Monday, March 19, 2012

America Afraid

Americans dread the future.

So says Lisa Miller in an excellent and comprehensive article about anxiety in America.

Happily, Miller does not see anxiety primarily as a psychiatric issue. She defines it as a sociocultural issue, a common emotion that defines our era.

If you look at an anxious individual in isolation you are going to make that person believe that his anxiety is his own personal problem.

If anxiety is pervasive, Miller adds, there is probably a good reason for it. She does not get caught in the idea that anxiety is irrational.

We may not know why we are all feeling anxious, but still it can be a perfectly rational response to dangers that we cannot identify.

Beginning with Aaron Beck cognitive psychologists have explained that when you are anxious, or even phobic about something, then it is very likely that you are facing a real danger.

You may feel more anxious than you need be about spiders and snakes, but spiders and snakes are potentially dangerous. Avoiding them is adaptive behavior.

Thus, Beck helped us to discard Freud’s definition of neurotic anxiety as a fear that persists when there is no real danger.

If you feel anxious and think that you have nothing to be afraid of, that just means that you haven’t looked hard enough.

Anxiety tells you that you are in danger. It does not necessarily identify the danger and does not give you instructions for how to deal with it.

When you are walking down the street and have a premonition that you are in danger, the chances are good that you are in danger. Your anxiety tells you that you are threatened; it does not identify the threat. It does not tell you whether you should fight or run away or cry out for help.

As a citizen you might be dreading the nation’s future, but your anxiety does not tell you exactly where it is coming from and what you should do about it.

Anxiety is not the only sentiment that can define a culture.

A culture can fall into despair and depression.

You can be depressed because you have failed at a task. But you can also be depressed because you belong to a community that has failed. Despair signifies loss of face, loss of self-respect, loss of pride, loss of stature, and loss of dignity.

To take the most outsized example, when a nation loses a war it will often suffer from a wave of depression. The aftermath of World War II did not produce depression in America, but the aftermath of the Vietnam War did.

To address America’s despair, which Jimmy Carter famously called its malaise, Ronald Reagan offered both an optimistic disposition and a message that depression could be overcome with achievement and accomplishment. That, after all, is the best way to restore national pride.

Reagan offered the right message for a time of despair. Now, however, America dreads the future. It has reason to dread the future.

If a candidate today offered a morning-in-America approach he would appear to be avoiding America’s real problems.

Miller offers an astute analysis of American dread:

But anxiety has a second life as a more general mind-set and cultural stance, one defined by an obsession with an uncertain future. Anxious people dwell on potential negative outcomes and assume (irrational and disproportionate) responsibility for fixing the disasters they imagine will occur. “What’s going to happen?” or, more accurately, “What’s going to happen to me?” is anxiety’s quiet whisper, its horror-show crescendo the thing Xanax was designed to suppress. Three and a half years of chronic economic wobbliness, the ever-pinging of the new-e-mail alert, the insistent voices of prophet-pundits who cry that nuclear, environmental, political, or terrorist-generated disaster is certain have together turned a depressed nation into a perennially anxious one. The editors at the New York Times are running a weekly column on anxiety in their opinion section with this inarguable rationale: “We worry.”

And also:

The crises people face in these early months of 2012 are individual and circumstantial, yes, but they’re global and abstract as well, stemming largely from the haunting awareness (it’s certainly haunting me) that the fates of everyone in the world are intertwined and the job of protecting civilization from assorted inevitable disasters seems to have fallen to no one. “Situational anxiety” today stems from threats that are both everywhere and nowhere at once. How will the debtor nations in the eurozone ever manage to pay back what they owe? How can Israel disarm Iran’s nuclear program without inciting the messiest international conflict since World War II? How can you be absolutely, 100 percent sure the cantaloupe you had for lunch wasn’t contaminated with listeria that will make you or your kids or one of your guests deathly sick?

People are worried and they are right to be worried. They are worried about their jobs. They are worried about their mortgages. They are worried for their children. They are worried about the Iranian bomb but they are even more worried about the debt bomb that is currently hanging over America.

Americans are worried because they know that the country is running on financial fumes. They may or may not be able to articulate it but they know that one of these days our credit is going to dry up.

America is running scared, and, the truth is, it is right to be running scared.

This still leaves the salient question open? What should we do to deal with anxiety.

The old Freudian way was to write the anxiety into a narrative about sin and guilt.

People do not recognize it often enough, but guilt is a form of anxiety. If you place anxiety in a narrative, you will turn it into a meaningful expression of your fear of punishment.

If that is what anxiety is about, then you need but confess your sins, do penance, and await forgiveness.

In 2008 Americans actually followed this method and tried to deal with their dread of the future by electing Barack Obama.

The media narrative told Americans that they were dreading the future because they expected to be punished for the original American sin of slavery.

Americans were led to believe that they could solve their problem by electing Barack Obama, thus showing that they had, as a nation, overcome all forms of racial prejudice.

That was the theory. Obviously, it didn’t work. After three years of the Obama presidency we are more, not less, in dread of the future.

Perhaps it merely shows the stark difference between the sacred and the profane or the difference between God and Caesar, but trying to solve your fiscal problems by atoning for your past sins cannot possibly work. You cannot change the world by changing your mind.

If you believe it, you will have fallen into the anxiety trap. If you follow the Freudian prescription and look back at your past for the cause of your anxiety, the better to atone for your sins, you are failing, on a grandiose scale, to face your fears. You are giving in to fear. 

Politically speaking, when anxiety is the dominant emotion in a culture, political campaigns must address it. You cannot ignore it or adopt a sunny disposition.

When you are walking down the street and feel that you are in danger you do not just whistle a happy tune and hope it will all go away.

Anxiety demands action; it means that you need to take action. As the old and correct therapeutic mantra says, you need to face your fears by dealing with them constructively.

If you run away from them they are going to run after you. Facing them may involve a painful encounter, but if the encounter is inevitable, why not today.

Anxiety can cripple you. It can cause you to withdraw and retreat. But anxiety can also motivate you.

Currently, therapists are trying to help their patients to deal with anxiety by teaching them “mindfulness.”

These therapists tend to look askance at using pills to manage anxiety.

Miller explains:

But the anti-benzo psychologists are also making a value judgment. They believe Americans would be better, and healthier, if they learned to manage their anxiety without pills. They believe people should feel their feelings. A pill can be a crutch, says Doug Mennin, an anxiety specialist at Hunter College who does private therapy for the functionally anxious. The more you use it, the less able you are to navigate life’s tough spots on your own. “I’m a New Yorker,” says Mennin. “I see dependency on pills all the time. What I say to clients is, ‘You’re selling yourself short a little bit.’ If you’re going through a stressful time, and you say, ‘I’m going to get some of these,’ then the next time you get to that kind of problem, you start seeking out that pill. If you didn’t have the pill, you’d probably be okay.” The mind is a muscle, Mennin adds. With practice, you can teach it to handle anxiety: “It’s the same kind of skill as learning a better backhand in tennis.”

If mindfulness or some other kind of exercise helps you to have the presence of mind to deal with the real dangers that are causing anxiety, one can only agree.

We need to be clear, however. No form of therapy can effectively treat anxiety if it ignores the duty to face one’s fears. Even when the therapist knows that the experience is going to feel bad.

The same is true when it comes to America’s debt bomb.

You know and I know and everyone knows that the only way to deal with excessive debt is to live within one’s means. Austerity has gotten something of a bad name in Greece but it has produced good results in a number of American states… like Wisconsin.

America’s debt is a beast that is breathing down everyone’s neck.  We have not been trying to reduce it with federal austerity. We have been trying to spend out way out of it, thus to inflate the currency. 

The latter seems more painless. It is the course that the federal government is following right now. It might get Obama through the next election, but it risks destroying the dollar.

If that happens Americans might want to move to Greece.

1 comment:

David Foster said...

"You can be depressed because you have failed at a task. But you can also be depressed because you belong to a community that has failed."

In Arthur Koestler's 1950 novel The Age of Longing, the protagonist (Hydie) is unable to be attracted to European or American men, but falls hard for a committed Russian Communist. The West's loss of civilizational-self confidence, which is the main theme of Koestler's book, is refracted through the French and American men Hydie knows in a way that makes them much less sexually powerful than the Communist agent Fedya. Review.