empathy

How To Detangle The Web Of Worldly Anxieties

Artwork by Cinta Vidal

Artwork by Cinta Vidal

Today, we have everything we need, houses, high paying jobs, date night dresses, instant sex, constant contact with people through social media, and yet there is something missing and we don’t really know what it is. As the core of what most of us want is to be happy and lead fulfilling lives. Being super busy is often glorified, we are plugged in 24*7 and everything is become faster and more efficient, we are always told we need something bigger and better and quick fixes for our problems.

We are broken eggs running in a race without knowing why we are running, competing with millions of sperms to fertilize into seeds of our far-fetched ambitions which aren’t really our own, and clawing to materialism like it’s the warpaint our trembling bodies desperately need. Beyond any specific thing we happen to be worrying about, we are simply anxious, and this anxiety is a permanent feature of life.

Tortured by anxiety, we often create powerful fantasies about what might bring us calm, like ones around travel, where at last, there would’ve be peace under the clear blue sky under an island 11.5 hours from here with warm water under the feet, it’s just a matter of holding on for a few moments and partying with an extraordinary sum, or perhaps we would be peaceful if our house could be the way we wanted with everything in it’s place – no clutter, pristine walls, cupboards, limestome, or if we reach the right place in that company where the novel is sold/the film is made we can walk amidst a group of strangers and know who we are, or if we have the right sort of person in our life who could understand us – a creature who would be kind and playful and empathetic and would have thoughtful compassionate eyes, and in their arms, we could lie in peace almost like a child. Travel, home, status, love, are the 4 great contemporary ideals of average fantasies of calm collect, yet despite the passion and promises expended in the pursuit of these goals, NONE OF THEM WORK. There will be anxiety at the beach, at the pristine home, and in the arms of anyone you could ever seduce.

Karl Marx, the revolutionary thinker, saw the gripping problems of our capitalist societies long before. Modern Work is alienated, specialised jobs make the modern economy highly efficient but they also mean that it is seldom possible for any one worker to derive the sense of genuine contribution they might be making to the needs to humanity. Morover, the work we do is insecure, as capitalism makes the human being extremely expendable and labour can be overpowered by technology anytime. Workers get paid little while capitalists get rich due to primitive accumulation (paying minimum to get max profit).

While many of us think of profit as our birthright, Marx saw profit as the fancy term for exploitation, it’s theft and what you are stealing is the hardwork and labour of the workers. Unstable, overworked, anxious lifestyles are what characterize most of our existence. Capitalist system forever forces everyone to put the economic system at the heart of their lives so that they can no longer know deep honest relationships, as marriage might be nothing but just an extension of business; people staying together not for love but for financial reasons. Commodity Fetishism – makes us value things which have no objective value. He wanted people to be freed from financial constraints so that they could at last start to make sensible healthy choices in their relationships.

The economic system colours the ideas we end up having, the economy generates an ideology, such as a person who doesn’t work is worthless, that leisure beyond a few weeks a year is sinful, that more belongings will make us happier. One of the biggest evils of capitalism is not that there are corrupt people at the top because that’s true in any human hierarchy but that capitalist ideas teach all of us to be anxious, competitive, conformists and politically complacent.

Another thinker – Sigmund Freud, hoped to understand why our lives and relationships are full of so much confusion and pain, why life is hard and how to cope. His own life was incurred with several anxieties and he was his chief patient. His frustrations probably led him to have great insights into the sources of human unhappiness. He talks about the PLEASURE PRINCIPLE which inclines us towards easy physical and emotional rewards and away from unpleasant things like treachery and discipline. As infants, we are primarily driven by the pleasure principles but can lead to dangerous reckless things later – never doing any work, eating too much, sleeping with members of our own family. We need to adjust to the REALITY PRINCIPLE which is the repression of the pleasure principle. To understand these dimensions, he encourages us to look back to our childhood.
First is the Oral phase – oral feelings around ingestion and eating. If parents aren’t careful, we may derive pleasure by refusing food, and we may hate depending on anyone else for food. Then comes, the Anal phase (potty training) where parents tell us what to do, when to go, and we begin to learn to test the limits of authority. If we feel that the authority is not benign enough – we might choose to withhold out of defiance and develop into anally retentive adults – not able to give or surrender.

Then is the Phallic phase, where children direct their sexual feelings towards parents ( the most immediate and gratifying people around). Most of us experience some form of confusion around our parents that later ties into our ideas of love. Parents give us love but mix it with disturbed behaviour. Yet because we love them, we remain loyal to them and also to their bizarre destructive patterns. For example, if our mother is cold, we will nevertheless long for her so we will be prone to associate love with a certain distance, naturally the result is very difficult adult relationships. Often the kind of love we have learnt from mum and dad means we can’t fuse sex and love because the people we learnt about love from were also the ones we were blocked from having sex with. We might find that the more in love with someone we are, the harder it becomes to make love to them leading to problems of intimacy.

We can’t make ourselves fully rational and we can’t change the society either. Society provides us with certain things but it does so by imposing heavy dictates on us, such as the incest taboo puts off imediate desires. Societies themselves are neurotic, that is how they function and that’s why there are constant wars and political troubles.

We might dismiss Freud’s ideas by saying that life isn’t so hard as he makes it out to be, but at one moment, we find ourselves filled with inexplicable anger towards our partner, or running high with unrelenting anxiety on the train to work, and we are reminded all over again just how illusive, difficult and Freudian our mental workings actually are.

Now, let’s look at what these thinkers thought about the solutions to the evils of modern lives. Marx believed that capitalism would eventually lead to communism (community living), a classless world without poverty, racism, sexism. Sigmund Freud believed that people could be cured by making conscious their unconscious thoughts and motivations, thus gaining insight. The aim of psychoanalysis therapy is to release repressed emotions and experiences, that is, make the unconscious conscious. Psychoanalysis is commonly used to treat depression and anxiety disorders. It is only having a cathartic (healing) experience can the person be helped and “cured”.

However, there seems to be no solution to human anxieties. Anxiety is a fundamental state for well-funded reasons because we are intensely vulnerable physical beings with complicated network of fragile organs all binding a time before letting us down catastrophically. We have got insufficient information, upon which to make major life decisions, we’re steering more or less blind because we can imagine so much more than what we have and live in immediate ties of society where envy and restlessness is always a constant, because with the descendence of the great warriors of the species, the others have been trampled and torn apart by wild animals, and we still carry in our bones into the corners of the suburbs, the terrors of the Savanah.

We have collectively failed to admit to ourselves what we truly like. We should learn to laugh about our anxieties, laugh to be the exuberant expression of relief when the hitherto private agony is given a well-crafted social formulation in a joke, we should hug – not forced intimacy but the melancholy sympathetic way angels do it having come down to earth to offer comfort to humans for the rude facts of earthly existence, we must suffer alone but we can at least hold out our arms to similarly tortured, fractured and perpetually anxious neighbours as if to say in the kindest way possible – “I KNOW”

Mediation, chanting, fasting, and pilgrimages, are known to be spiritual acts which help us reach states of higher consciousness. But however, it seems that the idea of higher consciousness has noting inherently to do with spirituality and can be described simply enough in strictly rational and secular terms.

For most part of our lives, we spend our lives functioning in lower states of consciousness where we are primarily concerned with our own selves, our survival, and our own success narrowly defined. Ordinarily life rewards practical, unintrospective and self-justifying outlooks, which are the hallmarks of lower consciousness. Neuroscientists speak of a lower part of the brain they call “The Reptilian Mind” and tell us under it’s way we strike back where we are hit, blame others, ask questions with no immediate relevance, and stick closely to a flattering image of who we are and where we are headed.

However, there are grand moments where our bodies are comfortable and quiescent, we can access our higher mind, the seed of imagination, empathy, impartial judgement, we loosen our hold on our own egos and ascend to a less biased and more universal perspective casting off a little of the customary anxious self-justification and brittle pride. In such states, the mind moves beyond it’s particular self-interest and cravings, we start to think about people in a more imaginative way, rather than criticise and attack we are free to imagine their behaviour being driven by pressures derived from their own primitive minds (such as temper and viciousness are symptoms of hurt rather than evil).

It’s an astonishing gradual evolution to develop the ability to explain other’s actions by their distress rather than simply in terms of how it affects us. We perceive that the appropriate response to humanity is not fear, cynicism, aggression but always when we can manage it – LOVE. At such moments, the world reveals itself as quite different – a place of suffering and misguided effort full of people striving to be heard and rushing out against others but also a place of tenderness and longing, beauty, touch, vulnerability, so a fitting response is universal sympathy and kindness. One’s own life seems less precious, one can contemplate being no longer present in tranquility, one’s interest to put aside and one may imaginatively fuse with transient or natural things -trees, bees, winds, clouds or waves breaking on the shore. From this point of view, status is nothing, possessions don’t matter, grievances lose their urgency. At this point, some people may be amazed at their transformation and newly found generosity and empathy.

States of higher consciousness are ofcourse desperately short-lived, we shouldn’t in any case aspire to make them permanent because they don’t sit so well with the many practical tasks we all need to attend to, but we should make the most of them when they do arise and when we need them. Higher consciousness is a huge triumph over the primitive mind which cannot invisit any such possibilities. Ideally, we should be a little more alive to the advantages of the higher mind
and strive to make our oceanic experiences somewhat less random, less clothed in unnecessary mystery.


Avnika Gupta is a 19 year old female writer based in New Delhi, studying Sociology and Psychology at Lady Shri Ram College For Women. She believes in unleashing our hidden human potential by connecting to our raw nature through art and promotes using theatre, poetry and dance to heal the world, as these are those fireworks that fill our damp eyes with the reassurance of shared existence, which break our romanticized idea of wandering as solitary beings