Anxiety is a common psychological term and one that has entered cultural lexicon of daily life: if we are anxious, we all focus on what we can do to reduce our anxiety – as if anxiety is an externally generated condition that has descended upon us. Let’s be clear: anxiety is unpleasant and uncomfortable and can at times become overwhelming. This is not the type of anxiety I am thinking about. What I am considering is a more pervasive, universal anxiety that perhaps we have forgotten how to understand and think about: anxiety of being human.
The parallel vocations of existential philosophy and psychotherapy have much to say about anxiety, its ubiquity to humanity and its causes. In short, the anxiety of being that gnaws away at us all is the price we pay for our consciousness and what is it that our consciousness is aware of that essentially generates our anxiety? Death.
Irvin Yalom, the Godfather of American existential psychotherapy has much to say about death anxiety and death denial and their links to anxiety. He suggests that us humans (unlike our animal cousins), have a belief that we have an exemption from the natural law that is the foundation stone of all life and that this essentially underlies many aspects of our behaviour essentially rendering us inauthentic. I think that what Yalom is essentially trying to tell us here is that there is no escaping death and that rather than constructing elaborate defence mechanisms that serve to convince us we are exempt from the laws of nature, it would serve us well to embrace the concept of death, however terrifying, and live ‘authentically’. In Yalom’s own words; ‘a denial of death at any level is a denial of one’s basic nature and begets an increasingly pervasive restriction on awareness of experience’ (p32, Existential Psychotherapy).
How can we do this? Well, in short through investing in meaning making structures. However, once again we have a problem. We live in a technological world dominated by science. Much of the myth of the world – the ways, means and stories – by which we created and invested in meaning in the world, have been eroded by science. Not all of this myth erosion is bad – we no longer burn witches, for example – however, I would contend that as a species we collectively struggle to find meaning in an increasingly technical world. Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist, writer and lecturer summed this up in stating that the world was changing too fast for us to cultivate and sustain mythology. And the price we pay for this lack of prescribed mythology – it brings death nearer to us and without the shielding power of myth, we are rendered increasingly anxious.