“When I see an anxious person, I ask myself, what do they want? For if a person was not wanting something outside of their own control, why would they be stricken by anxiety?” – Epictetus, Discourses, 2.13.1
A few years ago I had my first, and thankfully only, panic attack. It wasn’t paralyzing but it was frightening, primarily because I was unaware of the anxiety causing it. For me, it was related to instability at work. I thought I was being mentally strong when in fact I was ignoring stressors.
Our access to understanding what it means to be human is considerably more advanced than when Epictetus lived. I say this because I want to be very sensitive to those who struggle with anxiety. There are those whose battle one of a chemical nature opposed to a mental one. My comments, therefore, should represent such an appreciation for such nuances.
Anxiety is tied to the future. Not knowing what will happen, not being able to control an outcome, has the potential to give us a paralyzing dread. Existentialists held that this feeling was tied to the problem of meaning related to human existence. Consider Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of nausea. For Sartre, this nausea is a condition where man realizes the world is not ordered, and hence its unpredictability is constantly at odds with our desire to find comfort in meaning. Assured meaning is found in the past.
“I live in the past. I take everything that has happened to me and arrange it. From a distance like that, it doesn’t do any harm, you’d almost let yourself be caught in it. Our whole story is fairly beautiful. I give it a few prods and it makes a whole string of perfect moments. Then I close my eyes and try to imagine that I’m still living inside it.” ― Jean-Paul Sartre,
The future holds no assurance of “perfect moments”, and our want for those moments can cause the very anxiety Epictetus is asking us to avoid. What is in my control? How I respond to the very moment I’m in. When I was able to reflect upon why I had my panic attack I realized it was due to my concern over what the future held for my present job when I should have simply been preparing myself to deal with whatever changes came my way.
What we should want is to be ready for whatever life give us.