Written by Michael Lucana
This is an exploration of anxiety from an Existentialist viewpoint. This particular subject is close to my heart and so I drew much from own personal trials and tribulations. Everybody has their own battles with anxiety that they contend with and this essay is meant in no way to minimize or negate those experiences. I freely borrowed, reinterpreted, and repurposed many ideas from Soren Kierkegaard’s “The Concept of Anxiety” translated by Alastair Hannay.
I’ve always had a hard time wrapping my mind around the concept of anxiety. And I don’t say this as someone who has had no direct experience with it. In fact, I say this as someone who would describe themselves as a highly anxious person. But, if I had to describe what anxiety feels like, I would describe it as, being constantly afraid, or perpetually worried. But worried about what? Well, everything really.
If I could list every type of thing that has ever given me anxiety, I don’t think I would have enough words. Anxiety has followed me in all my ups and downs, it has been a constant companion, speaking in many different voices, about many different topics. But I have found one pervasive feature whenever I’ve tried to catalogue my anxieties, one constant that all these anxieties seem to share. They always take me out of the present, they always keep me from being able to enjoy this moment, the here and now. I mean, if I’m too busy being anxious about possibly being fired for some typos in an email I’ve written, or I’m suddenly panicking about the way I woefully wronged someone decades ago, then you can be sure it’s getting in the way of my enjoying painting time with my daughters.
And in this way, I have always viewed my anxiety as something that keeps me from the present, keeps me from being here in the moment, in a real way, in a way that matters. Furthermore, because I’m not able to be in the present, I have no way of moving forward, of improving my situation. I’m stuck. I’m hopeless. So what have I done to try to fix this? Pretty much what everybody else does I’m sure.
Causal Approaches to Anxiety
In many ways, we tend to approach anxiety in causal terms. We are not so much concerned with investigating the anxiety by itself, i.e. what it means to be anxious, as we are normally concerned with placing the blame on some aspect of ourselves, and then getting to work on mitigating the effect that anxiety has on us.
For example, if we assign the blame for anxiety on some neurochemical factor, we may seek medication to help dilute that pervading unease that follows us everywhere we go. In a similar but probably more self-destructive way, I’ve tried to medicate myself in the past with drugs and alcohol in order to reduce that constant rumbling of disquiet in my mind, in order to be able to stop and just enjoy things as they are. It’s never worked out for me though, because as soon as I’ve sobered up the next day, that anxiety has always returned stronger than ever, almost mocking, as if to say, “You can’t get rid of me that easily.”
At other times, I’ve considered that maybe I just need to discipline my mind better in order to deal with anxiety. I remember a few years ago having to interview for a prospective job over the phone because it was out of state. Not only had I not interviewed for a job in years, but I was in a financially precarious position at the time, and was placing my cards on landing this particular job because I needed to ensure that I had work lined up for me as soon as I arrived. Prior to the call, I was imagining so many ways that I could mess up the interview, by saying the wrong thing, forgetting key facts that showed what a strong candidate I was, and so on and so on. In that moment, I conducted a few mental exercises to help refocus my mind to the task at hand and was able to land the job.
Good job. Case closed on anxiety right? Except it really wasn’t, because even though I was able to deal with my anxiety in that particular instance, that didn’t stop it from ever recurring again, from finding some new and inventive thing to worry about, to fret over. I guess what it really comes down to, no matter what I’ve done, this predisposition towards anxiety has never really disappeared.
There is nothing inherently wrong with these causal approaches to anxiety by the way. Anxiety is not a pleasant feeling. And in many extreme cases, it can be debilitating and even dangerous to one’s own health. Of course, we don’t want to feel anything unpleasant so it would make sense to attack the problem by going straight to what we believe is it’s source. Thus, we medicate that anxiety out of us, or we discipline ourselves through mental exercises or meditation to keep anxiety at bay.
However, through my own experience I’ve found that this causal approach to anxiety is only half the picture. I’m lucky that in my life I have had some rare instances in which the anxieties that I normally experience have cleared, if even for a few minutes here and there. Those have been wonderful moments, but even when I’ve been in them, I’ve taken notice of this underlying expectation, this wariness that is always fearfully looking outward towards what lies beyond the immediate moment of calmness and tranquility. And when I’ve noticed this, I’ve realized that anxiety is still with me, waiting for it’s big moment to really let loose.
For the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), anxiety is an existential category, that is, it is a fundamental part of the human experience. Thus, it is something that we can never truly get rid of. In his classic work, “The Concept of Anxiety,” he attempts to work out what the meaning of anxiety, viewed existentially, is.
To begin with, Kierkegaard points out that, while anxiety initially seems like it is a worry or apprehensiveness associated with fear, it “differs altogether from fear and similar concepts that refer to something.” (51) I think many of us conceive of anxiety only in this way as well. It has to have an object, some threat that it can point to and say, “this is the object of my worry.”
But that doesn’t seem quite right on closer inspection does it? As even I’ve admitted, the list of things that have given me anxiety, that have caused me worry, is so extensive, that even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t be able to catalogue them all. Because really, if my anxiety is merely reducible to a fear of something, and everything is the object of that fear, then I’m not necessarily afraid of any object per se. Really, my anxiety has nothing as it’s object.
So, nothing begets anxiety. Anxiety as an apprehensiveness merely is, and it always has been since, well, since we were born. Surprisingly, even children have anxiety according to Kierkegaard, but as he puts it, it manifests differently for them, it doesn’t quite have the same negative characteristic that we assign to it as adults:
“When we observe children, we find the anxiety more definitely intimated as a seeking after the adventurous, the prodigious, and the mysterious.” (51)
When I get home at night sometimes, and my daughters are still awake, they almost will always ask to play hide and seek. But they are very particular about how they play it. First, all the lights in the house have to be off. Second, I have to be the one that hides. Third, they get to have a flashlight while they search for me. I go off and find a nice hiding spot (of which I have mapped out many at this point) and listen to them countdown from their bedroom and then start their search in a big dark house, with only a flashlight to light their way.
Honestly, this doesn’t feel like hide and seek. This feels like a horror movie, I’m the monster, and they’re the scared protagonist trying to survive. I can always hear them gasping and whimpering at every creak of the floorboard as they try to find me, and when they do, I usually jump up and growl at them. They scream and then begin to laugh just as quickly. In this sense, they embody exactly what Kierkegaard is pointing out about anxiety in children. To children that general fear of the unknown is a game, an adventure, something to be sought out.
So, for Kierkegaard, on a more fundamental level, anxiety is like a sort of expectant restlessness ingrained into the human condition from birth. Even children seem to have it, but for them (and I think even young adults), it doesn’t necessarily manifest itself as worry, but rather as wanting to move outward, to search out the possibilities that are out there beckoning. So where does it go wrong? Where does it all start to sour? When does anxiety take on a more sinister tone?
THE DIZZINESS OF FREEDOM
I went traveling down to Big Sur in California recently. There’s something about the wild harsh atmosphere of the coastline there that just speaks to something primordial in my bones. It’s hard to explain. But an interesting feature about Big Sur, well, interesting to me, is that there are very few real beaches there. Most of the time, the Pacific Ocean is crashing directly onto a rocky cliffside that is kind of crumbling away as you’re standing on it. On these occasions when I’m standing out there on some windy edge, admiring the dark gorgeous waves, I’ll sometimes have this moment where I look directly down at my feet and realize that if I wanted to, I could easily jump off.
This is a strange dizzying moment for me. I’m usually overcome by images of myself falling down, maybe hitting a few rocks on the way, and then impacting on the waters below, finally being swallowed up, engulfed really, by the roaring deep. I feeling of lightness always sets in around my ribcage at this time, a recognition of exactly how easy it would be to do the deed, and then just as quickly, I start to feel faint, shudder, and take a few steps back to steady myself.
This is actually a common experience that many people have had and Kierkegaard uses it as a metaphorical means to more accurately illustrate what existential anxiety, in it’s negative aspect, consists of. He says:
“Anxiety can be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy.” (75)
As Kierkegaard has pointed out, even children have a form of proto-anxiety, an apprehensiveness of that yawning abyss of possibilities that stretches out in front of every single one of us. But children, for Kierkegaard, are also innocent, they are “dreaming spirit,” (59) that is, they are not quite aware of themselves or the dangers that may be present in those possibilities. Leaping into the unknown could turn out good, or it could turn out bad, how would they know the difference? They don’t get dizzy, don’t feel unease at it. That is why they normally treat danger like a game, or a novelty, until they learn through experience, or are taught what they should fear and then begin to internalize it.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing by the way. On a practical level, children need to learn that many times, it’s better to not jump off every metaphorical cliffside that you’re on. However, sometimes we take it too far don’t we? Sometimes, without even being aware of it, we make a decision, as if in a haze, to never take the plunge in any circumstance, no matter how great or small. We start to always back away from possibilities, from the possibility of danger, of being hurt, of being let down, of letting others down, of letting ourselves down. This excitement and levity by which we understand that we have a choice in childhood turns into a dizziness as we get older, as we lose our innocence.
“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom […]and freedom now looks down into its own possibility and then grabs hold of finiteness to support itself. In this dizziness freedom subsides.” (75)
It is in this subsiding of freedom, of closing the door on possibilities that we do damage to ourselves, according to Kierkegaard. This doesn’t mean that I should have jumped off that cliff by the way. That was just a metaphor. But there are moments in my life that I look back on now, some minor, some course-altering, when I should have taken the chance and not held myself back, not chosen finitude over possibility.
Sometimes we think that to choose finitude, to choose the safe way, is always supposed to refer to staying in a marriage, or staying in your hometown, or working the same job for half of your life. And to be free and throw yourself into possibilities is to do the opposite of those things. Trust me, you can still be choosing finitude when you break off a relationship because you’d rather avoid the painful process of really working on building something strong and long-lasting. Sometimes the choice to really put some work into something like that is a lot more frightening than merely running off.
The point of the matter is that, the particular choices we are making are not necessarily important in deciding whether or not we have “done it right,” acted with freedom. No, the point is that by refusing to even think to take the metaphorical leap into the unknown, by not even stopping to consider it as an option, we fail to live up to who we are, who we truly are, we fail to be truly free. And in failing to be truly free we don’t even get rid of that anxiety, if anything, it becomes twisted up, becomes a bogeyman.
Why? Because it becomes associated with with that failure to embrace possibility, hell, to embrace even the possibility of possibility. That lightness and strange excitement thus turns into something dreadful, something nauseating, something that we can’t sit in the same room with.
TAKING THE LEAP
So existential anxiety is something that we carry with us all of our lives. For Kierkegaard, at the beginning of our lives, it is essentially not a negative quality either, rather it is a restless sensitivity, or an awareness of our inborn freedom. But under the confusion of dizziness, in always choosing the safe route, the route of finitude, we actually kind of pervert anxiety’s intended use, and do ourselves more harm than good in the long run. While I have explained that some forms of extreme anxiety can be harmful to our health and do need to be treated as real disorders and dealt with as such, existential anxiety cannot be treated in the same manner.
So how does Kierkegaard resolve this underlying dilemma? What does he think we can do to get rid of the pain that is brought on by existential anxiety? To begin with, Kierkegaard points out two moments within anxiety itself.
First, the moment in which we recognize the existence of unlimited possibility, of both the good, and the bad that can occur. Second, there is the moment in which we grasp onto finitude, when we pull away from those possibilities and choose the safe route. In between these two moments, Kierkegaard thinks, there is a solution of sorts.
“Between these two moments lies the leap, which no science has explained, and which no science can explain.” (75)
What is this leap? In the most simple terms, it is, a leap into faith, into embracing the possibility of both the good and the bad, of things turning out one way or turning out another way. It is to recapture, in a very qualified way, that innocence you had as a child when you not only dwelt in anxiety, but despite this, were able to leap into the unknown.
Kierkegaard has a very sophisticated and sometimes frustratingly obscure conception of faith, even I will admit that. Not only that, although much of the way that I interpret Kierkegaard is through secular lens, there is no denying that his philosophy is unashamedly Christian. But that doesn’t mean that faith has to merely be restricted to faith in God, or faith in Christianity. I think we can still construct a preliminary conception of faith that will allow us, for now, to make that leap that Kierkegaard thinks is necessary to get a handle on existential anxiety. And if anyone disagrees that’s totally fine as well.
To begin with, Kierkegaard reminds us, “in possibility all things are equally possible and anyone truly brought up by possibility has grasped the terrifying just as well as the smiling. (189) What does this mean? Well, it means that we must be able to embrace this freedom that is at the core of our nature, and we are able to embrace it correctly, not with fear or terror, but with acceptance that it could go either way. In short, we must be able to live with possibility in all its ups or down and, by virtue of this, we must be prepared to always struggle with that feeling which cohabitates with it, with anxiety.
That is why Kierkegaard also says that, “that individual must be honest toward possibility and have faith,” or what he calls an “inner certainty,” (190). This inner certainty, this faith in yourself and your decisions, or, if you prefer, in God’s decisions for you, is key in helping you get through that storm of dizziness when you’re at the the door of the possibility of possibilities.
You might think that to choose finitude is a good enough choice, but that’s because you’ve gotten confused by years of looking at anxiety in the wrong way. Remember, that awful feeling, that dizziness, that worried concern, it actually used to be an exhilaration, a life-affirming lightness in your heart at all the ways, both good and bad, that things could turn out. You’re not ignorant anymore, you know that taking the leap could lead to heartbreak or disappointment, but it could equally lead to the opposite.
I think this inner certainty that Kierkegaard goes on about at some length, this faith, is commonly mistaken for “a certainty that everything will turn out fine.” It might, it might not. The point is, with a correct understanding of what anxiety is, and with the fortitude provided by faith, one retakes their freedom, one gets to choose.
LIVING WITH ANXIETY
So the real question is, does taking the leap in all situations cure one of existential anxiety? Does this resolve the persistent nagging feeling? The one that underlies all these other forms of anxiety? No actually, and would you want it to? It’s hard to imagine this, even during the coldest midnight hours (oh I’ve been there). But it’s actually a beautiful thing to have this feeling of existential anxiety, it is a sign that you are free in a very real sense, free to make the choices that truly matter, and not only that, in a way it is a sign you give a damn about this life you live and the people you get to live it with. Because honestly, if you didn’t give a damn, then you wouldn’t be this bothered by anything that has happened, is happening, or will someday happen. This is the weird gift of anxiety.
But it is a responsibility as well. If you ignore your anxiety, if you only steer yourself towards finitude, towards a lack of real faith (whether faith in yourself or God, you choose), then you trap yourself, you give up hope in a variety of ways.
Concerning this responsibility which manifests as existential anxiety, Kierkegaard says:
“…it is an adventure that every human being has to live through, learning to be anxious so as not to be ruined […] Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.” (187)
What does this mean? To be anxious in the right way? Is existential anxiety actually something that can be steered, that can be controlled? In one sense, no it can’t be, as we’ve seen again and again in the examples provided, anxiety merely is. It is self-generating ex nihilo.
But in another sense, it is also something that is in our power to manage. Kierkegaard gives us this piece of advice when, in the quiet of repose we begin to notice the unease begin to make it’s presence felt again, when it begins to whisper to us how things can always go wrong, or it begins to shows us with force that no, we haven’t quite go it right, that there’s still work to be done.
“…when it announces itself, when it […] makes it look as though it has invented an altogether new instrument of torture, far more terrible than anything before, [do not] draw back, [do not try to] ward it off with noise and confusion, [bid] it welcome, greet it solemnly, and like Socrates who raised the poisoned cup, [say] as a patient would say to the surgeon, when the painful operation is about to begin: Now I am ready. Then anxiety enters into [your] soul and search[es] out everything, and frightens the finite and petty out…” (192)
For my part, I know that the next time I sit down with my daughters to draw or paint there will come this moment when we have settled into a nice quiet flow. I’m certain that I’ll look up and become aware of it too, and of the transience of life, and of the many possible ways that things could go after this moment, good or bad. I’ll start to worry if my daughters will grow up kind and compassionate, if I’m providing them with enough to help them on their way, or in what ways the world might disappoint them, or in what ways I might disappoint them knowingly or unknowingly. And the list goes on and on. And anxiety will surely be sitting on the periphery, as a reminder that the only reason I really worry about getting any of it right is because this is actually something worth fighting for.
If the topic of this discussion seems like something you would like to investigate further on your own, please feel free to contact me in order to schedule a Philosophical Counseling session. All Philosophical Counseling sessions are conducted via Zoom and single-person. If you are located in the San Francisco Bay Area and are interested in conducting an in-person session, please get in touch with me via e-mail. For any other inquiries contact me via e-mail as well.