I have exactly nothing to worry about. So why I am so anxious?
Laura Kennedy: Scared of losing what I have, I am invading my peace to anticipate its loss
I am often anxious, but usually with some legitimate cause or other. Photograph: iStock
It is 9.30am, and the flurry of rush hour is easing away as hurried feet direct themselves into offices. I wonder, not for the first time, how it is that many of the changes in my life have been punctuated by sitting on some park bench or other, listening to the faint trilling of children in a playground, and to the birds, if the season has them inclined to sing.
It should be autumn by now, and the chill in the early morning warns of that season’s arrival, but by 9am the warnings have been burnt away by an unrelenting sun, and I am tucked inside the shade of a great oak, almost outside time, looking in at the lives of others.
The last time I took to a park bench in earnest was some time after my mother died. It was winter then, hostile. The frosty bench gripped my coat when I got up to leave, as though it was certain our business wasn’t finished, and the playground was uninhabited because the day was too cruel to entrust with the soft cheeks and tender noses of little children. That was a different park, and though the experience froze me out of my body, that bench gave me license to step out of the present and breathe a while.
Now, in this autumnless autumn, in another park, I find myself in an unprecedented situation. I can’t remember a time like it before, but just now, at this moment, I have nothing precisely to worry about. No one I love, that I know of, is sick or in any significant trouble. I put by enough money for this month’s rent. Nothing expensive has broken or needs replacing. I have no impending exams. Winter has not yet come, so I don’t have to fear the heating bill. All of my body parts are functioning as the manual directs.
Why am I anxious? I am often anxious, but usually with some legitimate cause or other. In this moment, this lacuna, in which dappled sunlight filters through merry green leaves that I know will soon desiccate and float back to the earth, my anxiety is a fear of losing what I have right now. I am invading my own peace to anticipate its loss.
The irony of anxiety is that it is a mental state which locates itself in the future or past, but imposes on us in the present. It will have us fretting about something inane we said in an awkward social situation, or have us convinced that we won’t do well in a job interview. It lifts us out of the present and flings us forward and back, or rather, we do this – anxiety is a part of the mind that expresses it, not an alien invader.
This may sound like something a philosopher shouldn’t say, and I hope I’m not booted from the club for suggesting it, but time is a concept that doesn’t bear thinking about all that much. In the abstract, there is plenty of work to be done in understanding it, and our experiences of it better.
Claudia Hammond’s Time Warped is a fascinating book on our experience of time, and the extent to which the mind creates it. Plato and Kierkegaard, and plenty of others, made very interesting observations about time. We are constantly invited to “live in the moment”, and if someone could clarify what a moment is, we might have a clue how to do it. The problem is that in order to exist inside time, to maximise a moment, we cannot be thinking about the moment itself.
The philosopher and psychologist William James said: “Let anyone try, I will not say to arrest, but to notice or attend to, the present moment of time. One of the most baffling experiences occurs. Where is it, this present? It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.”
Instead of sitting in the park and emptying my head, I am trying to clutch to this moment in my life, and in clutching, I am crushing it. Now – when things are okay – is precisely the time to just shut up and be.