Giving Up Anxiety
“Ride like something is chasing you.”
I’ve said these words to so many people over the years as a horse-riding instructor. Navigating a massive, complicated creature is a careful relationship of energy output. The human is a generator, pushing amps of power into an animal with the hope of creating forward motion.
But many of the beautiful actions humans love to see in a horse — a curved neck, prancing legs — are motions of an animal that is in a heightened state of alertness, a prey animal ready for flight.
I’ve spent a lot of my life living like a horse that is about to be eaten.
I figured there was an easier way to go about things, but my nervous system was so riveted on its conditioned way of experiencing the world, preparing for the next big disaster, I didn’t know where to start. Plus, it felt like my constant vigilance was somehow keeping the demons at bay. If I let my guard drop, anything could happen.
I’m a big fan of Pascal’s Wager when it comes to life experimentation. In its original form, this 17th-century philosophical argument focuses on belief in God as a bet that humans choose to either take or dismiss. If one goes about their actions with a purpose that is in line with God existing, they lose some benefits on earth but gain eternal reward. If one goes about their business as if God does not exist, they gain benefits on earth but lose eternal rewards. (It’s also interesting to note that Pascal’s theory was the first formal use of existentialism.)
For my purpose, I chose to apply Pascal’s theory to my belief that living like I was being chased by wolves somehow kept imminent danger from overtaking me at every step. (The following is grossly simplified from Pascal’s Pensées, part III.)
- Danger is going to happen or danger is not going to happen. There is no way I can know which is coming.
- I make a list of pros and cons that weigh my gains and losses with either outcome.
- I flip a coin and decide which theory to adopt and live by.
In all fairness, my job can be dangerous. Before changes to American healthcare, people in the horse business could only secure health insurance if we had a partner with a safe job who could cover us, or we were underwritten by a company that insured circus performers.
I tried giving up anxiety for Lent while testing my modified Pascal’s in the horse barn, which was a stupid place to wager danger. Also, giving up anxiety wasn’t working because I didn’t have a modus operandi to replace it with. What was the opposite of anxiety? Relaxation felt like floating deep in a sea of sharks. Lent came and went.
Then, I woke up this morning and read that a 30-meter tall Chinese space launcher was orbiting the earth and would eventually fall somewhere in a large area that covered New York to New Zealand. The rocket is called “The Heavenly Harmony.”
I stared at the wall for a long time after reading the news. As I stared, I physically felt myself insert some worry about the rocket launcher falling on the barn within my already allocated internal slots for Economic Collapse and Covid Mutations. I may be a basket case, but I am ridiculously organized.
Something had to give. I stopped myself from wagering whether the launcher would fall on me and all the people I loved.
The thing about a bet is that there needs to be some tangible reward for winning. Pascal’s premise was based on the unquantifiable reward of eternal life. I believe in God and still see the flaws in his theory. We just don’t know. Without proof, uncertainty is a given.
Where did that leave me? Uncertain. It left me with uncertainty.
I thought about all the dangers I had encountered and overcome, the traumas, the devastations. The devils I spent my life creating contingency plans for were never the demons that found me. Things happened, all the time, and while I was busy preparing for dying there was a whole lot of life going on. I may have appeared to be living it, but I was really hunkered down in a corner of my head hoping that I had enough provisions to wait out the siege.
There is really no such thing as living safely.
I wager you, Pascal. I take the challenge. What if I live like everything is going to be fine no matter what happens. What do I gain?
I’m going to relax into the currents of this sea one breath at a time and allow the sharks to circle. And if the rocket launcher falls in the water near me, the water will soften the blow.
The next time a rider can’t get their horse to move, I’m going to change my language.
“Ride like you’re safe.”
I’ll let y’all know where this experiment takes me.
Anxiety is a theme that fascinates and consumes me. For some different takes on the topic that range from serious to haunted:
The Ghost of Lavinia Fisher
My experience in the Old City Jail, Charleston, South Carolina