Watch out for the undertow

This morning someone used the towel which hangs
in the bathroom, the one I claim for myself.  I’m not so much critical of the fact that someone else used
my towel – these things happen – but more the fact that when I went to dry myself,
the cold wet of an already damp towel jarred and left me in ill spirits on an
otherwise perfectly fine morning. 
Or is it a perfectly fine morning? 
Today I have promised one of
daughters that I will help her with an essay on the topic of fear and anxiety.  
We all know fear : that cliff
you’re about to drive over, that near miss on the road, that accidental slip of
the knife.  Fear, actual and
intense that sets off your adrenaline big time and leaves your underarms prickling with
sweat and a racing heart. 
But anxiety is worse.  Anxiety is insidious.  Something out there, sometimes you know
not what, sets your heart racing, your pulse soaring and all you know is that
you feel a deep sense of dread. 
The old fight/flight response to fear kicks in but it doesn’t budge.  It hangs around.  
When I feel anxious there’s nothing clear cut to
fight.  There’s nothing obvious to
flee and so I’m stuck, bathed in these hormones with a vague sense of what
might be troubling me but an inability to shift it because it is not what
might be called real. 
Even now I can feel it.  I try to attach it to something: that
talk I’m to give to a group of post grad students at the end of the week,
rehearsal anxiety, free-floating fear of the unknown, but is that enough? 
I’ve prepared for the talk.  It should be okay.  Is that enough? 
For me sometimes even thinking about
anxiety can make me anxious.  And
anxiety is contagious.  I pick it
up from other people, quick smart, especially from those who are near and dear
to me. 
It’s also the stuff of terrorism, the
ways in which certain people play on our fears to divide and conquer. 
In Thomas Keneally’s novel, Flying
Hero Class
, the narrator anticipates the
hijacking of a plane and makes a plea for solidarity among the passengers.
What they will do these hijackers,
he says, is to select a few of us for special treatment – cruel treatment.  Those selected will be chosen for some
fault of their history, culture or some such thing.  They will be isolated and punished.  Basically they will be punished in
order to split up the rest of the group. 
It’s an old technique.  Those not selected will gradually find
themselves withdrawing from these victims.  Gradually those not selected will feel a sense of blame
towards these others, a sense of their badness.  And all of this will emerge out of a sense of not having
been chosen. 
We must avoid the process at all
cost, the narrator argues.  Solidarity will help
us.  Black and white, Jew and
gentile must come together to avoid the divisiveness of the hijackers. 
‘I’ve seen hesitant people
bludgeoned by an appeal to solidarity,’ she writes.  ‘Solidarity can be used to mock genuine doubt, to blur a
fatal skid in reasoning.  Run the
flag up the pole and see who salutes. 
Whenever I feel in myself the warm emotional rush of righteousness of
belonging, that accompanies the word solidarity, I try to remember to stop and
wait till the rush subsides so I can have a harder look at what has provoked
I too can feel the clash of anxiety,
alongside my wish to belong when I press the send button to make a comment on
that controversial blog, No Place for Sheep, where people can be very generous and thoughtful and yet a other times they might brawl on line
about important topics and some actually abuse one another. 
But I am drawn to this anxiety, too, like
a toddler to an open socket.  I’m
drawn to the excitement of it, the kick-in of hormones that can leave me
feeling more alive.  
anxiety life might become too drab and ordinary.   But watch out for the underto, or the ‘under toad’ as the young Walt, a character in John Irving’s novel, The world According to Garp, calls it.  
Anxiety needs to be optimal to inspire and fire you up.  But too much anxiety and you wind up paralysed.