I feel like a man who has been asleep somewhat and under someone else’s control. I feel what I’m thinking now is for myself…… Now I think with my own mind, sir.
– El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, February 18th, 1965
I have been wrestling with anxiety for quite some time now. This is an anxiety that has ground my writing process into the dust. An anxiety that has forced me from my reading practices. An anxiety that places the burden of consequences both in and out of my control squarely on my shoulders, to be held and contemplated and reflected on and evaluated by me. By me and me alone. An anxiety that creates a millstone in my chest, one only penetrated by either the righteousness of spiritual self-exploration or the sedation of a drug induced self-deception. An anxiety that feels, truly feels all encompassing, and yet… here I am!
So, I aim here to offer a glimpse into how one can possibly face both personal and existential anxiety. Or to put another way, “How might one deal with anxiety and still keep on keepin’ on?
A lot has changed. Some of these changes were personal sabotage. Most of these changes were not of my own choosing. Yet all of these changes were causing me to seclude myself from those I loved and valued deeply. And this was deeply disheartening, because what I want and need and crave and deeply desire is love and compassion. We are people. We are folx who are conditioned inside of but ultimately not limited to our existential situations. We can transcend them. Yet as individuals, we never have enough power to transcend (on an individual level) the contexts within which we individuals are produced.
It was a late night when I felt the need to seek help. At the level of sensation I felt a strong and heavy heartbeat, restless eyes, heaviness in my feet and despair in my soul. I felt a pit yawning inside of me, one that I knew I could not come to understand on my own. A pit, a void even, that I felt would swallow me whole. I had been conditioned my whole life to be emotionless, to bury sensations and feelings deep inside and to never show them in front of anyone. Cispatriarchy not only mandates and dictates, but forces oppressed persons to hold violent exploitation deep within our bodies and to never let it witness daybreak. But to those who align themselves with this ableist thinking, I ask have you ever suffered? Do you know what dread feels like? Have you sat up at night (or in the middle of the day) wondering whether your words and your actions and your self matter? Have you witnessed tragedy? Have you been the author or audience of someone’s horrific experiences? Are you allowing yourself to feel the funk and stench and rot of a life being lived in anxiety? To ask for the impossible (rugged individualism) from us finite beings is a level of violence I was not to practice on myself. So I asked for help. I went to counseling.
Counseling in many ways helped me to wrestle through concepts and emotive reactions that I would have otherwise attempted to ignore. One common theme during our sessions was a kind of philosophical clash of assumptions. For her, the best way to critique, indict, change and transform anxiety was through a reality based, person centered approach, one that works to “incorporate an individual’s full ecology in order to render change and/or consistency in relation to functioning.” Her theoretical orientation was based on an individual taking action, changing behaviors and controlling one’s own emotions. In short, her approach was a cognitive behavioral approach.
Our sessions were always moving me towards an objective, towards a goal I had set out for myself. Some sessions I had plenty to talk about, other sessions the room was full of silence even if I was talking. We talked about me, her, politics, my past, her children, my desire to belong and her focus on success. She encouraged me to be open and I obliged. We met weekly for a few months, but towards the end of our journey, I could tell that I needed more. Something was missing. What I loved about our sessions was my ability and willingness to be open and vulnerable and her practice of creating more space for me to be creative and honest. However, we clashed often on questions of politics and society. This was to be expected; hers was a theoretical orientation grounded in a case by case, individualist conception of power, an orientation that is bound to run up against a conception of power that takes seriously the historical and political legacies of Christ, Tubman and Mao.
I knew that counseling was a necessary yet inadequate measure to deal with my anxiety. So like K. Dot, I went runnin’ for answers.
Philosophy itself becomes a critical disposition of wrestling with desire in the face of death, wrestling with dialogue in the face of dogmatism and wrestling with democracy… in the face of structures of domination.
– Cornel West, September 5th, 2008
As important as counseling was for my own emotive journey, I still suffered with those anxieties that seemed infinitely larger in scope than just any one individual. I tried to find answers. I wanted to understand how one could feel so hopeless and continue to struggle for a radically better world. I wanted to understand this because the world we live in is in the midst of a crisis of existential importance. The following section of this post is preoccupied with the existential, or that which relates to existence.
Paul Tillich and his understanding of anxiety is crucial here. For Tillich, “anxiety is the state in which a being is aware of its possible nonbeing. .[it] ..is finitude experienced as one’s own finitude.” Tillich goes on to lay out the ways in which anxiety poses a problem for us. This is worth quoting at length:
- Nonbeing threatens [one’s] ontic self affirmation, relatively in terms of fate, absolutely in terms of death. It threatens [one’s] spiritual self affirmation, relatively in terms of emptiness, absolutely in terms of meaninglessness. It threatens [one’s] moral self affirmation, relatively in terms of guilt, absolutely in terms of condemnation.
Paulo Freire’s understanding of humanity is crucial as well. While I agree that Freire can and ought to be critiqued for his human centered approach at the expense of all beings, the first paragraph of Pedagogy of the Oppressed is worth quoting at length here (and anywhere really):
- While the problem of humanization has always, from an axiological point of view, been [people’s] central problem, it now takes on the character of an inescapable concern. Concern for humanization leads at once to the recognition of dehumanization, not only as an ontological possibility but as an historical reality. And as [people] perceive the extent of dehumanization, [we] ask [ourselves] if humanization is a viable possibility. Within history, in concrete, objective contexts, both humanization and dehumanization are possibilities for [people] as uncompleted beings conscious of [our] incompletion.
In short, Tillich sees anxiety as an existential predicament, as a state of being bound up with existence. Freire argues that people are incomplete, and that the major development in human history has been human attempts to become fully human. From this, I deduced that a fundamental aim for a society relieved of corrosive trauma and moribund levels of anxiety is the intentional reconstruction of existing societies. Societies have been reified, reinforced and recreated within spacetime. This raises a few questions: What kinds of societies are brought into being? Which societies are protected and which ones are being destroyed? At what point does the anxiety inherent to existence balloon to such a degree that it is self-perpetuated? A starting point for these kinds of questions could be a deep examination and interrogation into the ways some people have attempted to structure all of human society, wherein the inculcation of political might into the laps of a few individuals and corporate institutions comes at the expense of the masses of people.
We are literally, right now, in 2016, living during an extinction of cosmic proportions. However, unlike the Pliocene era, or the Neogene era, or the Triassic period, this one is distinctly because of the ways that some of humanity has structured our own way of being.
While a full encapsulation of human activity would be futile here, there are some things that can be said:
The cosmic weight and sheer magnitude of the threats we face as living organisms because of a small section of humanity can push one to nihilism, to hopelessness. Not just hopelessness as politics. Not just meaninglessness as inevitable. No. As a form of suffering that is structured in the objective laws of reality-in-its-wholeness. In a very real sense, my own internalization of the sheer monstrosity above was akin to having to come to terms with the very real, very Geminian predicament of embodying the banishment from the Garden of Eden.
My own response to all the suffering above had been a vacillation between the resilience of spiritual nourishment and using drugs to cope. During the all-Black generative somatics ceremony I journeyed through last year we learned that as oppressed people, as people dealing with the suffering that a thoroughly exploited reality can bring, we literally began to embody certain, conditioned, tendencies. These tendencies are different for every person. The pressures from this reality force us to have only a certain emotional range, certain habitual moods, certain thinking patterns, certain worldviews and actions and physical shapes and certain gestures. In short, our current shapes are historical, they are conditioned, and they are not intrinsically bad. In fact, our conditioned tendencies are full of wisdom, because they take care of safety, belonging and dignity in a world of ruthless imperialist exploitation. For me, coping involved numbing my senses, soldiering on in the midst of calamity and generally trying to get outside of my own head, usually via benadryl. However, my conditioned tendencies at this time were not a choice. They were habitual, reactionary and subconscious responses to pain. Antihistamines produced not just a sleepy feeling, but a somnolent way of being. I knew I wanted to hold on to some of these conditioned tendencies, but others, such as my preoccupation with mild sedation, I wanted to choose to let go.
So, I began to develop and hone and reconnect with resilient practices. As many of my facilitators made clear, resilience in this sense refers to our ability to bounce back from the catastrophic and to then begin to hone an art or science of learning and living through the body. For me, this meant diving into creative projects (reading, writing and creating sci-fantasy narratives) spiritual grounding (mostly expressed through extended prayer, which for me is about radical humility. Contrary to some New Atheist critiques of prayer as prideful, I see having a deep, intimate dialogue with radical love as profoundly humbling.) and somatic awareness (primarily through Jo Kata martial arts practices) all of which allow me to connect and reconnect myself to the praxis of resilience.
After months of therapy and coping and practicing radical resilience, I reached a conclusion of sorts. It was important for me to understand that anxiety, emanating both personally and existentially, ought not be reduced to the rigid moralism of being good or bad. It is much simpler than that.
Anxiety simply is.
anxiety is both a constant and a variable!
I just want to feel liberated.
– Pablo, February 14th, 2016
Anxiety doesn’t need to have the last word. When I was coping, I was sure this was a lie. Now that I am practicing resilience, I have faith that this is true. Jesus and the disciples wrestled with that which was at the time truly hegemonic (the Roman ruling class). Mao and the CCP wrestled with that which at the time seemed truly indomitable (Japan and the KMT). Harriet Tubman and ALL of the 19th century anti-slavery radicals wrestled with the southern slavocracy’s Cotton Kingdom, which ruled with unmitigated violence. Yet all of these people and groups cannot be separated from the political and historical circumstances that gave rise to them. And neither can I. I would argue all who have struggled for divine salvation or secular emancipation or any kind of liberation from oppression has had to come to terms with anxiety. I believe that, even in the midst of it all, we can find ways to sustain ourselves, change our predicament and triumph over that which seems, truly seems eternally dominant.
It has been months since I’ve written because over the last few seasons, I have been struggling with a generalized form of anxiety. This anxiety is not diagnosed by a person with a degree; rather it is an anxiety lived out by me. So, what I wanted to offer here is a glimpse into my own struggle with anxiety. My aim was to try and make plain both an anxiety that for a long time has left me unable to write and create, as well as make plain how one might face this anxiety. Perhaps what has been written here can be a beacon for someone else.
I hope this is the case.