"Beware, lest in your anxiety to avoid war, you obtain a master."
-Demosthenes, 2500 years ago.
Life is dangerous. And trying to live in a richer, fuller way, whether it be through achievement, love, or simply drenching oneself in experience, makes life even more dangerous. To be alive, to exist as a human being, provokes anxiety. Hence the phrase existential anxiety. Psychological techniques cannot solve this kind of anxiety. That's quite simply because life is not a problem to be solved. It is a challenge to be faced. It seems there are only two directions when it comes to existential anxiety: either we move forward and grow, or we retreat and shrink.
There are forms of anxiety that can be cured, in some way. Therapists often refer to this with the technical term "neurotic anxiety." If your anxiety is largely chemically based, you can deal with it through the food and chemicals you take into your body. If your anxiety is largely context-based - say, you are being bullied at work - then you can find a way to change the context or to leave it. If your anxiety is based on a specific trauma, you can engage in psychological therapy to reduce or even eliminate it. These cures work because these such anxiety is not essential to living - only some people suffer these types. Existential anxiety is different: everybody suffers it. Of course, it will manifest differently in each person. And to complicate matters, it is often mixed in with other anxiety: for example being bullied at work arouses anxiety about your security here and now, but also touches on deeper, existential anxieties about the insecurity of life.
I once saw a client who came for counselling because her life was stuck. One week she described a dream: “I was invited to make some important choices, which tricked me. I realised that I was being tricked into a dangerous situation.” She said that was the right description - it felt right - yet she was puzzled by what it meant. There was something important in it, she felt, because it had left her disturbed and anxious all week. So we explored what it might be telling her. She said, "Often when I make choices I feel anxiety." I encouraged her to sit with that feeling and see what was connected to it. As we dug deeper she realised that "When I make choices I feel like I'm becoming defined and limited." I responded that some people feel relieved by that, and pushed her to look further into the connection between her experience of limitation and her anxiety. She paused again, searching, and said: "I feel trapped when I make a choice. Like maybe I'm choosing the wrong thing, and will be trapped in regret." As we went further she started to express deep and secret fears about a future where she was lonely and destitute. And also a day when she would die alone. The conclusion of this session was the real starting point for growth and change in her life through our work. She recognised that she was deeply anxious about the risks of living, the risks of choosing and creating her life. "Beware, lest in your anxiety to avoid war, you obtain a master." She was avoiding the war - the challenge of her life - and so she had become a slave, stuck and unhappy. It was as if, unconsciously, when she first came to me she was hoping for some technique or easy insight that would make her unstuck, while she continued to avoid real challenge. While she continued being passive, not active, with the real challenge of her life. Paradoxically, if she had continued on this path of avoiudance, then her worst fears may have come true, for she was setting herself up for the situation she feared by failing to do what most needed doing in her life. The other paradox for this client was that her avoidance of her anxiety made her anxiety worse.
When you avoid existential anxiety - the anxiety that comes with being alive - then it grows stronger, while you become smaller and weaker.
But when you face your fundamental fears then the opposite happens: its diminishes while you grow. This applies both to the fear itself and to the actual thing you're afraid of.
Let's put all of this in positive terms. There is anxiety that is curable through medical or psychological means. And there is anxiety that comes simply from living. This we call existential anxiety. It is the feeling of your human vulnerability. It is the fear that comes when people are brave enough to really live, to love, to hope, to venture into the deep waters of life. You can't avoid this fear, but you can choose how you react. You can react with cowardice, which is different to fear - it is a reaction. Or you can react with courage, which is a different reaction to fear. The fear remains in either case. In the second case the fear diminishes because you become bigger than it - braver, more competent - while of course it never goes away because fear is what vulnerable human beings feel when they care about something.
The only way forward is through. There is no around. A momentary increase in fear is the price you pay for overcoming it. Life operates according to a strict logic on this point, rewarding those who are brave, and punishing those who are cowardly. You have a choice in this.