Living Anxiety, and the many ways we fail to kill it [Part #4, Suppress]

My boys are not that unusual from other kids their age. They love Thomas the Train, they are loud and spontaneous, and they don’t like eating their vegetables. When my wife and I set the table, they look at their plates and declare “I don’t like that.” We respond with, “How do you know, you’ve never had that before.” And they respond with clairvoyance “I already know I don’t like that.” Almost every dinner that same pattern repeats itself: their declaration, our response, their prophetic knowing, and the struggle persists.

The Pixar® Movie Inside Out has a great line that our family often quotes. The green emotion character, Disgust, is in charge of keeping her person, Riley, from being “poisoned both physically and socially.” When a foreign food is offered to her, Disgust takes control and says, “That is not brightly colored, or shaped like a dinosaur… Hold on guys… It’s Broccoli!” and she causes Riley to reject the food. That is JUST like our boys. Something foreign is not to be trusted and they will almost always reject what is being offered.

The same thing is true for most of us on a larger scale. New experiences, relationships, social settings, or responsibilities are great breeding ground for Disgust’s concern to pop up in our hearts. The unknown, the undetermined, and the vastness of possible outcomes can be overwhelming. It doesn’t take much, sometimes just a thought, and BAM! Anxiety is upon us. At the same time we experience Anxiety, we are again presented with all of our different strategies to try to get rid of it. In the previous Blog entries I discussed the two strategies of medicating and running away. We also have another unhelpful strategy: be like my young boys and stand your ground and determine your own fate.

In Adrian Van Kaam book, The Art of Existential Counseling, Van Kaam introduces three categories for experiencing events throughout your day: will-lessness, willfulness, and willingness. My boys are extremely Willful towards events like “dinner time” or “bed time” or anything that cause them to take a break from playing. In their minds they have pre-determined that whatever I may have to offer them cannot possibly be as good as what they are currently playing with. My oldest son’s first Thanksgiving, he could not be convinced that he would like Pumpkin Pie. There was another time I could not convince him that he would like an In-N-Out Burger Milkshake. Logic did not work. Talking through the main ingredients of a Milk Shake did not work. Appealing to our trust-relationship as Father and Son did not work. His expectations controlled his reality, and his unbending will kept him from receiving a real gift that he would have enjoyed tremendously.

I am just like my son. I want to eliminate as many surprises and foreign experiences as possible to avoid the unwelcome feeling of Anxiety. For this reason, when I begin my day I have largely predetermined its outcome. I know the meetings I need to go to, and I have desires for how they will go. I know the people I will talk to, and I know what I need to get from them. When I come home from work I have expectations of my wife and my children and how they will interact with me. When any of these events or people deviate from my expectations, rather than embrace it, I willfully force it fit my small expectations.

When I exchange what is for what I expect, I am no longer living in reality – I’m living in my ego. My children cease to be real people, my wife ceases to be a unique individual, even events are reduced to sitcom. In fact, everything becomes just another extension or projection of my own ego. God, in his limitless and infinite agency is not safe from being replaced by a much smaller projection of what my ego can more easily control. The limit of what can be hijacked by our ego knows no bounds. The reduction of unknowns in order to ultimately reduce anxiety comes at a great cost.

Of all the bad strategies to get rid of Anxiety, I think most people use this one the most. As long as there are possibilities in a day there is potential for anxiety. The danger with this strategy is that it keeps you from trying Pumpkin pie and In-N-Out Burger Milkshakes. It keeps you from enjoying the unexpected and unpredictable. It could open you up to heartache, but it could also open you up to love that you could have never conceived of with your small expectations.

Posted in Emotions, Existential, Spiritual Formation, Strategies.