Friday, May 13, 2011

What, Me Worry?

I never do autobiography on this blog but today I’m going to make an exception. I will tell you that I first encountered madness in the pages of Mad Magazine.

Somehow, it seems fitting.

If I recall correctly, every issue of the magazine was fronted by a picture of one Alfred E. Neuman. He was Holden Caulfield for the less literate set. Eventually, the image became iconic, and Neuman’s signature slogan: "What, Me Worry?" was imprinted on the culture and my mind.

This was all happening in the 1950s, a time that people were calling, after a poem by W. H. Auden, an age of anxiety.

One must assume that “What, Me Worry?” served as a kind of low cost antidote to the ambient anxiety.

As often happens with cartoons, and certainly with a comic book as brilliant as Mad Magazine, the statement contained its own truth.

If you never worry you will turn into a cartoon.

Yesterday I was reading Thomas DeLong’s column on “The Worrying Trap.” Link here.

We all know that worry is a normal human emotion. We cannot live without it. But worry, like anger, has an ethical dimension. If we temper it, we will find that it helps us to focus and to be thorough. If we worry too much or too little, we start making mistakes.

Worrying too much can render us inactive. Worrying too little can cause us to be reckless. .

DeLong writes: “While a moderate amount of worry may focus the mind, too much diminishes effectiveness and robs us of our ability to move outside our comfort zone (because there is even more to worry about outside of that zone!).”.

Alfred E. Neuman first graced the cover of Mad Magazine in 1954. At the time psychoanalysis was ascendant in America and around the world. It is worth emphasizing that psychoanalysis gave a special privilege to anxiety.

It is worth giving that fact some serious attention. Today, for example, the therapy culture is geared toward depression, that is, toward demoralization, loneliness, and rejection. In the larger sense therapy today deals directly with different versions of social anomie.

While the new antidepressants have focused recent attention on these problems,  the advent of cognitive therapy also brought depression into prominence.

Prior to this, therapy was about dealing with anxiety. This emotion was at the heart of Freudian theory. As you may know, Freud had very little to say about depression.

Freud’s version of anxiety was not your average, everyday form of nervous, apprehensive worry. It is certainly not the anxiety you feel when you are anxiously awaiting the start of a game.

In the fictional world that Freud wanted us all to inhabit, our actions and passions were all motivated by criminal impulses, toward incest and patricide.

Given our sinful nature, we must, Freud posited, be living in a constant state of anxiety, over being found out, and especially, over being punished.

This anxiety is thus closely akin with guilt. Since our crimes and sins are sexual in nature, we are, Freud posited, going to suffer from castration anxiety.

Someone whose consciousness is consumed by guilt and anxiety is afraid of being punished. Someone who has committed or has wished to commit sexual crimes will be burdened by fears of losing his offending organ.

Say what you will, but Freudian theory is consistent within the framework of its own myths.

In addition, it pathologizes emotion. Instead of beginning with a normal emotion like worry, then to show how to manage the emotion by show us how to avoid too much or too little worry, Freudian theory begins with an extreme form of anxiety and makes it the norm. At that point, worry is just diluted anxiety. 

The theory says that we dilute anxiety because we are terrified to get in touch with our true repressed criminal impulses. And because once we do we will see that some form of punishment is inevitable.

It is also true that once you pathologize an emotion you can justify treating it with medication.

Similarly, if you call social dislocation depression, they you can medicate it. But if you see the problem within the domain of social anomie, the proper treatment would be social adaptation. .

The cluster of emotions that surround anomie, loneliness, demoralization and rejection involve an individual’s belonging to a group and his status within the group. The Chinese call it his “face.”
Worry has a different provenance. It involves the individual’s relationship with an uncertain future.

Strictly speaking, the future is always uncertain. While we know what happened yesterday with some degree of certainty, we do not know what will happen tomorrow.

If we are concerned with scientific certainly, with objectively provable reality, then we must recognize that our thoughts about the future are hypotheses, projections, and prophecies.

When people claim that they know to an absolute certainty what the weather will be like tomorrow or what the climate will be like a century from now, they are, to put it politely, blowing smoke.

There is no such thing as a scientific fact about tomorrow.

Thus, the human mind has the capacity to worry about the future. Anyone who knows that the future is uncertain will normally feel some level of worry.

Someone who never worries is saying either that he believes that he knows the future or does not care. Or else, it may be someone who is oblivious to the level of risk or danger involved in certain actions.

When you take an action,  you do not know the outcome in advance. You may be able to judge the risk, but you do not know what is going to happen. In a strange way, by stepping forward you are making a leap of faith.

The action might be successful; it might fail. Worry means that you understand this fact.

If you do not worry, then you are either not going to act or you do not care about the outcome.

How has therapy tried to deal with worry about the future? It has directed patients to ignore the future and to focus solely on the past.

Freudian treatment does not involve planning or projecting future action. Freudian analysts do not recommend future actions. It's more about what did or did not happen that about what we should do. Freudian analysis teaches people to obsess about the past.

It wants everyone to accept their past sins, confess them, and do penance for them.  If you ask how Freudian treatment diminishes anxiety, the answer must be that it pretends that self-punishment will preempt a more fearful punishment.

Obviously, this is a secular theology.

If we ask how we normally manage worry, the answers are fairly clear. We begin by playing the probabilities. It may not be an absolute certainty that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, but it is a very high probability.

We organize our time and our day as a function of that probability.
Sometimes we use the lessons of the past to diminish our exposure to danger. At other times we use the lessons of the past to enhance the possibilities of success.
Then, we establish repeatable routines. It is simply too confusing and too worrisome to have to decide on a different breakfast cereal every day. We prefer to eat the same thing in the same place at roughly the same time.

Thus, we reduce the uncertainty and the worry over breakfast, or other aspects of our lives.

We try to have consistent, routinized lives because they allow us to save worry for situations that count.

But, what happens when we confront a situation that feels new and that requires our action? One way to avoid the worry that accompanies finding ourselves facing a new challenge is to assume that it is the same as an old challenge.

When we fail to see that new problems are not just repetitions of old problems, and cannot be overcome or faced by pretending that they are, then we will have bought ourselves a bit of worry, but we will have gained some character. 


David Foster said...

Interesting. Someone could write a history of what kinds of emotions have been of greatest therapeutic (or. in pre-Freudian ages, religous) concerns.

Peter Drucker, who grew up in Vienna, asserted to anxiety about sex was not all that common in Freud's heyday--far more common was anxiety about money. Those who *did* have high sexual anxiety were typically women who had come to Vienna's sexually-supercharged atmosphere after growing up in the country somewhere.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I recently read the Drucker book, Adventures of a Bystander-- I think at your recommendation. It has a great chapter of Freud.

Isn't he describing anomie more than anxiety? Women who came from the countryside had trouble adapting to the sexually liberated culture of Vienna at the time. But they did know enough to select "hysterical symptoms" out of the local symptom pool.