Anxiety: The World as Chaos

Reality is created, maintained and altered in social interactions. When we talk to people we assume we are sharing a mutually intelligible world. But this assumption remains unformulated and we don’t think about "reality" because there’s no need to mention the obvious.

Even the most trivial and insignificant exchanges take place against this background that everyone shares: agreement on the conventions of space and time, awareness of gender and racial distinctions, or the meaning of metaphors. It’s only because we share the same worldview that our words and sentences make sense — this is what allows communication to occur. Conversations and negotiations proceed smoothly only as long as this background is unquestioned or unproblematic.

Socially shared reality transforms the continuously changing contents of what we see, hear, and feel into a world of meaning, order, and stability. Objects and events themselves are infinitely varied and constantly changing, but our conceptions of them are, by comparison, relatively permanent. Every few hours I have a new cup of tea, but they’re all the same to me.

When the stock of knowledge is adequate, when conversations can proceed casually, our symbolic world provides us with a defense against anxiety, against an underlying chaos that threatens to surface. Most people require the continuous socialization of human interactions to support their world. This is how solitary confinement works as an effective adjunct to brainwashing, the replacement of one reality with another.

As long as the world appears stable and permanent it is our source of security. But at the same time, anxiety is inevitable in a humanly created world. Why is this?

Knowledge, encoded in language, is the background of meaning for the immediate reality in which we live out our everyday lives. It tells us what is possible; it dictates the limits of what can be known; it is the only world we know. Human existence takes place entirely within its boundaries.

We are totally dependent on the organization and effectiveness of our knowledge. We need to feel that our understanding of the world is sufficient and reliable. When this isn’t the case, when things don’t go as planned, or as expected, we can’t predict what will happen to us, we can’t foresee the future, and we have no control over the conditions of our continued existence. This possibility continuously threatens us. Our self-conscious minds can become acutely aware of our helplessness. This is fundamental anxiety.

Given our total dependence on this symbolic world, it’s understandable that we need to believe in its permanence and infallibility. We want to believe it is complete and unique. In order to inspire and maintain confidence, to prevent doubts from arising, human reality must appear to make the world intelligible and consistent. Dreams and insanity, science, religion, and other institutions of society must all be woven together so that no one part raises too many difficult questions about the others.

If it is to provide not only order and stability, but a sense of purpose to life, the world must have built-in safeguards to defend itself against anything that threatens to expose its fragile human construction. Science, for example, is equipped with a point of view that can discredit those things that don’t fit in or agree with currently accepted theories: the appearance of UFOs or the ideas of a Velikovsky.

Just as a film ceases to work when we become aware of the hand of the director, to come face to face with the artifice and arbitrariness of the world makes us anxious and interferes with our ability to function smoothly in life. We lose our cool. We must suspend our disbelief in the magician for the magic to work and proceed as if there were no strings attached.

But a humanly created world is inherently precarious and thus the very source of anxiety. It is constantly changing and there is no way to insure or preserve agreement on what it means. We can interpret our ability to agree as confirmation of our assumptions, but shared beliefs merely prove that we operate with a set of shared limitations — conceptual, historical, cultural, social.

In order to act in concert we must be able to agree. It’s not conducive to social cohesion for individuals to think for themselves. On the contrary, individuals must think alike. In the course of human evolution we have had to devise an image of the world that enables us to determine the constant, to recognize the similar, and to predict changes. Reality has been shaped by what has been essential and useful for our survival. Shared limitations tell us absolutely nothing about validity, truth, or the survival value of a particular perspective on the world.

The truth of social reality resides in the minds of those who inherit the same worldview. The continued existence of a stable world is entirely dependent on the mutual agreement of those who share it. We regard it as permanent, but it undergoes a process of continuous, irregular, unpredictable change.

If, generation after generation, the life of each individual remains much the same, change will be gradual and it will be easy to maintain agreement and cohesion. But in times of rapid change — the times that follow scientific and technological innovations, industrialization, new methods of warfare, increases in the rate at which information is disseminated — our world becomes unstable. When the population is no longer naturally homogeneous, when segments of society are dislocated, when there are international and local discrepancies in values and objectives, and when these perspectives are widely available and widely discussed, there will no longer be a consensus of belief or the possibility of coexistence among beliefs.

In times of stress, individual or collective, reality becomes frail and tenuous. Political or religious upheavals threaten to undermine a carefully constructed, logically ordered worldview. In an increasingly complex society — let alone in an interdependent world — agreement on a worldview becomes difficult to achieve and maintain. Anxiety has its origins in the instability of the world, the uncertainty of meaning. It is an unavoidable result of living in a massively shared reality.

But the same thing that makes anxiety inevitable is what makes possible change, flexibility, and our as yet undetermined potential. To confront possibilities, whether we regard them as possibilities for success or for failure, whether they hold the promise of satisfaction or despair, is to flirt with anxiety. There is no way to avoid it except to become closed to everything that threatens change.

Anxiety is not something to be avoided and eliminated. To deny anxiety in an attempt to escape it is to deny our own humanity. The individual who lacked anxiety would operate at a level of primitive, prereflective awareness, with only the social trappings of the modern mind.

Next chapter: What You Don’t Know