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Are we making ourselves anxious, or is the world making us that way?

Unthinkable: Karl Marx and Herbert Marcuse could help treat your anxiety

The best treatment for anxiety is probably something most of us loathe to do: live in the present.

“If we could stop caring about our future and stop remembering our past, we might have a better chance of not being anxious,” says Samir Chopra, a “philosophical counsellor” who analyses the modern condition in a new book.

Since “just about every single human being” refuses to live as a Zen Buddhist, he points out, “there’s a sense in which we, as conscious human beings, should not expect ever to be exactly free”.

Rather than asking how to conquer anxiety then, we should think about how to live harmoniously with it. In Anxiety: A Philosophical Guide, Chopra provides useful advice on how to stop everyday worries running riot.

The loss of his parents at a young age – his father died when he was 12 and his mother when he was 26 – contributed to his own sense of angst, accentuated by uprooting from his home in India to start a new life in the United States.

Two “spiritual exercises” he recommends are (i) giving “attention to the present”, even if just for short bursts such as the “flow” of a walk in the park, and (ii) acquiring a more objective perspective on the world, or view “from above”.

More revolutionary, however, is to focus on how society is making you sick – and here he turns to German social theorists Herbert Marcuse and Karl Marx, people not typically associated with treating psychological ailments.

“Critical theorists like Marcuse would suggest we are taking medication because we are alienated and set adrift by capitalism,” Chopra writes, while Marx believed “we are alienated from life itself – our work schedules leave us little time to build or sustain relationships with friends and family, who too often are commodified, reduced to their economic particulars”.

Chopra, a philosophy professor who has written books on subjects ranging from computers to cricket, explains further for this week’s Unthinkable.

Are we making ourselves anxious, or is society making us sick?

“The honest answer is that it’s a mixture of the two. Take a creature like us, one that is subject to the so-called existential trifecta: that we exist in time; that this time is finite; and that we are conscious that this time is finite. Such a creature, which is limited in knowledge and power, will always be anxious,” Chopra says.

“Now take this kind of creature and put it in different societies ... What I would draw from people like Marcuse and Marx is the materiality of our world can make that anxious feeling worse or better, depending on how much we feel we are able to exert our will on the world.”

You write very poignantly about the anxiety immigrants experience in a new country. What is distinct about that anxiety?

“One important lens into anxiety, that comes from Freud, is that anxiety is the fear of the loss of love – that we once had love, the right kind of love, then we lost it, and we spend the rest of our lives fearful that we will not have the approval of those who matter,” Chopra says.

“In my case, when I came to the US at the age of 20, I was profoundly aware of loss of status. Back in India, I was a middle-class Indian. My father was an air force pilot. I had social status and social capital. Once I came out here, I was just a brown guy with an accent. I was a nobody. And that was a profound loss.

“So I think the immigrant is a kind of stranger in a strange land. He’s displaced. He’s disoriented. He’s not sure whether he fits in. He’s not sure whether he has approval.”

With Marx and Marcuse in mind, is there some societal change that could ease that sense of anxiety for immigrants?

“I think, most profoundly, immigrants want to be able to talk about their experience; they want to be seen and heard as full human beings,” Chopra explains.

“If I was to think of something concrete, I would say giving immigrants a chance to help other immigrants is a wonderful thing. I always say the best way to stop worrying about yourself is to start worrying about someone else. The best kind of therapy that anybody can do is to press yourself into the service of other human beings – voluntary work, work in a soup kitchen, charity work.”

How much of our anxiety today is due to loss of religious faith, and specifically loss of belief in a God who loves us unconditionally?

“This is precisely what someone like [Friedrich] Nietzsche was getting at. Nietzsche quite accurately forecast that in a nation or culture like ours which is disenchanted – where we have expelled God – people are going to take refuge in new idols: nationalism, fascism, totalitarianism; people want to be able to identify themselves with something else,” Chopra says.

“We want to feel that we belong. And I think the anxiety we feel is a tremendous fear, like: ‘I don’t quite fit in; no one quite loves me.’ I think that’s why it’s really important that we take care of our personal relationships – and that we are generous in both giving love and being able to receive love.”

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