At the heart of anxiety there are two conflicting things, two conflicting beliefs. One belief is that we absolutely have to be ‘in control’ in order to live well and the other is that we aren’t actually able to be in control in the way that we believe we have to be.
It can be seen therefore that both of these ingredients are necessary in order there to be anxiety – either one on its own would not be enough. Moreover, we can also say that out of these two conflicting beliefs, one is essentially true, and the other essentially false, and this is somewhat unexpected perhaps since we don’t generally like to say that there is any truth in anxiety! We prefer to see it as being without any basis in reality. We prefer to see it as being wholly ‘irrational’, as the phrase goes.
The ‘untrue belief’ is – obviously enough – that we have to be in control in order for life to be in any way OK for us, whilst the unshakeable suspicion that we have that we actually aren’t able to be in control in the way that we think we need to be is indeed founded upon a perfectly true (if unwanted) insight. It is 100% true that ‘being in control’ – when it comes right down to it – is not something that we can safely rely on!
‘Control’ is essentially an illusion, albeit a comforting one. In our day-to-day living there are lots of things that we can be in control of, and regularly are of control of (all of our deliberate actions are instances of control, after all) but this is – as a rule – only the case in the smaller aspects of life. We can and do exert control over lots and lots of trivial (or relatively trivial) issues in life – such as what brand of toothpaste to buy in the supermarket, or what T-shirt to put on in the morning, but with the big stuff (for example the question of whether we are still going to be alive in a week’s time) we have to admit that the notion of control is essentially meaningless.
With regard to something as basic as our own state of mind during the course of the next few minutes we would have to admit that we aren’t in control. Who – apart from some self-deluding ‘positive thinker’ perhaps – can claim to be in control of their own state of mind? Life itself is inherently ‘insecure’, in other words and wisdom – as Alan Watt says – lies in honestly relating to this inherent uncertainty rather than fooling ourselves that we are (or ought to be) in control’.
It is however very easy indeed to be lulled into the false security of thinking that we are in control or that we could be in control if we were clever enough or determined enough. To fall into this lazy way of thinking about things is the easiest thing in the world – unless you happen to be suffering from anxiety, that is! It is true that when anxiety sets in we tend to lose all our confidence in our ability to control the small things in life satisfactorily, and – in one sense – this perception of ours isn’t true because these are things we have been doing all our lives. It’s the big things that we can’t rely on more than the everyday small things. The reason for this skewed perception of ours is however undoubtedly because we have been working so hard to repress or deny any awareness of the inherent uncertainty relating to the big picture in life, with the result that this insecurity comes out in the realm of ‘small things’ instead. It gets ‘displaced’ to where it doesn’t rightfully belong…
This is always the way – if we deny something in one place then it simply pops up on another! If we deny or repress our insecurity with respect to the ‘Big Picture’ then it pops up in the ‘Small Picture’ which is made up of the details of our everyday lives. And the point here is that we do repress the awareness of our insecurity with respect to the Big Picture – it’s not just that we ‘repress our awareness of our insecurity in relation to the Big Picture’, we repress awareness of the Big Picture full stop. We simply don’t think about it, or if we do think about it then this is a very rare thing. If we allow ourselves to be aware of the Big Picture then that’s precisely when our insecurity strikes us, after all! Alan Watts says somewhere that a philosopher is a kind of a ‘professional village idiot’ whose job it is to gawp in wonder at the most commonplace things in life, the kind of things that the rest of us are much too sophisticated to take any notice of. It’s not just a philosopher’s job to be a professional village idiot and gawp at the world however – it’s all of our jobs really! We were born to be philosophers of this type and as children, this is what we were.
To put this very simply, if we aren’t gawping in wonder at this world of ours and there’s something amiss! Our basic situation isn’t something that we can afford to be blasé or sophisticated about – it really isn’t. What is our basic situation after all? We can’t actually explain what our basic situation is, we can’t even begin to articulate it – this business of ‘existing’ that we take so much for granted (and who doesn’t take it for granted?) is an unanswerable riddle and anyone who claims to know the answer to this riddle simply talking out of their hat! We have various formulaic answers or stock responses to the question of course but they are only there for the sake of stopping people from asking questions; they certainly are there for the sake of providing a meaningful answer! We might think that we know all the answers (as most adults do) and walk around with all of our child-like questioning ‘laid to rest’ but all we have done in this case is to delude ourselves. All we have done in this case is to delude ourselves in the way that practically every human being always does delude themselves. We have accepted a convenient so-called ‘answer’ for the sake of ‘shutting down the questioning process’.
That is one way of dealing with the problem of ‘the riddle of existence’. In conventional religion this is very often what happens – we tell ourselves that it is ‘God’s will’ (or that ‘God made it that way’) then we are able to put the mystery of existence to the back of our minds and become blasé about it. We never think to ourselves that perhaps it isn’t God’s will that we become complacent and dull in our attitude to life! Surely God has got nothing against us existing in a state of wonder, after all! It’s only us who have an aversion to that. In modern times we are inclined to use science for this purpose and imagine that science has ‘answered all the big questions’. ‘Science has replaced religion’, as they say. To think that science has got rid of the perplexing riddle of ‘why there was something instead of nothing’ is ridiculous though – science is about asking deep questions it is true, but it is not and never was about providing concrete answers to enable us to stop questioning, which is what we want to do! The most common way of dealing with the problem of life’s inherent and irreducible ‘mysteriousness’ is however simply too busy ourselves with the ‘everyday mundane tasks’ of our lives and never think beyond them. This is what almost all of us do – we ‘concern ourselves unceasingly with the trivial’! We completely forget to ask ‘deep questions’, in other words; we forget to be the natural philosophers that we are and as a result we become ‘somnambulists’, we become ‘sleepwalkers’ shuffling towards disaster.
There is absolutely no doubt that almost all of us go around being profoundly ‘incurious about the Big Picture’, so to speak. It is perhaps not sufficient merely to say this – we go around completely oblivious to it! As far as we are concerned there is no Big Picture, there is only what is in our heads at the time, and what is in our heads at the time is unfailingly trivial, is unfailingly superficial. We live in a superficial world, after all! Every day we are bombarded with superficial messages; on all sides we are constantly being invited to absorb ourselves in trivial concerns. That’s just the type of world we live in; that’s just the type of world we have created for ourselves. We live in the type of world that coerces us to be constantly preoccupied with trivialities and this emphasis on the small at the expense of the big’ is hardly going to help our mental health any! This obsession with the Small Picture is actually distorting the nature of what it means to be a human being. We’ve turned into shoppers and nothing else!
We run from the Big Picture of what it means to be in this world out of our fear, out of our existential insecurity, because deep down we know that there is no answer to this question. This is forever ‘left open’ – no one can ever tell us what life is all about (although plenty will try). One thing that we do know for sure however is that there is no such thing as ‘investing 100% in running away from what we fear’ without what we fear reappearing somewhere else in disguised form. Any psychotherapist can tell us that! For this reason therefore, we might expect to see ‘mental health issues’ arising when we close ourselves off from reality ‘as it actually is in itself’, and retreat into our private narcissistic bubbles as our superficial society encourages to. Of course we would expect to see problems arising in this case! When we sleep all the time then we will have bad dreams, when we sleep all the time then our sleep will be a disturbed one.
If we reflect on matters in this way then this will bring us face-to-face with another with riddle, and that is the question of why more of us aren’t suffering from anxiety, or from some other sort of neurotic disturbance. How do some of us ‘get away with it’, so to speak? How is it that some of us seem to be able to exist quite happily within the sterile confines of our ‘private reality bubbles’ and yet not be ‘disturbed in our sleep’? Even when this seems to be the case however, the strategy of ‘submersing ourselves in the trivial’ is not exactly the best plan we could ever come up with – being wholly consumed by things that don’t really matter to us (except insofar as they allow us to safely distract ourselves from ever seeing beyond them) is in itself a state of profound suffering! And if we do find that anxiety is knocking on our door, then what helps is not treating this as a manifestation of pathology (as society says it is), but seeing it as an invitation to open our doors and widen our experience of what it means to be in this world. In the end everything depends upon our attitude – it’s not ‘what we do’ or ‘how we think about things’ that matters but whether we trust (or are at all interested in) what we do not and cannot know, or whether we see it as a threat…