28 September 2014

Anxiety and its Contents

She asked if I had anxiety?
I responded. “Of course I have anxiety. I grow anxious about the children’s well-being, and I am concerned about my work and about my health. I worry about the state of my children and the state of the world. I worry about climate change and I worry about my mother suffering from dementia. I worry about racism and the rise again of anti-Semitism in the world. And I worry about the children. I worry that the Republicans will in the elections gain control over the Congress, and I worry that my children will suffer as a result. Do I have anxiety? Of course I do!
Who doesn’t suffer from anxiety in this world. Of all the sane men I have met and considered, Henry David Thoreau has always seemed to me as one of the sanest. His Walden has served me for a long time as a guide for the perplexed by one who had found his way out of the confusion. He writes in the Conclusion: “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours,” and I have always identified that ‘he’ with Thoreau.  But I think now that this identification is misleading. There is a difference between Walden’s narrator and the mythological man it has spawned in the imagination. Though Thoreau’s time at Walden was a glorious experiment, it did not produce a man free of the world or from an anxiety that derives from living in it. I offer only three instances:
            In “Higher Laws” Thoreau writes: “If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he seems not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies.” Thoreau’s choice to describe his individuality as producing not what appears to be insanity but which is insanity suggests to me his acknowledgement of this state in himself. A man may indeed, not keep pace with his companions, but it might be a result of “even insanity” that would lead him thus. There is not a little hint of anxiety in Thoreau’s description.
            He writes also in “Higher Laws” that the world is enough to intoxicate the minds of men and women and that water suffices as the only necessary liquor. Unlike me, Thoreau eschews spoiling his morning with “a cup of warm coffee.” He rejoices that in the absence of coarse labors he does not require the consumption of coarse foods. But then he acknowledges, “But to tell the truth, I find myself at present somewhat less particular in these respects. I carry less religion to the table, ask no blessing; not because I am wiser than I was, but, I am obliged to confess, because, however much it is to be regretted, with years I have grown more coarse and indifferent.” I hear disquiet and even disappointment in these words. There is not acceptance in his tone but discontent that must surely have led to moments of failure and a resultant anxiety.
            Finally, in “Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors,” Thoreau describes Breed’s hut, which seems to have been set on fire by some mischievous boys one Election night. “I lived on the edge of the village then,” he says, and so he was not at Walden, “and had just lost myself over Davenant’s Gondibert, that winter that I labored with a lethargy . . .” What else but a form of anxious paralysis could Thoreau be experiencing? He attributes the state to hereditya family complaintor to his “attempt to read Chalmers’ collection of English poetry with skipping,” But I am certain that what he here admits to is the condition that has led to the ubiquity in our modern day society of psychotropic drugs to treat depression.
Do I have anxiety? Who doesn’t who lives in this world? But Thoreau teaches me that despite this human conditionwhich he certainly sharedwe are not condemned by it. In imagery I have elsewhere explored, Thoreau declares that he means to journey not in cabin passage, but rather “to go before the mast and on the deck of the world . . .”  It was just such a motive that led Ishmael to board the Pequod to cure him of his own hypos. It was just such an attitude that kept Bulkington at sea to keep from crashing upon the Lee Shore.

To be alive is to invite anxiety, and learning to live with iteven creativelyis living.         


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