Ours has been called the Age of Anxiety. Each week there are new articles about anxiety and ways of coping. And in the midst of anxiety people search for solutions. Not surprising, addictions are on the rise, pharmaceutical companies have an assortment of medications, while others suggest exercise and mindfulness. Everyone is searching for ways of dealing with anxiety that often feels chronic.
Both philosophers and rock stars talk about it. The Rolling Stones sang “she goes running for the shelter of mother’s little helper.” In Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard wrote about anxiety being the result of human vulnerability and the inability to live into the self we were created to be, while Paul Tillich talked about anxiety as connected to the realization of finitude. David Grohl of Foo Fighters describes it with these lyrics, “One of these days, the ground will drop out from beneath your feet; one of these days your heart will stop and play its final beat.”
In order for life to go on, anxiety has to be contained, and this drives us to find solutions. Unfortunately those solutions often become part of the problem. In the Old Testament, the story of the “golden calf” was a primitive attempt to bind existential anxiety, as the Israelites created a golden calf to cope with their felt absence of God and feelings of abandonment of their leader Moses. As a result, they became highly anxious. That story is a wonderful metaphor for the human condition: when we get anxious we have difficulty sitting still, and unconsciously move towards manic solutions which often become problematic.
Relational anxiety is a force to be dealt with, and too often has significant negative implications. Consider a number of examples:
Too often we fail to look at what is under anxiety and fail to explore the existential and relational component of it. Anxiety is the driver of most relational problems. And in the end, the solutions we arrive at become part of the problem. Buddhist teacher Susan Piver adapts the classic teaching on the Four Noble Truths:
Similarly, just as building a Golden Calf to worship was not a solution to anxiety, the relational strategies we outlined above will not work! In the end they will create relationship problems which will leave you even more anxious.
So, what do we do? Murray Bowen, the late family therapist, suggests that we should always move towards anxiety. But what does that mean? And how do we do it?
First, it means accepting the existential reality of finitude. There are certain existential realities that are part of life. My five year old granddaughter is already asking about death. The solutions to that anxiety are not relational. Nor do our manic solutions of looking for success, accomplishment, or financial security work. In the end, the solutions are spiritual. The Psalmist says “Be Still” which of course is the opposite of what we do when we get anxious. Find spiritual disciplines like prayer, mindfulness, meditation, liturgy that help us sit with anxiety instead of running from it.
Second, it means being honest with ourselves about our deepest fears. We need to both explore fears of being hurt, or rejected, or even of being seen, and then understand how our defenses can hurt us relationally. All of us have wounds, and we form defenses against those wounds in an attempt to stay safe. However, while that protective shell protects us from more hurt, in the end keeps us from finding the type of intimacy that can be healing
Finally, healthy relationships can be a wonderful oasis in the midst of the storms of life - if anxiety is not driving us to control, fuse, or change the other person. When we can practice Martin Buber’s relationship philosophy of moving from “I - It” (where we put those we love in a restrictive box and think we understand them) to “I - Thou” (where we continue to experience the other in new ways and appreciate them as a separate individual with their own journey), we can find peace and even transcendence.