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The Value of Anxiety

The_ScreamOur society runs from anxiety and gives “well-being” unprecedented significance because we’re told that “happiness” should be our goal.

Living in ignorance is one kind of happiness. Sources as old as Ecclesiastes evince this view: “For in much wisdom there is much sorrow; / whoever increases knowledge increases grief” (1:15). A little wine, a little work, and a little time can lead to a sense of contentment. But that contentment isn't permanent, and neither does it follow the path to happiness. As Zarathustra says of the Last Men, “One has one’s little pleasure for the day and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health. ‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink.”

In my view, happiness demands some real anxiety. You get the most out life through a kind of existential awareness, which does not make you “happy” in the contented sense, but makes you appreciative of what you have been given.

After all, existence is given. You may not know why you’re here, who you are, or where “here” is in the grandest sense. Left alone, you become aware of absolute loneliness. While some are more attuned to this reality than others, everyone experiences it, even if only temporarily. Grief reminds us of the futility of tears in the face of suffering, pain, and death. To lose a parent, a grandparent, even a friend is to lose a part of the self. In all these situations, you are faced with the ultimate powerlessness and smallness.

Yet, you go on.

These realities can make us anxious or afraid. But fear isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, being aware of your existential situation enables you to have greater appreciation for the beauties of life. Walking through grass and trees becomes refreshing, nudges you toward contemplation. A warm embrace evokes emotions greater than yourself. Time with family members becomes all the more precious. This spirit of gratitude motivates you not to take others for granted; it makes you live with the true awareness of everyone’s loneliness. Problems begin to look smaller. You stop saying, “That’s not fair,” and instead thank God for the goodness which we all share.

But almost paradoxically, this gratitude must begin in anxiety.

The word “anxiety” comes from the Latin angere, meaning “to choke.” Our contemporary understanding reflects this etymology. We recognize that anxiety consists of helplessness, a sense of isolation, and a similar feeling to the one a person might experience when choking. But if you’ve ever survived a choking fit, you know the sense of gratitude that follows: Gratitude for life, for the very possibility of human experience. Never to  live the negative is never to have chance to understand the positive.

I’m not encouraging taking anxiety too far, of course. Depression, teenage “angst,” and other forms of deep sadness obscure the light at the end of the tunnel. But it seems to me that often our society is too afraid of being afraid. We desire happiness so much that we make ourselves sadder, relying on prescription drugs to deaden our pain and our awareness (excluding, of course, those drugs taken for strict medical reasons).

Instead of numbing yourself to the difficulties of existence, accept them as they come. You’ll experience the joy and gratefulness that emerge from anxiety. Watch a Bergman film. Read a Camus novel. Pray. All of these help us to experience happiness, that is, the truth of anxiety.

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