“Shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous. If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments.” —H. D. Thoreau
I’m a worrier, and worry about everything—whether I will find time before class to grade quizzes I should have handed back yesterday, whether my current fatigue is a thyroid problem, brain cancer, or a systemic failure of all my major organs.
And knowing my worries are groundless doesn’t stymie them. They are the tide. Sometimes they appear as ripples on an otherwise still surface, and sometimes they loom like scary breakers. Yet, though they wax and wane, they accompany me always.
Oddly, safety makes me subject to anxiety, the appropriate term for my state. Because I don’t have to worry about being eaten by larger and/or craftier predators and don’t seriously fret about food and shelter, my anxiety never rises to the standard of fear, anxiety’s beefier cousin.
“It could be worse,” people tell me, and that statement is invariably true. I’m good at imagining much greater catastrophes and more dire developments.
In a 1968 essay entitled “One Vote for this Age of Anxiety,” Margaret Mead recognized how her own anxious age arose from advances in technology and equity. “Anxiety is the appropriate emotion” she said, “when the immediate personal terror—of a volcano, an arrow, a stab in the back, and other calamities all directed against one’s self—disappears.” As her title suggests, Mead saw anxiety as progress, for “We have created a nation in which anxiety” for all but the hungry and homeless, “has replaced terror and despair.”
Her comments sound naïve now, not because they’re illogical, but because modern anxiety can’t be diminished so easily. As silly as it might be, anxiety is sufficient motivation for all sorts of bad behavior from jealousy to sabotage, from selfishness to theft, from resentment to murder. Mead was right to reject the notion of a paradisiacal savage sitting in a lean-to waiting for the sweet potatoes to ripen or for today’s dinner to wander into traps. That savage might not survive the day. But our standards for good fortune have changed. Our collective memory fades, and we forget how difficult things once were or might be. We begin to see life as difficult enough.
Mead’s answer to the anxiety of her age was to get in touch with the ultimate fear, of death. Doing so, she believed
…can give dignity to life, and acceptance of our inescapable role in the modern world, might transmute our anxiety about making the right choices, taking the right precautions, and the right risks into the sterner stuff of responsibility, which ennobles the whole face rather than furrowing the forehead with the little anxious wrinkles of worry.
I like her idea—maybe my worries would die down if I began each day with a prayer of gratitude for waking up—but I’m probably not alone in not quite believing her. Modern life insulates us from death, and our dependence on media renders it something that happens to other people.
The loss of a parent, child, friend, or acquaintance makes death visible, and I would never diminish anyone’s grief or its power to change priorities. However, most Americans aren’t there. They’re mired in triviality, a swamp of petty politics, celebrity gossip, novelty gadgets, splashy entertainments, and superficial tweets and texts. Until something devastating happens, we remain out-of-touch.
But not blissfully. Something in me knows I should be worried, and so I travel in a mist of apprehension, wondering if everything can be so good or can be so good for so long. A vague nay-sayer accompanies me everywhere, pointing out my vulnerability, the dangers gathering around me, my family, and everyone I care about.
Early humanity needed fear to survive. Perhaps the fear Mead thought was fading in the world is hardwired into us. The causes have changed, the emotion remains. Mead saw no answer in returning to paradise, and we can’t unspill the milk. But I sometimes wish I’d been born into a less advanced civilization, one where fears are commensurate with the joys of living.
If I’m going to be worried, I’d rather be worried about something that matters.