Sunday, April 07, 2013

Watch out for the undertow


This morning someone used the towel which hangs in the bathroom, the one I claim for myself.  I’m not so much critical of the fact that someone else used my towel – these things happen – but more the fact that when I went to dry myself, the cold wet of an already damp towel jarred and left me in ill spirits on an otherwise perfectly fine morning. 

Or is it a perfectly fine morning? 

Today I have promised one of daughters that I will help her with an essay on the topic of fear and anxiety.  

We all know fear : that cliff you’re about to drive over, that near miss on the road, that accidental slip of the knife.  Fear, actual and intense that sets off your adrenaline big time and leaves your underarms prickling with sweat and a racing heart. 

But anxiety is worse.  Anxiety is insidious.  Something out there, sometimes you know not what, sets your heart racing, your pulse soaring and all you know is that you feel a deep sense of dread.  The old fight/flight response to fear kicks in but it doesn't budge.  It hangs around.  

When I feel anxious there’s nothing clear cut to fight.  There’s nothing obvious to flee and so I'm stuck, bathed in these hormones with a vague sense of what might be troubling me but an inability to shift it because it is not what might be called real. 

Even now I can feel it.  I try to attach it to something: that talk I’m to give to a group of post grad students at the end of the week, rehearsal anxiety, free-floating fear of the unknown, but is that enough? 

I’ve prepared for the talk.  It should be okay.  Is that enough? 

For me sometimes even thinking about anxiety can make me anxious.  And anxiety is contagious.  I pick it up from other people, quick smart, especially from those who are near and dear to me. 

It’s also the stuff of terrorism, the ways in which certain people play on our fears to divide and conquer. 

In Thomas Keneally’s novel, Flying Hero Class, the narrator anticipates the hijacking of a plane and makes a plea for solidarity among the passengers.

What they will do these hijackers, he says, is to select a few of us for special treatment – cruel treatment.  Those selected will be chosen for some fault of their history, culture or some such thing.  They will be isolated and punished.  Basically they will be punished in order to split up the rest of the group. 

It’s an old technique.  Those not selected will gradually find themselves withdrawing from these victims.  Gradually those not selected will feel a sense of blame towards these others, a sense of their badness.  And all of this will emerge out of a sense of not having been chosen. 

We must avoid the process at all cost, the narrator argues.  Solidarity will help us.  Black and white, Jew and gentile must come together to avoid the divisiveness of the hijackers. 


‘I’ve seen hesitant people bludgeoned by an appeal to solidarity,’ she writes.  ‘Solidarity can be used to mock genuine doubt, to blur a fatal skid in reasoning.  Run the flag up the pole and see who salutes.  Whenever I feel in myself the warm emotional rush of righteousness of belonging, that accompanies the word solidarity, I try to remember to stop and wait till the rush subsides so I can have a harder look at what has provoked it.’

I too can feel the clash of anxiety, alongside my wish to belong when I press the send button to make a comment on that controversial blog, No Place for Sheep, where people can be very generous and thoughtful and yet a other times they might brawl on line about important topics and some actually abuse one another. 

But I am drawn to this anxiety, too, like a toddler to an open socket.  I’m drawn to the excitement of it, the kick-in of hormones that can leave me feeling more alive.  

Without anxiety life might become too drab and ordinary.   But watch out for the underto, or the 'under toad' as the young Walt, a character in John Irving's novel, The world According to Garp, calls it.  

Anxiety needs to be optimal to inspire and fire you up.  But too much anxiety and you wind up paralysed.  


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