This week I sometimes felt frustrated when trying to soothe our three week-old baby girl. She’s not particularly fussy, but requires a lot of attention. When my wife sent me some tips on how calm the baby, courtesy of Ask Dr. Sears, it got me thinking about how as adults, we devote a majority of our adult lives to the same self-comforting activities, and through them, learn to tranquilize the anxiety that comes from dealing with the choices and responsibilities of our freedom.
As Dr. Sears reminds us, birth is traumatic, so activities that help re-create the feeling of security the baby was accustomed to in the womb will calm her down. Here are some of them:
- Rhythmic motion
- Soothing sounds
- Visual delights and distractions
- Close physical contact and touching
When I saw this list I thought: how is this different from our adult needs? We constantly engage in activities to produce the same effects. We like to zone out on treadmills, bicycles, swimming or walk at a steady pace. We listen to music in the car, on our iPods, in the office, department stores, elevators, doctors’ offices, in cafes & restaurants. In pretty much every space we inhabit every day, there is music playing, whether we are aware of it or not. And then there are the visual delights; television, movies, sports, the internet, neon, video games and of course our hobbies. We never really lose our need for close physical contact. We can’t go through a single day without at least a handshake, hug, or if you are the Obamas, a fist bump.
So how come we never outgrow these things? It’s all about avoiding anxiety. The baby feels anxiety in her strange new environment as opposed to the womb, where everything was safe and predictable, so we spend our lives trying to re-create this feeling. If we don’t, we become anxious. That anxiety comes in many forms; it is the tension between the life we dream of versus the life we live. It is our response to uncertainty and the unexpected changes in our carefully planned routines.
But mostly, adult anxiety comes from making choices. So we wall ourselves off from difficult choices and choose not to choose (which of course in itself, is a choice). As business philosopher Peter Kostenbaum writes, “Our anxiety tips us off to the existence of our freedom: It reminds us of our huge responsibility to choose who we are and to define our world.”
We create our predictable routines to tranquilize ourselves as a defense mechanism, to protect us from the anxiety of freedom. The result is a life half-lived; we cannot grow without risk and failure. This is why as children, when we have limited responsibility, we tend not to fear these things and so we make exponential leaps in our learning. I often ask my students, “When was the last time you made a breakthrough in something?” Most have to think back to childhood: learning to ride a bike, to swim, to walk or talk. As adults, we have limited ourselves to avoid making the difficult choices that place us in the realm of the unknown and especially from failing.
So I’ve come to see this anxiety that I experience every day in my unconventional life, lived without a safety net, as one that constantly compels me to grow. It is not something I want to avoid, on the contrary; it’s the creative force behind everything I do. I don’t want drugs, I want the experience, no matter where it takes me. In teaching presentation skills, I often ask, “What’s the difference between the nervousness you say you feel before a group, and excitement, because aren’t the physical responses the same?” The answer is, what you call it. A big wave has an unpredictable energy behind it that is frightening, exhilarating, or both at the same time. The enjoyment is in riding it, versus being a spectator of your life on a distant beach.
Each of us deals with anxiety in different ways. Those of you who read these posts know that I take my solace in nostalgia, even for those times in the last century before I was born. This is an escape like any other, yet in my life, I am purposefully creating irreversible change. I am Cortes, beaching my ships, not giving myself the option to go back, as safe or as comfortable as it might have been. If I fail, I will fail spectacularly, but most likely, I will find a way, as each of us does, to find comfort and safety in the world I create.
“Past all thought of “If” or “when”, no use resisting
Abandon all thought and let the dream descend”
— Andrew Lloyd Webber, Phantom of the Opera