Death vs Anxiety



I first learned about memento mori when I was a kid. Probably from a show on PBS. My mother had placed an importance on us knowing we could die and what being mortal meant. I’m guessing she was hoping it would keep all of us alive. And, so far so good. (despite doing a ton of stupid shit like sledding towards a fast moving river in the middle of winter). I am now using death to help me calm the hell down when I start spiraling into an anxiety pit of freak-out.

I have anxiety. It can be difficult for me to leave my house. It is difficult for me to interact with strangers and communication in general is not my strong suit. I began working towards resolving this several years ago and it has gotten better. Not great. But better. One of my reminders to myself is that I can drop out of existence at any moment and I should put my social anxieties in perspective of my own mortality. How can I be comfortable with my demise but freaked out if a stranger asks me a question? It’s bananas.

Peter Tillich published a paper in 1952 called “The Courage to Be” that also used death to address anxiety His paper and views were intertwined with his faith and belief in God, which I do not share. Despite my atheism, I found it to contain interesting ideas. He believed that there were 3 major sources for human anxiety.  The anxiety of fate and death, the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness, and the anxiety of guilt and condemnation. He uses faith and God to create a comfort with these anxieties and being able to proceed through life with hope despite the reality of death. While that aspect was lost on me, I enjoyed his use of acceptance and recognition of our impending nonexistence to empower a person to be anxiety free. Something that must’ve been tough in the wake of WWII.  

The same can be used to address my anxieties as they pop up and thwart my attempts to get groceries and have it be enjoyable. In a review of Tillich’s work Jenn Lindsay (Boston University, 2012) wrote, “Tillich differentiates anxiety from fear in that fear has a definite object which can be faced and attacked, endured or conquered, whereas anxiety has no object…Without an object or a tactic to defeat it, anxiety surfaces as the pain of impotence, negation and disempowerment.” So, I’ve begun a new internal dialogue when I start to feel anxiety building up. I ask myself what am I doing/about to do that is bringing this on? Why is making me feel incompetent/negated/dis-empowered? And I can address the chain of events that led me to feel those things. At that point, I can face the origin of the anxiety and realize that I’m pulling up old instances of those emotions and assigning them to present day situations. Old traumas and fears I didn’t even realize I hadn’t addressed and resolved. When this is unsuccessful (or I can’t sit and contemplate for 20 minutes), I can rely on good old death to make me realize that what I am feeling cannot be allowed to rule over my existence and take down my happiness during a life that can end at any moment.

Hopefully, these tactics used in tandem will help me address old shit and rebuff new shit until my anxiety has been squashed with confrontation and death. Death is our constant companion and can be used to give strength and hope to live a happy life instead of ignored and shoved in a closet.

Marcus Aurelius entered in his personal journal, “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” I intend on doing just that.