A beautiful, honest, and incredibly sympathetic reflection on the relationship between anxiety, control, and circumstance appeared in The NY Times last week, as part of their (and now our!) ongoing series about Anxiety, the appropriately titled “The Snake in the Garden”. It’s hard to write a hopeful piece about what are essentially self-defeating internal processes, but that’s exactly what Pico Iyer has pulled off here. The final paragraph is one for the ages in fact, and he even uses Garden of Eden imagery to frame his dilemma (which, one might add, is highly reminiscent of the first chapter of Dorothy Martyn’s wonderful Beyond Deserving). More commentary from me would probably cheapen the piece, so here’s a sizable chunk to mull over, which begins with Iyer describing a retreat center that had proven to be particularly therapeutic for him, ht MS:
The retreat house was the rare place where it seemed impossible to be fraught. All my worries of the previous day seemed about as real and urgent as the taillights of cars disappearing around headlands 12 miles to the south. I started to go to this place of silence more and more often, and one spring day, on my way to two weeks of carefree quiet, I told my old friend Steve about it. Much to my delight, he booked himself in for a three-day stay that would coincide with my final weekend in the sanctuary.
I stepped into my cabin on the slope above the sea, 12 days before our meeting — golden poppies and lupines everywhere — and instantly began to wonder how Steve would see it. What if the sky clouded over before his arrival, I thought, and he was greeted by rain and mist? Maybe the vegetarian food set out in the kitchen would fail to meet his exacting standards? What about the crosses on the walls? Might they trigger some unsuspected trauma from his Roman Catholic boyhood? Every day for the next 10 days I worried that the place might not live up to his expectations — or my billing.
On gorgeous days, I scanned the horizon for clouds; sometimes I walked into the bookshop to ask the monk on duty if he’d heard the weather forecast for next Friday. When, the day before Steve’s anticipated arrival, he (almost inevitably) called to cancel, I realized that the only thing I’d done was to exile myself from Paradise, anguishing over what never came to pass.
Even if it had come to pass, my worries would have been pointless. The very place that was teaching me surrender — the beauty of its spaciousness was that I didn’t have to control a thing — had been undone by my recidivist mind. A trifling example, of course — usually worries are over something more substantial and not entirely self-induced — and yet it seemed to be smiling at me in my foolishness. The books on my desk in the cabin, as it happened, that spring were by Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. It’s not circumstances that define us, the Stoics wrote again and again; it’s our response to circumstances. And insofar as anxiety is to a large extent in the eye of the beholder, it’s also in the power of the beholder to control.
I couldn’t register that, however, because I was worried through the days before Steve’s projected arrival that a noisy neighbor might disturb his stay. The problem with anxiety — as Marcus Aurelius would acknowledge — is that, by definition, it’s irrational; in that regard, it’s not so different from the almost irresistible impulse to jump that seizes me every time I find myself on a 50th-floor balcony, or the senseless revulsion I feel on seeing a rope that I take to be a snake. Its power comes in those moments when reason has no sway over it.
Besides, many kinds of anxiety are natural, almost healthy, especially if they’re concerned with others; a parent who didn’t worry about her child might seem almost inhuman. Yet still it’s uncanny how often we let ourselves out of the Garden by worrying about something that, if it did happen, would quicken us into a response much more practical than worry. All the real challenges of my, or any, life — the forest fire that did indeed destroy my home and everything in it; the car crash that suddenly robbed dozens of us of a cherished friend; my 13-year-old daughter’s diagnosis of cancer in its third stage — came out of the blue; they’re just what I had never thought to worry about (even as I was anguishing over whether they’d serve spinach when my friend visited the retreat house). And every time some kind of calamity has come into my life, I and everyone around me have responded with activity, unexpected strength, even an all but unnatural calm.
It’s only when we’re living in the future, the realm of “what if,” that we brilliantly incapacitate ourselves. And it’s mostly when someone abruptly cries, “Watch out!” that we lose control of the car we’re driving. Yet all the Stoic arguments are hard to absorb in that part of ourselves that matters.
We try to distinguish between those things we can control and those we can’t — fruitless to worry about “status anxiety,” since that lies in the hands (the minds) of others, and senseless to worry about finances, since one can usually spend a little less or try to earn a little more — and then we start to worry about how much in fact that new relationship is within our control or not. I go up to my sunlit retreat house and read, in Milton, how the mind can “make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n,” and then decide that’s barely relevant if you’re stuck in limbo.
Nowadays my one, obviously flimsy, response to all this is to try to bypass the mind if I can’t control it and at least not take my anxiety so seriously…
I’ve slowly learned, the hard way, that my best writing comes when I’m not thinking about writing and am far from desk or conscious intention. But then the clouds gather above the sea, and my idle mind conjures up bad possibilities the way one might dream of chocolate cake. We worry only about exactly those things we can never do anything about. And then that very fact becomes something else we worry about. The cycle goes on and on until we let the mind give over to something larger — wiser — than itself.
One tiny note: if you’re picking up a note of “prescription” in that final line, it’s worth noting that the example of the “something larger” to which Iyer refers takes the form of an intervention from a loving teacher, rather than a carefully-calibrated, self-engineered distraction. Just sayin’.