cannot really heal the anxiety of someone like Stossel. He doesn't mention the combination of exercise and meditation that has helped me. No doubt his work as a writer is a spiritual pursuit, as it is for me, but there is nothing about religion or spirituality in his catalog of remedies.

And it is sad that so little about this disorder, which affects one in six American adults, or 40 million people, is widely understood. This is a major health problem and leads many, like me, to prayer or to a form of Buddhist practice, which has a great calming effect.  There is no cure--the fears surface each day--but there are helpful remedies that enable us to cope and to live good lives despite all the things in the world that can alarm us.

As I thank Mr. Stossel for going public with his lifelong malady, I wish him peace in this new year. I pray that I, like all the restless, anxious souls out there, we will find in and through our fears and worries, vehicles that lead not to despair but to productive living in an age that is, inevitably, one of anxiety.

No comments: