• Stefan

So what is wrong with the world?

Apparently G.K. Chesterton wrote a whole book on the subject, one which I have just ordered and can’t wait to read, and so I thought it would make a good title for this my first attempt at a blog. I’ve not read anything by Chesterton before, but apparently when asked the question of what is wrong with the world by reporters, Chesterton would often respond with what strikes me as devastating sincerity and humility, “I am.”

This humorous and novel response struck me to the core, and reminded me immediately of what the clinical psychologist, Jordan Peterson bangs on about constantly when referring to one of his major inspirations Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It relates to his analysis that a lack of courage and personal responsibility by countless individuals, massively contributed to the worst horrors of the Soviet Communist Era, and the unending horrors of their vast Gulag prison system.

It unflinchingly and courageously places the sovereign individual, Chesterton’s own good self in this instance, in a position of personal responsibility towards himself and others. It takes on his own shoulders the sins of the world, not in a self-flagellating, narcissistic sense of imagining himself being at fault for them all, but in the sense of recognising that he is as much responsible for them – in terms of his own participation in the world – as everyone else is.

It is this shouldering of personal responsibility which strikes me as admirable and so necessary for me at such a time of crisis. At the time of writing this we are in a state of national lockdown, being asked to participate in an effort to reduce the spread of a virus that has the potential to overwhelm our national health service and other key elements of our national infrastructure. Despite this obvious national threat, it also threatens my own health, and so there is a very real assault on my sense of freedom and personal wellbeing, as a citizen of this country, that I have never encountered before.

It challenges my sense of autonomy and my ability to make informed decisions and choices regarding risk and safety. It restricts my capacity to earn money so that I can pay my rent and afford the kind of physical safety that I have become accustomed to in this society. I feel triggered and disgruntled and afraid of the impact that such measures will have on my life.

Beneath this triggering, I find that if I tune into the anxiety, I notice that my experience seems correlated with the extent of the uncertainty generated by not knowing how bad things will get. In effect, not knowing how much I may have to suffer in the future. This fits nicely with a simple description of anxiety that one of my supervisors once offered me: “that anxiety is more or less the fear of feelings”.

I fear feeling pain in the future! I fear feeling hunger, feeling cold, feeling wet, feeling lost, feeling exposed, and feeling sad; feeling lonely, feeling terror, feeling ostracised, feeling shame and so on. Suddenly as we were asked to self-isolate, I found myself in a state of heightened anxiety, wary of the uncertainty of the situation and that at any moment I may come face to face with the reality of those feelings I am so afraid of feeling.

As the inevitability of the impending lockdown grew, so my reaction which until then had been to dissociate from the problem and hope it went away, morphed into one where I began taking decisive measures to prepare for the possibility that these fears would come true. In some sense this morphing or transition, was the taking of responsibility for myself amid the new and uncertain reality that was emerging. To the extent that it felt realistic and possible I took measures to prepare so that at the very least I would avoid being left feeling helpless in the face of this potentially overwhelming situation, and that I would avoid becoming an extra burden on the NHS system. Conscious of the feelings of panic in the air, I actively gave myself permission to join in and respond to the anxiety and the threat, while attempting to maintain connection to those around me, to participate in the situation without ignoring or negating the needs of other people.

Having time to reflect these last few weeks has raised some important questions for me about the importance of attempting to make sense of, and perhaps derive some sort of meaning from my own experience of anxiety. Questions around the extent to which I, and perhaps we, are always in a state of unconscious panic about what threats to our existence may potentially be coming down the line? Or to what extent our underlying anxieties about the threat of an uncertain future, inform our daily responses to the world?

How does our anxiety, individual or collective, inform our actions and our sense of morality, of right and wrong deeds? How do I find the courage necessary to engage with and acknowledge my part in the wrongs of the world? As a counsellor but also as a citizen, how do I not only face my own fears in spite of my anxiety to do so, but walk alongside others as they attempt to do the same?

So regarding the question: what is wrong with the world, it strikes me more than ever before, that we are in this together, citizens and governments alike, participating in the same society, vulnerable to the same threats from the beautifully chaotic and naturally dangerous world around us. With this is mind then, how do we participate and respond to the challenges we face individually and collectively? How do we exist autonomously, with an adequate sense of freedom, while participating consciously in the collective effort necessary to maintain this ever so vulnerable society?

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