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.  

10 thoughts on “Watch out for the undertow”

  1. A very well written interesting piece. Strange how people react :" Gradually those not selected will feel a sense of blame towards these others, a sense of their badness" That already makes me feel anxious as it is a bit scary. Something I find it hard to understand that people can react in my view not very logical. Anxiety is a wel known much dreaded monster to me too.I don't need a lot of excitement and certainly not anxiety to feel alive though. I feel more alive when relaxed as I walk through the bush.

  2. Interesting post Elizabeth – as you say a certain amount of both fear and anxiety sharpens the wits and does no harm at all, but it is when we let these feelings take over that the trouble starts.

  3. I don't know anything about anxiety, it isn't something I suffer from, but I understand about the cold dampness of a towel you were expecting to be soft and dry. I hate that too.
    I hope your daughter's essay turns out well.

  4. Until I fell sick a few years back—I’ve lost track of how many years, six I think—I was familiar with stress (it was a constant in my life) and occasionally worry (although I didn’t regard myself as a worrier per se) but now even though I’m ‘better’—i.e. not officially sick and no longer on any kind of medication—anxiety is something I’m finding I’m having to live with every day and yet if you were to ask me why I was anxious, what are you anxious about, my answer would be nothing or something trivial not worth fretting about. The fact is I have nothing I need worry about. I’m an intelligent man and well aware that worry, although natural, does no good, the very opposite in fact, but what I experience day by day isn’t worry because as soon as I add the preposition ‘about’ I find I come up blank; I’m not worried about anything but I am anxious and that anxiety has more in common with a fear of the unknown that a concern with anything specific. I’m stressed but I’ve no clue what the stressor might be. Logic dictates there must be one—for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction (not sure if Newton applies here)—but I’m damned if I can put my finger on it. I do, however, recognise a correlation between the value we ascribe to things and their capacity to induce stress.

    Let’s take this comment for instance. I will probably spend an hour or more writing this. I’ve never sat down and timed how long I spend responding to your blogs but I would doubt I ever take any less than an hour. I write, I read, I tweak, I reread, write a bit more, read again until I paste my response into Blogger and reread one final time and even then I often hesitate over clicking the Publish Your Comment button unsure that I’ve said what I really wanted to say. It’s important to me—a measure of friendship perhaps?—that my comments are meaningful and yet I allow them to become more of a burden than they should be. It’s worse when I’m foggy as I am today, as I am more than I care to be these days. Confusion causes anxiety and so I cut down on the work. But the more I do that the harder what I’ve left myself to do seems to become. It’s as if my body is determined to maintain x degree of anxiety—not sure what the correct unit of measurement for anxiety is—no matter what I task myself with.

    The towel thing would bother me. Not the towel specifically—I don’t care what towel I use to be honest—but that kind of thing. I used to get really wound up at work if someone used my cup or plate. I cling to order and routine like a life raft. We lunch at noon, eat tea at five, stop work and watch TV at half-six, snack at nine and go to bed at eleven. Of course I expect to go to sleep just after eleven and get frustrated if my body doesn’t want to. I try to be patient and wait out the anxiety but I can see no pattern to any of it although I do suspect that my sleep patterns (which refuse to settle down) are a major factor. There’s nothing worse than waking up tired and unable to work.

  5. I've missed your writing, Elisabeth. How inspired and actually calm I feel when I read your words. I think anxiety is like a drug some brains crave – feed off. Maybe it's in the DNA and we simply have to make it work for us. It could be the thing that makes you write. I'm thinking you've probably after all this time found the off switch for when you're sick of it [sorry about the wet towel]

  6. I'm sorry to be so slow to respond to your comment, Marja. These days I'm finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with everything but it's lovely to hear from you.
    I can understand the sense that being relaxed makes you feel more alive. I have such moments, too, only I seem to be more often on alert.

    Thanks, Marja.

  7. Trouble starts indeed, Pat, when anxiety passes beyond that optimal level. Then we begin to spiral down into paralysis. I hope it doesn't happen to you, nor to me, nor to anyone of us here. It's not a happy state.

    Thanks, Pat.

  8. I think my daughter's essay is okay, River. She handed it in last week so now she's onto the next and the next and the next, as these things go.

    You're a fortunate soul, River, to have no experience of anxiety. It's my constant companion, and I suspect I'm not alone in that, but as I hope I've suggested it can have its good sides, though not when in excess.

    Thanks, River.

  9. Jim, you are so generous in the effort you make at our online friendship. I had no idea it takes you so long to write your responses here and I admire you and am grateful for it. But please don't let it become a burden. I'd hate for any of this blogging thing to become a burden.

    I tell myself I can only do my best and although I'm like you – I like a certain order in my life – the order can be strangely chaotic as long as I can get over too much of the out of control feelings that can creep in with anxiety.

    Reading our post here made me think yet again that perhaps the greatest anxiety for all of us applies to the fact of our deaths one day, and for most of us we do not know when that will be.

    I suspect the inevitability of death can be most anxiety producing, because no matter how hard we try to order our lives, to keep safe and cared for, death will slip in when we might least expect it.

    Thanks, Jim

  10. It's lovely to see you again, Phyllis. I think you may be right: I have a sort of off switch for anxiety when it reaches the too-much stage and it takes the form of taking myself out of it for a while, usually by watching an engrossing movie or some such passive activity that can draw me away from myself if only for a short while.

    Thanks, Phylllis.

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