Why your anxiety won't go away
Existential philosophy has always recognised that we are not equipped to deal with our annihilation. The mere thought of our non-being, not existing any more, brings on a terror so great that is beyond our capacity to withstand it. The pessimists consider this awareness of our own death as the greatest reason to stop procreating: why would we want to inflict this terror upon our children, their thinking goes. The kindest thing to do is not to expose any more humans to an awareness of their true place in the universe – as beings aware of their own death and utterly powerless in the face of it. Those of us who are here already, we cope by transforming this terror into anxieties. Anxiety is, after all, something that we can work to understand (‘what are the triggers for my anxiety?’ or ‘how do I know I’m feeling anxious?’) and find ways to manage it the moment.
One of the most effective ways of persisting with life in the face of our own death is the idea of continuation: after we are gone, our children and grandchildren and grand-grandchildren will live on. Something we have created and brought to this earth will continue to contribute and flourish: a book, our garden, our teaching, or the family story of who we are. We are able to hold onto this comforting illusion of some form of existence after death.
We no longer have the luxury of this way of thinking. As we confront the reality of living in the age of the anthropocene, we are stripped of the delusion of future generations and robbed of relief from all our deepest anxieties. We return to a place of terror at our own annihilation, this time with no effective ways of displacing or managing that anxiety. As we face our collective death in the form of multiple existential threats we enter a unique kind of despair: a deep internal knowing that as our planet is stripped of life, the human species cannot survive. Everything that allows me to sustain the illusion of ‘my existence will carry on beyond my death’ stands to be destroyed too. Alongside this despair there is the grief at seeing our only home besieged, for no other reason but greed and attachment to power.
It is hard to know what to do with this kind of powerlessness, fear, or exhaustion at relentless bad news, particularly when the most common human response seems to be a kind of a shut-down before the enormity of the event and when political and state structures have abandoned any meaningful attempts at addressing the issue, displacing the existential anxieties in their own ways, more concerned with demonising each other and scapegoating entire populations in their myopic goal: to maintain hold on power and flow of money.
It is hard to know what to do and even whether things are worth doing in the face of unchecked greed, self-serving politics, oppressive power structures, and systems that profit from the destruction of the planet. It can be easy to become overwhelmed by despair and anxiety, and not know how to begin to deal with those states.
The only way through is with solidarity and connection.
Connect to younger generations; they are the ones with energy and urgency borne of the need to ensure their survival. They are not of the same power structures that have worn us down. What can you contribute to their fight? What can you bring to the kind of community they wish to build?
Find your own meaning. Question the prescribed parameters of existence: beyond the meaning structure of consumerism (which pervades every level of our existence) as the main way to be, what else is there for you? How do you want to be? Stop buying unnecessarily.
Ultimately, do not seek to escape your spiritual pain and angst, your anxiety, or your dread of the future. That is the place of change; this pain motivates us to take a stand and connect – against racism, oppressive policies, sexism, or unchecked privilege.
Educate yourself about power structures. Speak up when you can, and when acts feel too small or inconsequential, do it anyway. This is a way of value-based living and the only way forward that offers us a sense of having done something to work towards our survival and a potential future.
What are your own ways of resisting, of fighting, of denouncing that which is destructive of our humanity and our home?
Only your choices can bring you relief from the rumblings of that deep existential dread.