Happiness and Anxiety

I apologize for my recent absence. I’ve been moving into school, which as I’m sure you

Albert Camus

can imagine, sucks up time. I’ve had ideas, but every time I face the page, something interrupts.

Also, I’ve been happy. I’m no teenage-angst poet or grungy expressionist, but problems often prompt reflections. Beethoven’s pain crafted chords and melodies. Edvard Munch’s phobias etched anxiety into The Scream. So no problems, no reflections. No one wants to hear a bout a “good” day.

To me, that paradox is fascinating. As Marcel Proust said in his masterpiece In Search of Lost Time, “Happiness is beneficial for the body but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.”

Sometimes negative events invade our lives, but more often we realize something—something off, like a plot twist in a narrative that begins with a character noticing a crooked photograph. Camus puts it well when he describes “absurd walls” in his classic “The Myth of Sisyphus.” He begins by sketching a routine:

Rising, street car, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours at work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm…

Tasks swallow people, making them more like tools than conscious beings. We shift down a conveyer belt without pause. Duties flow together, then pass away. Time ticks. Another task ends. Another begins. It’s automatic.

Then something changes. As Camus writes,

…this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement. ‘Begins’—this is important. Weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness…

We see things with stark clarity and lose our rhythm, stumbling. We hit a “wall,” as Camus would say, and find no way around it. “Why” is a powerful question.

The German philosopher Heidegger took the same root. “Anxiety” about our existence prompts a realization. And if anxiety deepens, Heidegger says, it becomes “anguish”—a deep, but illusive pain that forces us to face deep existential issues.

In time, anguish comes to dominate our subjective experience. It has no actual existence—it’s only a feeling or perception. But, in Hiedegger’s words, “the world can no longer offer anything to the man filled with anguish.” Bound by anguish, we long for resolution, but find nothing in our past experience. We must act from a void. As Camus writes, “At the end of the awakening comes, in time, the consequence: recovery or suicide.”

Camus gives example about this “feeling of absurdity.” We want time to pass, then realize passing time only flings us closer to death. We see someone muted behind glass, gesturing like a pantomime yet talking in all seriousness. Nature feels vast and alien. Humanity feels strange and distant.

This feeling is pointed and painful, yet, as Camus says, “Here, I must conclude, it is good.”

If one can overcome this “nausea,” as the French philosopher Satre puts it, one grows and achieves a deeper grip on experience, echoing Proust’s words about “the powers of the mind.”

Last year, Camus’ words had a deep resonance. They still do, but as I wrote them, I found myself finding these ideas with my own words, writing, “A despair hits me the moment my thoughts stir at the start of most days, a single question fretted with doubt and weariness: Why get up?”

I went on:

We lose our orbit, cast into the black abyss of space. Our routine shatters, leaving us with nothing but the empty gulf of what was once there but is no more–we hit the underpinning of our individual existence. We lose our autopilot…

Yet from that void, a deeper self formed–a sense of self-confidence and self-defined structure. As Nietzsche said in a similar tone, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”


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