Recording of our August 2, 2020 online worship service led by Worship Associates Teresa Honnold and Ed Sharples, with music by Co-Directors of Music Ministry Abha and Steven Dearing
by Ed Sharples
"Ages of Anxiety"
My comments on anxiety will be those of an amateur in the field of phobias and fear. I am not a psychologist, not a psychiatrist, nor a psychotherapist, just an observer and a participant in the culture of time.
Let’s begin with a fairly clear observation, at least clear to this amateur. It is that change can be very dislocating, a trigger for anxieties, fears, phobias. For that group of “some people,” their wish might be for happiness if only things could return to the ways they were when the “some” subclass members were young. My impression is that society has been in constant change with two relatively recent changes the fastest in the history of humankind. I refer to the industrial revolution and the computer revolution. Of the first--the industrial revolution, remember what we read in history courses about the Luddites--those in Great Britain who tried to protect their jobs by destroying the new machines that were taking away the only ways of earning a living they had ever known. The term Luddite comes from a Ned Ludd, supposedly a weaver apprentice, who destroyed a machine that would make him jobless. Like the story of Robin Hood, however, the story may be more apocryphal than real. There are many stories about similar anxieties in the 18th and 19th centuries. One is about a race between a horse-drawn carriage and a carriage moved by a steam engine. The steam engine huffed and puffed while pulling away from the starting point but it ultimately caught up with the horse drawn carriage as it and the steam engine moved down parallel tracks. But before the steam engine could complete the run, mechanical problems forced it to stop. About the second revolution, that of modern technology, I well recall the technology available to me when I began to teach high school English, history, and music. In those days, technology was the typewriter, and blue ink from the ditto machine and black ink on the hectograph with, at times, more black ink on one’s hands than on the copies of the master itself. Several years earlier,we learned of the power and effects of atomic bombs. Then came television with its test patterns and professional wrestling bouts and sets run by vacuum tubes. And shortly after came the explosions of data mining with commercial and personal computers. We have been living through rapid change that can be problematic for some and anxiety-causing for many others to absorb.
One month ago, I wondered about the effect of newspaper headlines on readers and the extent to which they might encourage anxiety. Here, taken from the Royal Oak Tribune, the Detroit Free Press, and the New York Times are some of the Sunday headlines. “Global Virus Shines light on Local Problems,” “At Mount Rushmore, Trump digs deeper into Nation’s Divisions,” “Update...Mi.5,972 deaths, 65,533 cases.” [Updated: 6206 deaths and 82,356 cases] ”Demanding an end to racism and police violence,” “Michigan educators support opening, but have worries.” “German Forces Fear Inroads by Neo-Nazis,” “Virus inundates Texas, fed by abiding mistrust of Government Orders,” and “In Show of Force, US sends carriers to South China Sea….” Each of these headlines preceded an article of several paragraphs or an entire page. We are presently in our own age of anxiety. People are fearing the Corona virus, fearing if symptoms will result in hospitalization and, if that, will they--as patients-- recover. Others are fearing job losses and hopelessness about jobs returning. We also have anxieties about the rights of minorities and the Black Lives Matter movement. The new anxiety is whether or not statues of Southern Civil War heroes of a lost cause should be maintained in place or in museums. Gun violence in this country is always fair game for debate. We are living through one of the most divisive periods in the history of our country.
A new book by Scott Stossel, national editor of the Atlantic Monthly, is titled “My Age of Anxiety.” As the title suggests, it is a personal confession about a man who is highly successful in his field even though he has some outrageously severe symptoms and episodes of anxiety. He is writing about his age of anxiety. Stossel writes early in his book that, “There is a vast encyclopedia of fears and phobias and anxieties--some you’ve heard of, others you probably have not.” Then, he lists some of them in a catalog that includes the fear of cheese, turophobia, aesthenophobia, the fear of fainting, emetophobia, the fear of vomiting, and -- one of my personal favorites--claustrophobia, the fear of being in an enclosed space. (The last one is my not- so- secret anxiety.)
Stossel admits that the rational side of the brain should be able--if only logic were to prevail--to handle or to minimize these fears. At a rational level, he knows he should not fear vomiting because his last experience was way back on March 15, 1977. But he does fear recurrence, and emetophobia is alive and well in his catalog of anxieties.
But with all of these issues and even more, his colleagues and friends have always thought of Stossel as unflappable, a person who handles stress easily and with grace. How can that be? He admits that he is always internally “flapped.” I’m reminded of an image I first heard from my graduate advisor. “Edward,” he said, “Be like the duck. The duck appears to be serene, graceful, and thoroughly enjoying his float across the pond. But under the surface, that duck is paddling like hell.” Perhaps the duck, too, is always flapped while appearing otherwise. Stossel, a professional at the top of his career, is resigned to having no cure for his phobias, at least not now. Why should he still worry about vomiting when his last episode was 43 years ago? Isn’t it time to get over it--a question so quick on the tongue, but impossible for him to achieve. Although he has learned how to be good in hiding his fears from others, his mind and body tell him his fears are real and continuing. But he has also learned to live with them. His book is not only entitled “My Age of Anxiety,” but the extended title after the colon is “Fear, Hope, Dread, and the search for peace of mind.” Yes, peace of mind, one of those universal human searches. And there you have his end point, his conclusion. One thing Stossel has learned is that we all have anxieties to one degree or another. The trick is to recognize that anxieties can be diagrammed on a bell curve. The line begins on the left side for those with too little anxiety. Yes, too little. Such people barely recognize the need to rise in the morning. They are completely satisfied with everything as it is. “No complaint here.” On the far right of the bell curve are those with so much anxiety that they want to stay in bed because it is so difficult to face this world of problems and fears. In the middle, are those at the top of the curve, those who have anxieties that are manageable, those who get out of bed because they have things to do and they believe they can do them. They are coping with the complexities unlike people at either end of the curve. Stossel is not and feels he never will be cured, but he does cope and he sees that somewhere out there is peace of mind. He has been helped by traveling through the land of genetics, using therapy, such prescriptions as Xanex, and recognizing the daily reality of his love of family--of his wife and two children. He has learned to hold on and he has learned the values of mutual sympathy.
And now I bring you to the actual source of the title of this homily, “The Age of Anxiety.” Not just Anxiety, not a history, not an autobiographical confession, and not a smattering of headlines. “The Age of Anxiety” is a long poetic study of western cultural anxiety written in 1944 and 1945, published in England in 1947 and in this country in 1948. It is a poem responsible for W. H. Auden’s award of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
When Auden was writing this poem, WW2 was nearly at an end, and he seems to be asking, “What’s next?” Alan Jacobs, the most recent editor of the poem, begins his introduction with this hint of an answer. “‘The Age of Anxiety begins in fear and doubt, but the four protagonists find some comfort in sharing their distress. In even this accidental and temporary community there arises the possibility of what Auden once called ‘local understanding.’” In The Age of Anxiety, three of Auden’s key terms are parts of the monologues in this book-length poem. They are comfort, community sharing, and local understanding. Certain anxieties may be overcome not by the altering of geopolitical or even individual conditions, but by the cultivation of mutual sympathy--perhaps mutual love, even among those who hours before had been strangers. Wow, “mutual love,” a simple phrase for such a powerful feeling.
Four characters are in this poem of “The Age of Anxiety.” Malin, a shrewd, knowledgeable observer of life, seems to represent thoughts of the poet himself. In part one, Malin meditates on the image of man in a bomber flying over enemy territory in World War II, dealing death on countless people below. Some of you will remember pictures of a plastic bubble below the body of American bombers. In that bubble sat a man with a machine gun, a man whose job it was to kill before he was killed. In the poem, that man is Bert, the “Greenhouse gunner.” Here is the meditation that ends with this thought that becomes a chorus in the thoughts of others. That chorus line is, “Many have perished; more will.”
Untalkative and tense, we took off
Anxious into air; our instruments glowed,
Dials in darkness, for dawn was not yet.
Pulses pounded; we approached our target,
Conscious in common of our closed Here
And of THEM out THERE, thinking of US
In a different dream, for we die in theirs
Who kill in ours…..
We began our run;
Death and damage darted at our will,
Bullets were about blazing anger
Lunged from below, but we laid our eggs
Neatly in their nest, a nice deposit,
Hatched in an instant; houses flamed in
Shuddering sheets as we shed our big
Tears on their town.
[Enemy planes appear.]
We fought them off
But paid a price; there was pain for some.
“Why have They killed me?” wondered our Bert, our
Greenhouse gunner, forgot our answer,
Then was not with us….
Many have perished; more will.
The second reading is a progression of Malin’s meditation. It comes from the poem’s sixth part, focusing on the difficulty of change.
Do we learn from the past? The police,
The dress-designers, etc.,
Who manage the mirrors, say--No,
A hundred centuries hence
The gross and aggressive will still
Be putting their trust in a patron
Saint or a family fortress. ….
We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
And there you have it--the need to evaluate and adapt to change in our age of anxiety. The antidotes to Auden’s pessimism reside in those wondrous goals of comfort, community, sharing love and being loved, and local understanding. To those anxiety antidotes, I add: be or become engaged--engaged in life and in the reality of truth and the sacred search for individual and societal improvement. How do I cope? I play golf...not well, but I do play and I like the company of being with good friends. I walk around the neighborhood; I listen to favorite music. We would do well with our own anxieties in these threatening days to consider coping strategies and then to find our own ways of living through these difficult times. It can be done. Stossel and Auden give not cures for anxiety, but at least a start.
May it be so, and Amen.