Imagine standing on a chessboard, the game is in mid-play. You are surrounded by pieces, both black and white. You are to move next, that much you know, but you don’t know if you are a black or a white piece and there’s no way of telling.

That’s how I’d describe the feeling of anxiety.

We all feel it to some degree.* It’s a feeling of not knowing what is expected of us: what our obligations are, how we should behave, what we should possess, where we should be at some future point. It’s a feeling of dread about the choices we have to make.

Anxiety is the sibling of regret. While regret is feeling bad about something you have done, anxiety is not knowing what to do. Like the chess piece, we’re turning over in our minds the possible moves we can make without really knowing how we can move, even though we have to.

Any solution to the normal feeling we all have of anxiety would have to be radical. It’s a deep-seated emotion. Perhaps it’s a compulsion, a restlessness of the mind that keeps us thinking, imagining, and — most importantly — doing.

The Danish Existentialist Søren Kierkegaard suggested that it was intractably fundamental to being human, it’s the other side of the same coin as our freedom. Fear and dread are emotional responses to what we cannot control, anxiety seems linked to the part we play in our own destiny.

To be able to make free choices is to have responsibility weigh upon you. To remove anxiety, it would follow, is to deny our humanity, to stop planning and seeking.

But it seems to me there’s more to it than that. Anxiety isn’t necessary to life, like a heart; it’s incidental to life, like a shadow.

Sigmund Freud made the distinction that fear has an object, and anxiety does not. You can fear real spiders in your garage, or a possible terrorist attack on the train you are riding, or an election result. Anxiety on the other hand is a generalized feeling about the future. That’s what makes it so hard to defeat, it’s implacable. To fight it is like throwing punches into a surrounding fog.

It seems to me that anxiety is our fear of how others would judge us, not any specific “others”, like parents or friends (although they may swirl around in your ruminations), but a non-specific otherness that has expectations of you — now and in the future — that is impossible to guess before we make a decision.

In the novel The Trial by Franz Kafka we have the perfect illustration of the psychological mechanics of anxiety. Our protagonist, Josef K, is prosecuted by an unknown and unreachable authority, with the nature of the crime he supposedly committed never revealed to him.

We can manage our anxieties in many ways, but we’d lose something of ourselves if we lost it altogether. One thing we can do for sure is help others with their anxiety.

We can listen to them, we can allow them a sounding board to talk through the insecurities they may have for the decisions they have to make. What can be a cathartic experience for them can be a learning experience for us. Kindness can be a light taken to the shadows of anxiety.

Thank you for reading.

* At its worst, anxiety can be all consuming (anxiety disorder), and requires specialist help. Speak to a doctor or a therapist if you feel your anxiety is getting out of control.

The lessons of philosophy and history, their practical benefits for your life and work. Feel free to get in touch: stevengambardella@gmail.com

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