On Anxiety

Down the highway she drove, accompanied by leather seats, a space-age dashboard, all the space climate control could afford. It was like she was completely insulated from the environment: the grime of the road, the noise of traffic, the personalities of other drivers. Yet she clutched the steering wheel tense, trembling, fearing something. I sat next to her, and I could only think that every atom in her was searching, failing to find solace, and therefore screaming.

There are a few who complain about their anxiety and stress no matter what’s happening. I don’t want to spend words on them, not because they lack real problems, for many do suffer regardless of how much they do or don’t complain. I’d rather focus on how anxiety crushes one from the inside out, not allowing itself to be spoken. I remember another who wouldn’t leave the house in a Canadian rural town. Occasionally there were landscape photographs of a rugged beauty, but then they stopped. Life narrowed for her to a computer screen; her phone became silent. Showering regularly became an achievement, and being out in public was so stressful that it induced crying. You would think someone like this socially awkward, wanting to avoid people in general. On the contrary: she had been a fantastic public speaker, did cosplay, taught all ages, acted. Once, she did all the things for public performance which would make you think she was fearless.

So I’m puzzled. I see people embracing life wholeheartedly in one way, and scared to death of it in another. Anxiety almost seems to messily cleave life into two terrible, overlapping halves. There’s the part where you can function, more or less, and it is an open question whether shaking at the steering wheel counts as functioning. It is also an open question whether only functioning at moments where one has to step up constitutes functioning. And then there’s the part where you close down, or life is utterly miserable, and so even if you’re out in the world it feels like it would have been better if you stayed home.

On that last point, I think of someone from one of the most cosmopolitan, culturally rich cities who was more than a victim to himself. Over cups of coffee, surrounded by artists, students, and young people, it wasn’t immediately evident that his anxiety made him a ball of rage. But here and there he lashed out, saying the most awful things to and about others, things so vicious you wondered if he stayed up late at night thinking how to get others to kill themselves. Over a series of conversations, a portrait emerged: he was anxious about work, the lack of respect he got, the inability to get friends and lovers. However, you would never hear him complain directly about those things. He would deflect: everyone else is stupid, everyone else wastes life, here are all the amazing things he’s done today which he wants you to hear about but are actually good in themselves and do not need to be told to anyone. It was like he built layer upon layer over a foundation of anger, and the highest layers could almost pass for disinterested. Almost.

What does not allow itself to be spoken informs every word spoken. I wonder about a certain teaching regarding sin, where if you hold murderous hate in your heart, or lust after another’s wife, you have already killed and committed adultery. Maybe someone would use this to blame another for the ugliness within that they’re fighting. I wouldn’t be so quick to cast blame, though. The most hateful example of lashing out at everyone may simply voice the pain of the other two examples. There are times when hate isn’t really hate, when a confused fear reigns supreme in the individual. All the same, all three examples beg for remedy. Anxiety can bring forth empathy, but it can never on its own justify anything. To allow it the final say is to destroy the very concept of life in the process of destroying your own.

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