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Anxiety: The Great Motivator

December 3, 2012

Over the weekend, I picked up and read Daniel Smith’s newest book, Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety.  As one can probably deduce from the title, Smith’s book deals with his deeply personal life-long dance with anxiety, an emotion we all face at one point or another.  It was a great read, well-written and funny, and one doesn’t need to have a life-long history of anxious tendencies to appreciate how tactfully Smith delves into this part of the human psyche. However, I personally took an interest in this book because I myself am prone to some anxious tendencies. At times, these tendencies have ranged from too much energy to irrational self-doubting to deep intellectualization of the mundane. Example: as a second-grader, I was the only student who got a daily “behavior report” sent home to my mother, which consisted of three faces: one smiling, one frowning, and one indifferent.  I guess this was about as scientific as my teacher had to get to successfully express her satisfaction, or lack thereof, with my behavior for the day.  I was pretty young at the time, but I distinctly remember that most days her judgement erred to one extreme or the other.  Undoubtedly, at that age I did not often provoke a feeling of indifference in my superiors with my behavior.

As I’ve gotten older, it has morphed into an uncanny energy that must be redirected into productivity, lest it becomes detrimental and self-defeating.  Extended down time isn’t great for anyone, but for a Type-A bundle of nerves, it can be exponentially vexing.  Without a purpose, without some direction for this lightning in a bottle, anxiety becomes one’s worst enemy.  With direction and drive, it can be the most powerful tool one could possibly possess.

Smith hits on this notion pretty thoroughly.  Noted often in the text is Kierkegaard’s 1844 treatise, The Concept of Anxiety.  I haven’t read it, as it is cited by even the loudest Existentialist champions as confusing and deluded, but Smith makes some important references to what is often seen as the first text to ever touch on the concept of human anxiety.  Essentially, anxiety is born out of freedom.  Freedom is paradoxical in that human beings continually strive to achieve freedom, but freedom itself is the root of anxious thought.  College students are overwhelmed by the barrage of choices they suddenly face.  Business owners are saddled with a host of stressful situations as a result of their chosen freedoms.  Young parents find that raising a family can be both highly rewarding and draining at the same time.  Therefore, anxiety is uncomfortable, but essential in creating the whole individual.  Humans don’t like choices because they want what is on either side of a given choice, but they can only have one.  It is both our greatest gift and our greatest discomfiture as a species.  My dog does not worry whether his last meal made him fatter, nor does he worry that his extended periods of sleep may negate his productivity or ability to earn.  There are no metered choices in the animal kingdom, save for those that face humans on a daily basis.  This can be at once fully liberating and terrifying for the individual.

To me, it boils down to choices.  Choices are everywhere.  Those that spend their days in fear of choice will most assuredly wither under the perceived pressure that consciousness provides.   When I have been in the throes of anxious thinking, any phone call, meeting, career move, or lunch selection has seemed to possess the capability of leading me to either the heights of triumphs or the depths of existential atrophy.  There is no either/or.  But what I’ve learned is that human choice does not exist in some sort of moral vacuum.  There is no wrong or right, no golden road to serenity or success or happiness paved with a decisive string of “good” choices.  Choices simply provide us with consequences, and once you come to realize that hardly any consequence is insurmountable, you shake some of the anxiety off of your everyday life and you begin to see that it’s less a matter of right or wrong and more a matter of do or do not.  You can clamp yourself down with the fear that your decisions will determine who you are, but they simply do not.  Life is far too complicated to boil down to singular, individual choices.  It’s judged far more on reactions than actions.  I have made many ill-advised decisions, but how these decisions changed the course of my own personal history account for about 1% of outcomes, and the rest on reactions.

I’ve learned that to quell the exclusively human feelings of anxiety, I must simply act.  No, I do not always act with total logic or clarity. No one does. Anyone who thinks they possess this ability is a fool.  But action provides us with a plethora of outcomes, inaction provides us with far less.  When you do something, at least you have a palate and canvas to work with.  You can backtrack, move forward, or hold steady.  But you’ve got to get on the playing field to have a shot at greatness.  And that, if nothing else, is what I’ve taken away from the lessons of my anxieties. I can sit and worry and walk on egg shells, or I can put myself out there and see what happens.  There’s no use in wondering what opportunities passed you by.  There is no valiance in deferral.  Act, then react.  It’s the only way.

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