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Anxiety and the cross

We live in an age of chronic anxiety. Anxiety is not new, to be sure; it is as old as humanity itself. But it is safe to say that historically the level of anxiety we nurse in our lives is a product of the Industrial and Modern ages. During these two eras, humans in the Western world found themselves confronted with new industrial technology, new opportunities, new understandings of the world, new social arrangements, and, consequently, new forms of greed and corruption, new forms of warfare and destruction, and new choices never imagined in previous ages. Much resulted from this change, not least of which was an inherited spike in cultural and personal anxiety. We especially see this reflected in the poetry of W. B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot. Yeats famously wrote the following in 1919:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Likewise, Eliot just 5 years later wrote “The Hollow Men.” The last stanza ends with what is probably his most renowned line of poetry:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

But much did end with a bang, with nuclear bombs and proliferation — and the subsequent proliferation of anxiety. Evidence of this is reflected in W.H. Auden’s book-length poem of 1949, which captured the cultural moment by being entitled The Age of Anxiety. Only one year later in the field of psychology, Rollo May likewise wrote a book called The Meaning of Anxiety. And still to this day we are anxious about war, terrorism, pollution, market economics, relationships, the liberals, the conservatives, and more.

But what is anxiety?

One acute definition is provided by the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard in his 1844 treatise entitled The Concept of Anxiety:

Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down. Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs to dizziness. Further than this, psychology cannot and will not go. In that very moment everything is changed, and freedom, when it again rises, sees that it is guilty. Between these two moments lies the leap, which no science has explained and which no science can explain. He who becomes guilty in anxiety becomes as ambiguously guilty as it is possible to become.

Do we not find this to be true of our cultural situation?

Psychologist Barry Schwartz has argued that freedom of choice has led to more dissatisfaction and a spike in personal anxiety, the very kind of dizziness Kierkegaard referenced. One experiences this reality simply by trying to find a movie on Netflix or scrolling through 800 channels on a television or trying to choose from the seventeen options of medicine or treatments laid out by a physician or even in the selection of salad dressing from the 175 options at the grocery store (and there are many other examples we could give to demonstrate this, which Schwartz provides in his book The Paradox of Choice). Far from making us more free and happy, such freedom of choice creates anxiety on multiple levels, from the trivial level of not wanting to miss anything on our Facebook feed (and so we incessantly check it) to the more important issues of navigating options of medical care for a disorder or disease. Is there ever rest? Is there ever peace?

Could our problem in part reside in our conception of ourselves and in the way we conceive of freedom?

Bobbie Carlyle has sculpted the statue of the Self Made Man, the ideal icon of the present age (see above). It is also a myth. Notice the bulging muscles, the (literally) chiseled abs. The rock appears to be no match for this determined person. One wonders, however, if a more adequate interpretation would be of an anxious person trying to shed the weighty stone entrapping him, collapsing over and over again at the difficulty of the task at hand. And yet this sculpture embodies how many today conceive of their lives: a tiresome and uniquely individual pursuit of cutting away with the chisel of self-actualization and the hammer of sheer willpower. Is anxiety not the natural outcome of such a task?

A biblical turn of the wheel?

Holy Scripture provides for us a more life-giving image: we are clay in the potter’s hand (Jer. 18:6). God fashions us first and foremost, and he does this primarily through community. This is a sacramental anthropology not untethered from the ground of being that animates individuals, local parishes, or the Church. This conception posits that our identity is forged in love by the hammer of the Holy Spirit on the anvil of the cross, a cross where ultimately even anxiety itself has been put to death. And within this framework the body is not determined by the individual, but the individual is instead formed by the body of Christ into which he or she is mystically united through participation in the sacred mysteries. This truth releases us from the omnipresent pressure to chisel out our own salvation. This truth frees us from the dizzying abyss of a so-called freedom. This truth silences our whimpers into a proper “fear and trembling” before the God who says, “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words” (Jer. 18:2).

In other words, this truth releases us into hope.

This 2007 photo of  the ‘Self Made Man’ monument at the University of North Carolina  was taken by Steven Erdmanczyk Jr. It is licensed under Creative Commons.



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