Scott Stossel’s High Anxiety
Here’s a long, worthwhile piece by the Atlantic‘s Scott Stossel, who writes of his crippling anxiety — seriously, I’ve never heard of anybody with such extreme anxiety — and the role anxiety plays in contemporary America. Excerpts:
Is pathological anxiety a medical illness, as Hippocrates and Aristotle and many modern psychopharmacologists would have it? Or is it a philosophical problem, as Plato and Spinoza and the cognitive-behavioral therapists would have it? Is it a psychological problem, a product of childhood trauma and sexual inhibition, as Freud and his acolytes once had it? Or is it a spiritual condition, as Søren Kierkegaard and his existentialist descendants claimed? Or, finally, is it—as W. H. Auden and David Riesman and Erich Fromm and Albert Camus and scores of modern commentators have declared—a cultural condition, a function of the times we live in and the structure of our society?
The truth is that anxiety is at once a function of biology and philosophy, body and mind, instinct and reason, personality and culture. Even as anxiety is experienced at a spiritual and psychological level, it is scientifically measurable at the molecular level and the physiological level. It is produced by nature and it is produced by nurture. It’s a psychological phenomenon and a sociological phenomenon. In computer terms, it’s both a hardware problem (I’m wired badly) and a software problem (I run faulty logic programs that make me think anxious thoughts). The origins of a temperament are many-faceted; emotional dispositions that seem to have a simple, single source—a bad gene, say, or a childhood trauma—may not. After all, who’s to say that Spinoza’s vaunted equanimity, though ostensibly a result of his philosophy of applying logical reasoning to irrational fear, wasn’t in fact a product of his biology? Mightn’t a genetically programmed low level of autonomic arousal have produced his serene philosophy, rather than the other way around?
Hmm. My late sister was so temperamentally steady; nothing rattled her. I’m the opposite, by far. She took after my dad in that way, and I take after our mom. I envied her that steadiness, that unflappability. But this part of Stossel’s piece makes me reconsider:
My anxiety can be intolerable. But it is also, maybe, a gift—or at least the other side of a coin I ought to think twice about before trading in. As often as anxiety has held me back—prevented me from traveling, or from seizing opportunities or taking certain risks—it has also unquestionably spurred me forward. “If a man were a beast or an angel, he would not be able to be in anxiety,” Søren Kierkegaard wrote in 1844. “Since he is a synthesis, he can be in anxiety, and the greater the anxiety, the greater the man.” I don’t know about that. But I do know that some of the things for which I am most thankful—the opportunity to help lead a respected magazine; a place, however peripheral, in shaping public debate; a peripatetic and curious sensibility; and whatever quotients of emotional intelligence and good judgment I possess—not only coexist with my condition but are in some meaningful way the product of it.
See, if all my anxiety were removed, my own “peripatetic and curious sensibility” would evaporate. Ruthie was the opposite of peripatetic, and for the most part the opposite of curious. I don’t mean that as a put-down; she had great strengths that derived from her phlegmatic temperament, strengths I explored in Little Way. But this was the source of her weaknesses too. Similarly, my own strengths and weaknesses derive largely from the anxiety that drives my character. I’m grateful that the worst of it can be managed with drugs and meditative prayer, but Stossel’s piece made me realize that if I could ever reach that serene state I long for, I would no longer be myself — and not necessarily will have become a better self.
The trick is to figure out how to channel that anxious energy into something productive, to avoid the fate of the failed oyster, who suffers from irritation, with no resulting pearl.