On ‘Being Anxious’ and ‘Anxiety’

“Anxiety (Angst) is ubiquitous, but seems capable of a lower and a higher form.” I. Murdoch in her “Sein Und Zeit: Pursuit of Being”.

My question is: can being anxious be a good thing? If etymology would have the final say, the answer would be a straightforward: “No!”.  ‘Anxious’ comes to us from the Latin verb “angere” which means to choke (under a pressing uncertainty). Still, one can be anxious – at least according to Merriam-Webster – for positive news. Such a positive turn seems not to be on for ‘anxiety’. It would seem anxiety is something one can simply and only suffer from. Still, if one is anxious it would seem that the only thing that can describe what one feels is anxiety.

What’s up with these words then? How does their grammar work? Iris Murdoch does not explore this in the text I quoted but it seems a matter of some practical and philosophical consequence; maybe one of those rare occasions where these types of consequence meet. People tell me to try to stop being anxious (and just ‘be’). This always makes me anxious, for (what) would I be if I weren’t anxious for something? I’d certainly not be ‘me’.

I tend to agree then with Kierkegaard (whose lead Heidegger is basically following) that a life worth living is in a certain way always also a life of anxiety. The original question is then recast into: is this such a dismal state of affairs as it is made out to be?

The problem with “philosophical anxiety” is pinpointed by Murdoch at several points in her discussion of Sein und Zeit, for instance when she says:

There is a kind of contempt for human existence if not in some way ‘exalted’ implied in Heidegger’s condescension toward Gerede and similar ‘inauthentic’ activities. His account, perpetually suggests that value, moral orientation, virtue, exists only at a level markedly above that of the everyday.

It indeed seems anxiety is made into a mode of existing that is taken to point to a way out of the idle chatter of everyday life. It’s treated as a negative pointer to something positive and the trouble starts here: with identifying being anxious as where all troubles start. It’s surely a pitiful thing to be human if the human condition can only be authentically lived in transcending a pitiful everyday state of affairs.

Let’s go back to being anxious then (to everyday anxiousness if you will). It presupposes a level of uncertainty about something that matters (which one takes an interest in). That means its grammar has both a negative aspect – dread, choking – but also a positive one – anticipation, eagerness. Imagine one would never be anxious: wouldn’t that be a dreary and utterly dull life? Imagine one would be anxious always: surely that would be close to unbearable, something one needs to try to escape from, no matter what. Two horns – that is the stuff philosophy is made of and the stuff that sometimes makes it break people.

Philosophy chose the second horn: being anxious feels bad but is somehow unavoidable, ergo it must be transcended in some way to find ‘real’ or ‘existential’ truth. There’s a deep connection here between Western philosophy and Eastern thought, the idea that a life is worth living if, and only if, it denies (everyday) life. Not even Nietzsche escapes this type of analysis. In this then, philosophy works as a black & white-filter for those who want to take control, and it finally does not matter too much whether they are existential about it (looking for subjective meaning) or scientistic about it (looking for objectifying meaning).

But hang on a minute – as with any Scylla-and-Charybdis-situation – the point surely isn’t to choose either but to navigate carefully between them and see the morality of everyday life. Going back to Murdoch (Heidegger quoting Pascal and Augustine):

In human matters, one must know before one loves, in divine matters one must love in order to know. (.) Truth is only entered through charity. (.) Heidegger here notices, and at once abandons, an idea of immense importance, that of the moral content of cognition and the ubiquity of evaluation. (He himself says later that ‘the divine’ is everywhere.) The implication of his lack of interest is that at an ‘everyday’ level (..) human life has no in-built moral aspect.

She puts the finger here in the wound of philosophy (and by extension in the wound of a one-sided ‘modern’ take on rationality): the structure of life is moral and that shows itself in the tension in the grammar of ‘being anxious’. Indeed, being anxious implies hope and that hope is at bottom nothing else than a hope for being charitably understood by other people (not an amorphous “they”, not a transcendent deity and certainly not a universal unhistoric. ‘Truth’). Anxiousness then is knowing one is vulnerable to uncertainty and it’s also trusting that that openness will not be taken advantage of. When this seems a naïve thought, its naïveté derives only from us getting used of the idle talk of Hobbesian fear of the always lurking possibility of violent (or, for that matter, non-violent and democratic) disagreement.

It is the capitalist “They” that we hear in condemning ‘being anxious’ and taking anxiety as pointing to something definitive that will remove us from our human condition. In the words of Murdoch again:

But here everything depends on our steering clear of any conception of truth which is construed in the sense of “agreement”.

The structure of language is to be anxiously awaiting to be understood. As Wittgenstein puts it: “For nothing is concealed”, as Davidson tries to capture it in “Principle of Charity” and as Gadamer phrases that we are born “in the middle of language”; talking is hoping, understanding is uncertain but the fact of love means that our anxiousness is most of the time met with charity. This fact outweighs disagreement so much that we tend to forget it and misunderstand ourselves as hopelessly condemned to life-long anxiety.

So: do not stop being anxious for it would mean you stop being capable of acting lovingly (& hence morally). Is my advise.


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