The world is a terrifying place right now. For someone like me – someone who already suffers from acute anxiety – it’s easy believe that this is the world my anxiety always told me was near.
America is being plagued by an opioid epidemic, and climate change continues unimpeded. International relations are unsteady, and war is a possibility. Antibiotic resistance is becoming an increasingly close nightmare, like a freight train in the night while we are all tied down to the tracks. America is at its own throat, more politically divided than ever, and we have watched the rise of a populist clown with a (potential) personality disorder. The list of dangers goes on and on, and is enough to make any sane person drink too much.
In the face of all these horrors in the world, what is the little man to do? These are the problems of the big people with large minds: for the Elon Musks and Bill Gates of the world. The rest of us feel helpless – what are we to do to bring our world back into balance? Most of us don’t know. So we live helplessly, fearfully. We go to work, we drive our cars, we live our frantic little lives. We elect our officials into office, driven by a fear-induced madness, hoping against hope that they will be our salvation.
I’ve struggled with anxiety my whole life. After I was in a shooting in 2007, PTSD acted as a steroid for my already hyperactive amygdala, and the anxiety peaked to horrific, grotesque proportions. I looked at the world around me, and saw no hope. Every night I would have nightmares, and every morning I would wake to a new panic attack that would last until I collapsed in bed the following night, shaking and exhausted. I couldn’t invest in a future, because I didn’t believe that I – or the world – had a future. I couldn’t even look six months forward, because the possibility of being killed, or a meteor hitting the earth, or a pandemic wiping out all humanity, or an EMP detonating in our skies and turning us into warring tribes, was just too great. I absorbed all the fringe conspiracy theories about the end of the world as well as the real threats to humanity, and I was left completely helpless.
Overcoming that anxiety has been the great unseen victory of my life. It’s my greatest success, my great American novel. Occasionally, my anxiety and I have a rendezvous – we meet again on some dark night or in some cold winter, and we have to come to terms again. Each time, it feels like it will kill me; each time, it wears a new, horrific face; each time, by God’s grace, I come out still alive, if a bit wounded and altered.
My battle with anxiety has taught me some important lessons in the face of despair, and the chief lesson is this: the little man does have something to do. We do have a place, and we do have a battle to fight. I gain hope from the words of Miss Whatsit in L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, describing the cosmic battle against evil:
All through the the universe it’s being fought, all through the cosmos, and my, but it’s a grand and exciting battle. I know it’s hard for you to understand about size, how there’s very little difference in the size of the tiniest microbe and the greatest galaxy. You think about that, and maybe it won’t seem strange to you that some of our very best fighters have come right from your own planet, and it’s a little planet, dears, out on the edge of a little galaxy. You can be proud that it’s done so well.
The future of our planet depends in no small part upon how we – the Normal People – practice our capacity for focus and integrity. As we watch the rise of uncertain, dangerous powers, we little people begin by putting our own houses in order. We need people – everyday people – living their own lives with integrity, focus, and mindfulness. We need the everyday geniuses to work their intelligence at the community level. This is how a better world is made.
My own act of defiance against despair is to put my own life in order, and to live with as much integrity and focus as I can. Over the next couple weeks, I will spell out how I plan to do that.