Two Forms of Anxiety
Several decades ago (1950/1977), the existential psychologist and writer, Rollo May, authored The Meaning of Anxiety. In that book, he distinguished between two types of anxiety. He designated one type as pathological anxiety; he described a second type as existential anxiety. May believed that how we respond to the latter has much to do with whether or not we will experience the former. In his conceptualization, if we repress existential anxiety, we might very well develop pathological anxiety, along with other impairments that come with a denial of existential realities. Anxiety in all is forms leads to some restriction in the way one approaches life. The existential givens of life are limitations. We cannot be who and what we are not. When we deny or try to escape who we are, then anxiety can become more pronounced, and strictures of living can become more powerful impediments to our way of life.
Our True Nature and All Things Political
I rarely allow my libertarian spirit loose on this blog and write about things political. As a libertarian, I despise most things political. Rollo May’s conceptualization, however, of existential and pathological anxiety provides a good framework for how we can understand what has transpired over the last couple of months with COVID-19 government mandates, the rapacious hammering of an economy and people’s rights to earn a living for themselves and their families, and the wholesale giving over of Natural Rights to the State. I will speak to this cowardly act on the part of citizens, not only as a libertarian, but also as a Christian who understands life’s limitations from a Biblical perspective as to our finite and fallen nature. In our response to COVID-19 we chose to place strictures on our living due to our neurotic anxieties in the face of life’s limitations.
Our Enemy the State
It may well be that COVID-19 is even more dangerous and deadly than once imagined and predicted; however, presently that doesn’t appear to be the case. Even if COVID-19 turns out to be something akin to the Black Plague, that reality would furnish no excuse for the giving over of Natural Rights to the State. Indeed, any emergency situation where people are called to work together to deal with exigent situations is the very time to become more vigilant in safeguarding Natural Rights. Emergencies are food for the State to seize Natural Rights for the stated reason that it knows what is better for everyone concerned. The siren call one hears from the State singing it benevolent protection is one that should chill, not warm, the soul of people who truly value liberty.
Existential Anxiety: Risks Inherent in Living
Existentialists of various conceptualizations have described the tensions, struggles, and risks that comprise our journeys called life. Kirkegaard spoke of the dizziness of freedom, that weight we feel when we realize that we are responsible for our choices. Nietzsche spoke of the pressure that man faces in reevaluating his own values so as to avoid sacrificing himself to a herd mentality. Satre addressed man’s being condemned to freedom. Camus challenges man to live as a rebel, even in the face of what he felt to be an absurd existence.
Existential psychologists and psychotherapists expounded upon existential philosophical conceptualizations, such as those stated above, to describe certain forms of anxiety that are inherent in facing the many crossroads of decisions that make up our day-to-day existence. Irvin Yalom described four givens or themes of existence that we face in our human struggle: death, freedom and responsibility, meaning, and existential isolation. Others built on these to explicate their own view of existential approaches to therapy. Viktor Frankl explored the human need to search for meaning. Rollo May explored the notion of anxiety in depth to help us understand the dilemmas that are inherent in our struggle to carve out lives for ourselves. Although all these various conceptualizations contain food for thought, I believe they additionally must be understood through the truths of Biblical revelation,
Existential Anxiety and Pathological Anxiety
Rollo May described the normal challenges of life that we face as mechanisms that generate normal or existential anxiety. Inherent in living are threats to our various forms of existence. Can I provide for myself and my family? In such provision, can I also place myself and family in a safe environment where they not only have food on the table and a roof over their head, but they also have their health concerns provided? Can I keep safe so as to maintain safety for my family? And then, what about the day-to-day decisions I make? Will they be choices that continue the care I’m responsible for in terms of my own existence, as well as those I love? What if I make a bad decision? A wrong decision? What if I lose my job and income? What if I become ill and cannot take care of myself or family?
Inherent in all these questions are the normal anxieties of daily living. If we deny the struggle we are thinking more like an adolescent or child than an adult. The struggles and dangers are real. Facing the challenges that life throws at us is what Rollo May and others call the courage to exist. Rather than denying existential threats, we face up to them and fight to carve out and protect our livelihoods. When we deny these existential threats, then we can be swept away into neurotic anxiety. This happens to people because the challenges of living do not simply go away because we don’t want them to be present. If we don’t face up to them, then they manifest themselves in other ways in our being. We are responsible for the choices we make. We cannot escape that reality. Likewise, individually we must search out what is truly meaningful in our lives. In that sense, we make or at least come to discover how we can make meaning in and for our lives. We are all finite and must face the fact that one day we will die and cease to be. Individually, no one else can live our lives for us or make decisions for us. To cast this responsibility onto others is to act irresponsibly and cowardly.
Casting our Fate to the State
I have to admit that one of the most disappointing failures I’ve witnessed is our wholesale giving over of Natural Rights to the State due to the fear generated by COVID-19. First, let me say so that no caricatures or false narratives are applied to this blog, the threat of COVID-19 is real. I don’t believe it reaches the magnitude proclaimed by those in power, but it is real. Even if it does reach the predicted magnitude, the failure on our part as a free people is unsettling. We have cast upon the State the responsibility to take care of us, giving over to their dictates as to how we should live, what she should deem as essential, and the ways we should conduct our daily affairs, from the way we relate to our family and friends to the way we go about providing for our basic needs.
Note the devolution of Natural Rights that occurred over a period of just a few weeks. First, we engaged having to take precautions as we navigated our daily lives. Then precautions turned into dictates as to what kind of work is considered essential and what kinds of livelihood are non-essential. These designations determined by the State basically labeled people’s ways of living as important and not important. The devolution did not stop there. In some states, mandates equated to house arrests. Citizens were asked to spy on other citizens and report them if they violated certain mandates. The shock came at how easily citizens aligned with this role. Certain products in stores became designated as essential or non-essential. Activities, like mowing one’s yard, were criminalized or so near-criminalized that individuals feared being reported, shamed, or both if they engaged such activities. Certain governors of particular states took it upon themselves to determine whether people could even go for a drive. Police officers appeared at a mother’s house because she allowed her daughter to play outside. One governor went so far as trying to shut down an Interstate and an entire community because people disagreed and did not align with her mandates as to when and how they could resume their daily business.
One silver lining is that politicians who implemented these Draconian measures are beginning to experience some push back. Although that is a good sign, a deeper question exists as to how we so easily let things get to the point they did in the first place. Historically we have witnessed one of the major mechanisms the State uses to restrict people’s liberty, to proffer something that threatens their existence on some level. We have seen this over the years from the Cold War to the War on Terror, and now to the War on COVID-19. I do not wish to continue offering this qualifier, but again, I do not deny the threat of the COVID-19 virus. What I deny is that we as a people should have in a wholesale manner handed over to the State without thought and without hesitance our Natural Rights. If there is a more blatant example of pathological anxiety than our response to COVID-19 with our acquiescence to the State, I can’t for the life of me think of what it would be.
My Response as a Christian
Actions by the State in response to COVID-19 that bothered me the most entailed the blatant violation of freedom of worship and religion manifested in the closing down of churches and preventing people from coming together to worship. When a pastor is arrested for conducting church services, when people are fined and subjected to legal sanctions because they attend a worship whereby they stayed in their automobiles, and when the UN, WHO, and CDC desire to dictate to churches what they can and cannot do, then we have to ask what is going on here besides some concern for a virus.
I know many Christians will point to Romans 13 here as a proper Christian response. I agree but not to the point of acquiescence that some interpret that passage to mean. But that’s another discussion and blog article all together. As believers, we know via God’s word that life has been, is, and will continue to be full of existential threats. Although easier said than done, we are not be anxious. These exigent times of COVID-19 are prime times for the church to step forward and demonstrate what it can do and what it offers during such emergencies. The last thing we should do is hand all of our power to act over to the State.
Via God’s providence, we supposedly have created a government, not of men but of laws. My ultimate authority is God. Our ultimate legal authority here is the Constitution. We sold out the Constitution. We indicated by our actions that Natural Rights are not important when we embrace the Statist belief that those in political power know better how we should conduct our affairs than we do. I claim no omniscience at knowing how to navigate all the vicissitudes and vagaries associated with COVID-19. Such navigating would entail positive and negative experiences, getting some things right and other things wrong. Moreover, however, I recognize no omniscience on the part of the State to dictate to people how they should conduct their affairs, to know what ways of living are essential and non-essential, and to grant that it has the right to shutdown and annihilate an economy in the name of protecting people. Wilhelm Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism and Eric Fromm’s Escape from Freedom come to mind here. In mass hysteria, we ran into the arms of the State offering it everything we supposedly value to our core. In our neurotic anxieties, we traded liberty for security, and have gained neither. We restricted our way of living for a utopian promise.
I used the concept of Natural Rights throughout this blog. Suffice it to say without having to go into too much detail, as a Christian, I believe Natural Rights are endowed by a Creator. These times are scary, more than just for the reason of a virus. But in scary times, we as Christians have to look to our response to God and Christ our High Priest to understand, as Francis Schaeffer put it, how should we then live. Again, easier said than done, but our living should not be in fear. Our response to the State indicates that the mind of fear has ruled the way we see life. The way we see life has led us to acquiesce to the State. We have fled from the challenges inherent in life to live behind a mask that hides who we have become in our core. When this crisis passes, and it will pass, the question will be what masks remain on our souls that we sold to the State. We exchanged living fully for a utopian promise that no human being can, or has the right, to make and dictate.
To believe such promises from politicians is idolatry at its worse.
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/May 14th, 2020