The late, great Irish poet Seamus Heaney once said, “anxiety can co-exist with determination,” but can anxiety and joy co-exist? Lately I have been meditating on this pair with some urgency. Clients and colleagues and loved ones and my own life have all offered opportunities for me to wonder about how best we might cope with terrible anxiety. It seems urgent to figure this out in order to live a full life—not to miss out on any joy, even when we are also worried.
What have I been hearing about? Just for starters: business ventures going wrong, difficult career transitions, family problems, money worries, conflicts and hurt feelings, medical and caretaking issues, even suicide. All of these difficulties have been in my awareness from the people I know, and our reactions to it all make it seem like we are creatures merely of flight or fight with no alternatives. So many people are trying to live life with an extra burden of fear and dread hanging over them–it makes me feel such tenderness for us all. Especially because I know that from within the buzz of anxiety in the mind and body it can seem like there is no other possible vibration or sound–it overpowers.
The philosopher Alain de Botton writes about the anxiety of not-knowing, too: “We do not know what will happen in our lives, we do not know where we will end up, what will befall those we love, what will be the results of our efforts, whether our devotions will bear fruit, whether our hopes will be fulfilled, and our dreams realised or dashed.” He writes of the need to break the circuit of fretting, and to somehow bring some “dignity and tragic grandeur” to our fragility. And, I would add, to be present to any joyful moments that come.
Meditation, yoga, exercise, feeling your feelings, getting close to those we love by being vulnerable–there are proven ways to help manage anxiety, not to mention diet, medication, and other ways people get relief. But for people in the throes of difficult times (and who among us is not sometimes?) the anxiety creeps back, it maintains a low background buzz to everything, keeping us sort of frozen and amped up all at once. High levels of anxiety can also lead to a co-existing condition of depression.
Of course, many of us also cope with anxiety by doing things that actively hurt: numbing out, addiction, isolating–these are solutions of a kind, but not sustainable. In this way, we know that pushing away anxiety–sending it underground–only assures it will return in the form of an much more unpleasant symptom or accident.
I’d like to propose a truce, that we create a way to live with anxiety that is adapted to this time and place, when it is a rampant, widespread state of being. And that is merely the stance that joy is the goal. Happiness these days is on every self-help book cover like a strident schoolmarm, clients often say guiltily to me “I should just be happy. What’s wrong with me?”. But joy is spontaneous, momentary–it’s too much to ask and for that reason it’s out of bounds of the “5 easy steps to total perfection” advice-world that only seems to add to our anxiety.
Joy comes upon us when we are vulnerable and actually open to life. When we are caught off guard and blown-open, or when we suddenly perceive the whole meaning of everything for a bright minute of pleasure and meaning. I think adding in a practice of being open to joy, of seeking a felt sense of joy in your own body, is a touchpoint for not giving over too much to the anxiety lurking in every phone call, email and text.
And I’ve noticed that even from within these stories of dread and fear, there are also moments of clarity spoken about; connecting with kids, nature, the spirit world, poetry, music. Someone spoke about unexpectedly seeing a picture of herself as a little kid, and being suddenly flooded with tenderness for this tiny being that she had been harshly berating all day. Someone else heard a song that chanted, “I feel it all…I feel it all…” and felt a kinship with everyone. A moment in mourning where the memorial service works and there is a collective grieving that helps everyone a bit.
Seeking for these moments, being on-watch for them, is an ordinary way we can get a handle on the anxiety-producing world we live in, and to create a way to balance our inner and outer systems so we don’t miss our lives.