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Calm • Anxiety

Why We May Be Addicted to Crises

We think we hate them; we keep hoping they will end – but how profoundly we rely on imagined crises and the atmosphere of pain and chaos they plunge us into. Every week is beset by them; moments of utter dread and loss of self-possession, of being transfixed by the prospect of annihilation and ruin, of forgetting every wise and sensible idea we have ever acquired. Last week, the crises might have struck over the hob, the train, the missing phone, the argument with D, the altercation with M, the tension ahead of dinner, the sudden pains on the left side, the ambiguous email, the midnight argument. Next week, we can’t know exactly how or when, but we will soon enough be back in our true home: the edge of catastrophe.

Joseph Wright, Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples, 1775

We are addicted to crises because there are – deep down – simply so many benefits to being out of our minds with fear. So long as we’re in a crisis, we cannot feel sad; we don’t need to be bereft, we have no requirement to think, we don’t have to remember. So long as we’re in a crisis, we don’t have to be alone; terror is the best of friends, it’s available at any time, it will sit with us for hours (a whole weekend if need be), holding us company while we imagine how our execution will unfold and everything we’ve worked for will be lost.

We live like this because of a pact we’ve made in a secret part of our minds: panic and you may be spared. Panic and you will have nothing to panic about. Fear the very worst and the worst may not happen. Brandish pessimism in order to retain grounds for optimism. Be frenzied all the time, and you may – just – end up with a bearable life. The price for existing is a perpetual belief in imminent annihilation.

But we miss how much the repeated bouts of fear are nevertheless wearing away at us; how much of life we are not inhabiting, how little connection we can have with other people in our personal armageddon, how seldom we listen, how much we experience without feeling.

We might retort that we have no option, that crises simply befall us, but we artfully overlook how much we are in fact continually configuring them up out of events that might be interpreted in far more benign ways – were we not so addicted to fear. We keep finding them because we depend on them.

There would – almost always – be other, more humdrum ways of thinking. It could be the end of the world; or a dispute with a client. The end of the world; or a correctable problem with a home appliance. The end of the world; or a minor misunderstanding. We feel compelled to generate in the outer realm a measure of the panic we bathe in in the inner one.

It is not our fault. This is how we were schooled. This is the vigilance that our early years demanded. This is how we reached adulthood. But we now need to start to imagine something yet more frightening than a crisis: the threat of happiness, the risk of calm, the burden of peace, an encounter with life in all its ordinary stillness, sadness and joy.

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