"Beware, lest in your anxiety to avoid war you obtain a master." Demosthenes, 384–322 BCE.
In 1844 the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote “This is an adventure that every human being must go through – to learn to be anxious in order that he may not perish either by never having been in anxiety or by succumbing in anxiety. Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.” According to Kierkegaard, succumbing to anxiety is a problem, but so too is not having been anxious. This is a radically important insight: that anxiety is an essential ingredient for living a good life. Why that is so is the subject of this reflection.
The existential therapist Emmy van Deurzen wrote of Kierkegaard’s view on anxiety, “This is a remarkable insight, which is of great relevance to twenty-first century psychotherapy. Most forms of psychotherapy have the objective of relieving people of anxiety and reducing this experience to its lowest possible level. In fact, psychotherapy is often deemed necessary precisely because levels of anxiety are high in a person. Kierkegaard seems to suggest a rather different approach to mental health as he considers anxiety to be crucial to spiritual life and a sign that the struggle with human paradox is taken seriously. Anxiety indeed should be the starting point of therapy, not in order to alleviate it, but rather because anxiety must be considered the starting point of a well-lived life.” Such a way of viewing anxiety differs greatly from the dominant perspective in our culture, which is known as ‘the medical model.’ I am speaking of the perspective held by many psychiatrists and marketed by organisations like Beyond Blue. This model presents anxiety as a disorder, a mental illness which ought to be cured by psychological and pharmaceutical technology. This technical conception of anxiety makes tempting promises, however if we limit ourselves to it then we run the risk, in van Deurzen’s words, that “we will be simply insensitive to existence and unable to truly live.” For anxiety cannot be reduced to a disorder, like some physical illness with a peripheral relationship to our inner lives. Anxiety goes to the heart of our inner lives, how we deal with anxiety impacts directly on the quality of our soul, so to speak - on our inner life, our way of being, our lucidity and vision with respect to life, our character as a wise and courageous person. To understand why this is so we need to consider the nature of anxiety and why we experience it.
The essence of Kierkegaard's claim is that to live is to be anxious. For anxiety is the shuddering recognition, sometimes forced upon us, of what it means to be alive, of what it is to be human. To be human is to be mortal. To be human is to suffer. Of course to be human is also to love and be happy, life can be wonderful, but at other times, or with respect to other possibilities, life is hard, and sometimes it is terrible. This is the human condition. It is tempting to blind ourselves to this, like the ancient Greek hero Oedipus who put out his eyes when confronted with the terror of his situation. This image of Oedipus is an image of human kind. It is hard for us to look with open eyes at what terrible thing has happened. It is also hard to look at what might, or will, happen to us - our potential suffering, humiliation, loss and certainly death. As la Rochefoucauld said, “You cannot stare straight into the face of the sun, or death.” The more deeply we love life and each other, the deeper our capacity for suffering. As a matter of self-protective instinct we find ways of blinding ourselves to these harder truths of the human condition. We distract ourselves from the anxiety that registers these truths, and we lose ourselves in fantasies of control. This is why anxiety is so important. It constitutes a test which is a possibility to grow. You can blind yourself and retreat, or you can face your fears, wrestling and overcoming your anxiety, to become more wise and courageous. The nature of our character depends, among other things, on our response to our anxieties.
To put these matters another way, here are two universal truths:
Notice that there is an emotional and moral contradiction between these two statements, between the sometimes infinite value another has for us, such as in unconditional love for one's infant, and the fact that this child's existence is not infinite - that an infinitely precious being has a finite existence and can be the object of crimes that deny that infinite value. And it is the source of our deepest anxieties. The above two truths are universal, which is to say essential to the human condition, hence we call them existential truths. Hence they result in existential anxiety. Existential anxiety underlies much of the anxiety that people bring to therapy.
There are a range of elements of the human condition which feed existential anxiety, such as the element of chance in life, and the fact that action and time lead to ever increasing finitude, on a pathway toward our ultimate finitude in death. For example:
As the ancient Greek tragedians so wisely recognised, much about happiness is a matter of luck. So long as we are alive, we can lose that which gives our life meaning - our loved ones, our sanity, an able and pain-free body, political freedom, assets, our marriage, the respect of others, and so on.
Again, a client once described to me a disturbing dream. She was "invited to make some important choices", which "tricked" her into dying. At first we could not make sense of why these choices were presented in the dream as a trick. Further exploration revealed that when she makes choices in her waking life she often experiences anxiety, because choosing is an experience of excluding other possible choices. By choosing to exclude other possibilities, one's life becomes more fixed, more rigid. Rigamortis slowly sets in - because we equate life with possibility, the experience of choosing is, implicitly, of moving toward death. This client's dream expressed her anxieties about ageing and death and invited her, by roundabout means, to come to terms with what she had been avoiding: the big choices she needed to make, but avoided making because of her existential anxiety.
I quoted Demosthenes at the beginning of this reflection. We are often desperate to avoid the war, the anxiety-provoking recognition of our vulnerability. We do this through strategies such as distracting or numbing ourselves, or by becoming angry, or depressed, or by other means (here is a reflection on OCD as a response to existential vulnerability and its anxiety). By avoiding a war we gain many masters. But fortunately, as one therapist used to say, "You can run but you cannot hide". Life will repeatedly, painfully, 'invite' us to recognise our evasions and face our fears. Something fundamental in our nature always calls us to do better.
People typically come to therapy when their anxiety seems overwhelming. At such times they are at a cross-roads. They can choose to retreat from the challenges of life (and there are superficial professionals who will collude with such temptation) or they can choose to face their anxiety and grow.
Of course, nobody likes pain. The first thing I do with a client, after supporting them to deal with immediate crises and find a surer footing for the present moment, is help them distinguish between necessary and unnecessary anxiety. We create a lot of unnecessary anxiety for ourselves, and we can learn to distinguish and gradually do away with it. This I refer to as neurotic anxiety. Existential anxiety on the other hand is necessary; it comes with being human. We remove unnecessary or neurotic anxiety, and then get to work on how we might live well with necessary anxiety.
Your particular existential anxiety teaches you about your particular fears, which reveals your particular loves and values. It will teach you, if you will listen. It will teach you about your distinct way of being, about what really matters to you, about the reality of the human condition, about what really matters in life. Dealing with anxiety properly is the path to wisdom. Of course this requires courage, it demands that you find greater courage within you and draw it up, so in dealing with anxiety you become more courageous as a habit. You develop a character of courage. When I help somebody with their anxiety, I am looking beyond 'symptom reduction', beyond their acquisition of psychological techniques and skills, to the point where they face anxiety well, in some respects overcoming it, in others accepting it, though growth in wisdom and courage. Growth, that is, in wisdom and courage regarding anxiety, but ultimately growth in wisdom and courage about life. Existential wisdom - lived wisdom. Existential courage. I am helping them become a wiser, more courageous person. That is what this therapy is ultimately about.
My name is Matthew Bishop. I am a counsellor, with a background in philosophy. I have spent years exploring how philosophy enters into therapy, both theoretically and practically. One of my big influences is existential therapy. Although uploaded here recently, these are reflections written at different times over the last ten years.