I often wonder whether a psychiatrist would diagnose me with some kind of anxiety disorder. There have been moments in my life, lasting for several weeks at a time, when I exhibit relatively serious OCD symptoms. This usually occurs around times of high stress or when experiencing big change–like the last six months.
But even when everything is normal, when I am behaving in the way that I always behave, I am prone to anxiety. While I have a naturally melancholy outlook on life, I tend to exhibit irrational anxiety. I worry about money more than it is necessary for me to worry about money. I worry about school and my workload, despite the fact that I have always received extremely high commendations from professors and employers. I worry about the way that others perceive me. I worry about whether I am pleasing or displeasing Amanda. I worry about whether I have been too harsh with my dog when I reprimand her for pooping in the house.
I worry, moreover, that I am not a good husband, that I won’t be a good father, and that I am not even a good person. I worry (and have nightmares) that there is some kind of unknown darkness in me waiting for the right moment to come out. Am I secretly a (future) murderer, abuser, or sociopath?
They way I have traditionally reacted to my anxiety and worry has been to seek reassurance from the people around me that I am really ok. That I am normal. That I am fine. That I am worth something to someone.
I have also attempted to gain control over my anxiety by understanding and naming it. When I am anxious about finances, I spend hours and hours crunching numbers and projecting about the future. When I am anxious about trying to do a PhD at a school an hour away while having a newborn at home and a wife working full time, I search for stories from people who have been through the same process. As an academic, I feel better equipped to address something armed with information and research.
And here’s the thing: both of those responses are not only fine, but they are good. Other people should tell me that I am loved. Research and understanding is very important. Decisions should not be made, and actions should not be taken, in a vacuum. The problem, though, is overreliance. Anxiety is, at heart, irrational. It cannot ultimately be talked down. It cannot be made to see reason. Anxiety, whatever it’s cause, is so uncomfortable because it is beyond our understanding.
I have read that therapists who work with people diagnosed with true anxiety disorders tend to emphasize Cognitive Behavioral Therapy–basically retraining your brain to handle the discomfort of anxiety. This requires, I suppose, the concession that anxiety is a part of who they are and how they experience the world. Because, deep down, I know that I will always find something to be anxious about. Right now I (and everyone else in the world) am anxious and about money and relationships and job satisfaction, but given a million dollars, a perfect marriage, and a marvelous PhD program next door, I am confidant that I will become anxious about other things. Rather than seeking affirmation and yelling at the anxiety to go away (as I did for many years), I have spent the last five months delving into the virtuous life as a way of blunting anxiety’s effects.
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Aristotle had a far different anthropology than the one we commonly hold today. We make a clear distinction between thoughts and action, between the true (inner) selves and the contrived (outer) selves. We do fundamentally believe that people ought to be consistent, but we believe that consistency is in making one’s outer behavior comport with one’s inner self. We want people to be “true” to themselves; we like it when people are “honest” about their feelings and when they operate not out of a sense of obligation, duty, social norms, or (God forbid) moral or religious strictures, but out of fidelity to the internal self. In contrast, Aristotle defined being virtuous as consistently acting in a virtuous manner. A moral, ethical, or virtuous person was one who walked the walk, no matter what the internal self felt like. One’s feelings were, by and large, irrelevant.
The ancients essentially believed that the human soul was made up of the passions, the will, and the intellect. The virtuous person knew which actions constituted virtue and that being virtuous was good (intellect) and actually acted on that knowledge (will) no matter what sort of emotional temptations occurred (passions). In the Christian virtue tradition, the hope is that in knowing the right action to take and taking that action over and over again, the passions will become subservient the intellect and the will.
For example: I know that it is virtuous to be truthful (generally). Yet, one day, I am in a conversation with my fellow doctoral students that suddenly turns to a work of literature I have never read. In order to sound smart (I am doing my PhD in English after all) to my colleagues, I am tempted nod and smile and non-verbally give evidence that I am familiar with the work in question. It is an act of the will to refrain from pretending that I know more than I do. It is a movement of the passions (in this case the desire to be respected) that tempts me to act in a less-than-virtuous way. The hope is that, one day, after willing myself to be truthful over and over and over again, my passions (my emotional desire) will line up with what is virtuous. This is called forming habitus.
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Growing up, I learned that sin was a legal infraction against the Divine law. It, moreover, was a personal harm to God that stressed the relationship I supposedly had with him. God, like my parents, would be personally affronted if I violated any of his rules. The punishment for sin (despite what St. Paul actually says) was Hell (which I had problems with anyway). I have spent most of my adult life dealing with the effects of this view of sin. As I wrote during Lent in 2013, it is only recently that I am able to talk about repenting from sin without the overwhelming feeling of guilt. Because I have since learned that sin, in the broad Christian Tradition, is not a legal infraction or a personal affront to God; sin is the failure to be virtuous. It is missing the mark. It is vice.
Virtue, unlike law, is not set in stone. As Alasdair MacIntyre writes in his book After Virtue:
Aristotle tries to use the notion of a mean between the more and the less to give a general characterization of the virtues: courage lies between rashness and timidity, justice between doing injustice and suffering injustice, liberality between prodigality and meanness. For each virtue therefore there are two corresponding vices. And what it is to fall into a vice cannot be adequately specified independently of circumstances: the very same action which would in one situation be liberality could in another be prodigality and in a third meanness. Hence judgment has an indisputable role in the life of the virtuous man which does not and could not have in, for example, the life of the merely law-abiding or rule-abiding man.
Context is essential for any determination of the virtues. The difference between sinning (committing vice) and breaking the law is that breaking law is clear-cut and does not regard the human element whereas sinning is knowing what is right in a given context and not achieving that ideal. Something is virtuous because it contributes to human flourishing. Something is sinful because it detracts from human flourishing. One can break the law and not disrupt human flourishing just as one can keep the law and make a mockery of human flourishing. This is what Les Mis is all about: virtue requires more than the law can allow for.
The habitus that one cultivates as one pursues the virtuous life is, therefore, always contextual. This is, among other things, why St. Basil the Great disapproved of desert hermits: they didn’t have anyone to practice being virtuous with. For the Christian, the sacramental, the spiritual, and the communal life all aid in the cultivation of virtue because, at root, being virtuous is not an individual endeavor.
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The feeling of anxiety is not rational and it cannot be talked away, but it can be robbed of its effects. My anxiety is rooted in the fear of not being in control, and in pursuing virtue, I am learning to be ok with not being in control. I am also learning that what happens in the inner sanctum of my mind, in the back of my head, is not the truest part of me. The truest part of me is the decisions I make every day to better love God, people, and creation in each and every circumstance in which I find myself. And not hitting the mark every time is, while not virtuous, is not guilt inducing. It is a lesson in how to love. Acting on my anxiety by being a jerk or not being emotionally present or even by failing to notice the beauty of the world around me in sinful because it disrupts my own flourishing, and the flourishing of those closest to me.
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In future posts, I will address the relationship between the virtuous life and my work, my faith, and my family. I will also discuss how virtue ethics (as this area in philosophy tends to be known) helps with things like politics, food systems, and ecological concerns.