I am writing this in a state of enormous anxiety—anxiety so great I am having trouble making sentences—but it is hard to know the anxiety’s object. Even now, to my amazement, it is hard to know. I probably shouldn’t even try to set these thoughts to paper. I was asked to, because I have written about anxiety before, and I am having trouble writing anything else, so I agreed.
I live in New York, the current US center of the Covid-19 pandemic. The city’s hospitals—deprived of adequate numbers of ventilators, masks, gowns, and other necessary items—are filling with feverish patients whose immune systems, confused by the virus, are attacking and damaging their own lungs. Everywhere around me, people of all ages are getting sick and dying. Refrigerated trucks, for the bodies, are parked outside our hospitals. Unemployment is rising sharply, and is projected to continue to do so. Jobs and wages are disappearing, and are projected to continue to do so. The air itself is a threat, as are surfaces, and therefore the food and medicine we buy. On the sidewalk, in stores, and in the parks, people wear masks and bandanas and latex gloves, and keep apart. In the country at large, commentators, politicians, and financiers are discussing how many lives should properly be sacrificed to redeem an irredeemable economic system; senators are earnestly fretting about the moral hazard of providing relief to the working poor; and each and every afternoon the President steps in front of the cameras to lie, obfuscate, brag, and (most of all) extort his regular supply of ego-gratification. The atmosphere, pervasive and inescapable, is one of uncertainty, anger, confusion, frustration, fear, and grief.
One might think this would explain my terrible anxiety. One might think the matter would be clear and direct, like an equation: The time is anxious, therefore I am anxious. We take on, as a matter of regular course, the moods that envelop us. We absorb and become those moods. In a laughing crowd, we laugh. In a weeping crowd, we weep. Parents “catch” the feelings of their children; wives of their husbands; therapists of their patients; friends of their friends; newborns, even, of other newborns. We are as intimately connected in the realm of affect as we are in the realm of disease. Indeed, the terms psychologists use for this phenomenon are epidemiological: “emotional contagion,” “emotional propagation,” “emotional replication.”
Something of this sort is, I know, at play right now, in my life as in many others’. Yet there is a disconnect between the anxiety we are sharing and the anxiety I am now feeling that warns me against conflating the two. The disconnect is this: while the former is collective, the latter is insistently, insatiably, appallingly selfish. I read the New York Times, I read the Washington Post, I scroll Twitter, I watch the press conferences and listen to the latest podcasts. I step into the larger tide of uncertainty and fear, my anxiety for the world and the future swells, and then that same feeling, that same anxiety, shrinks me into myself—into my petty, personal worries. The concerns of the world quickly transmute into the concerns of the self. What does the pandemic mean for me? Will I get sick? Will I lose my livelihood? Will my inadequacies, my disgraceful flaws and inabilities, be exposed in the harsh light of crisis? What could I have done better to prepare for this catastrophe? What irredeemable mistakes have I already made? What irredeemable mistakes am I still making? How will I get through? How will I concentrate? How will I work? How will I live? How will I manage? What will I lose?
I, I, I, I, I, I: the eternal song of anxiety.
This is how anxiety operates. I know that well by now. This is the nature of the emotion. It is a kind of solipsism machine. It is ingenious and rapacious in its ability to transform experience into self-involvement. With anxiety, even the most familiar and mundane stimuli—birdsong, an old photograph on your wall, the books on your shelves, an advertisement—can come to seem like direct indictments and private threats. The mind becomes a magnet for assaults. “And no Grand Inquisitor,” Kierkegaard wrote, “has in readiness such terrible tortures as has anxiety, and no spy knows how to attack more artfully the man he suspects, choosing the instant when he is weakest, nor knows how to lay traps where he will be caught and ensnared, as anxiety knows how, and no sharp-witted judge knows how to interrogate, to examine the accused, as anxiety does, which never lets him escape, neither by diversion nor by noise, neither at work nor at play, neither by day nor by night.”
I know all of this. I have lived with anxiety a long time. I know its contours, its deceptions, and its tricks. Still, I don’t think that the selfishness of anxiety has ever felt quite as cruel or as alienating as it does now, when it seems least appropriate to be selfish. The gulf between the anxiety of the world and the anxiety of the self is so huge at this moment as to highlight its own absurdity. Never in my life have I experienced something that is more immediately and dramatically collective, that is so obviously not about my individual fate. And here I am, subsumed in the self.
In the past when I wrote about my own anxiety—most extensively in a memoir—I did not feel any shame about it. On the contrary, in describing my anxiety I hoped to correct for the tendency to think and talk about anxiety in cultural, collective terms. Everywhere I turned then (the first decade of the century), in the newspapers and in the titles of nonfiction books, I saw the phrase “the age of anxiety.” After 9/11 this phrase, which was originally Auden’s, seemed to take on a new currency. Global Finance and Emerging Markets in an Age of Anxiety. “The Wooster Group: An Ensemble Tailor-Made for an Age of Anxiety.” Worried All the Time: Overparenting in an Age of Anxiety and How to Stop It. I found this usage ridiculous, even offensive. “For a person who actually experiences anxiety,” I wrote then, “it is hard to accept the proposition that any time period can be deemed ‘anxious.’ . . . Anxiety is not the purview of epochs. It is a personal, bodily state of being. It is an experience: a coloration in the way an individual thinks, feels, and acts.” In short, I wanted to defend anxiety from metaphorical overreach, and to portray it as I had always known and dreaded it—as a physical, particular, private phenomenon.
In the years since, this stance has slowly weakened and faded inside me. Maybe it’s age. Maybe it’s the experience of raising children. Maybe it’s the multiple instances of loss, disappointment, and failure that have reminded me (when I am clear-headed) that I am less singular, less of an island, than I once believed. Whatever the case, I find myself wishing now, in the midst of this pandemic, with the curve still steep, for some final wrecking blow against my old, subjective arguments. Sequestered with my family, surrounded by disease, embedded, clearly and undeniably, in History—in the shared consequences of politics, pathology, and plain old fate—I wish to see and feel my anxiety not as my own, not at all as my own, but as ours. The city’s. The country’s. The world’s. The time’s. One unmistakable sign that I want this is that now when I write about my own anxiety, I do feel shame. I feel shame like a warning, like a threat.
But all this, my desire to join my anxiety to a shared global experience, I recognize, is just a meek and pleading sort of hope. “Save me, O God,” the Psalmist sings. “I sink in deep mire.” What remains, always, is the stern, unrelenting logic of anxiety, which is like the logic of the virus itself: it comes from the common air but it latches to the unique self, and it seals that self off. Nothing so encourages self-involvement as suffering. Nothing so burrows you into your own body and mind. The undertow of anxiety is fierce. What can a mere wish, even a noble one, do against it? What can hope achieve in the face of screaming panic?
But, then, what else is there to turn to? I know of no other solution than to keep reminding myself, gently, I am anxious, yes, I am scared, yes—and so are you, and you, and you, and you. I know of nothing else than to pummel myself with the ambition to diminish and forget my private fears.
So I write these lines, which are, in the end, lines against myself. And I read. I read those things that distract from and dissuade the nervous inward glance. Lately, I have been rereading the poet George Oppen. For two weeks now, a phrase of Oppen’s has sounded in my mind like a prayer. That phrase is “The unearthly bonds / Of the singular / Which is the bright light of shipwreck.”
The bright light of shipwreck. It sounds in my mind, and I hold to it and repeat it.
Lord, I tell myself, save me from this solitary and isolating fate. I fear it worse than the virus. It is a privilege to share anything at all, even anxiety.