Your Age Of Anxiety

(1192 words)

It was 2006 and I saw a way out of college by Christmas.

In hindsight, a lot was happening.  I’d never spent the time to think about 9-11, and the war, and it was starting to catch up with me.

It may have been anxiety rather than guilt.  I was in a state of indecision.

So, I squeezed in one more course to finish.  GIS.  Geographic Information Systems.

“In GIS we map data geographically on computer software.  This produces meta-data,” the professor said.  “Meta-data is data about data.”

Woah.  I scanned for the nearest exit.

Somehow, the guy next to me knew which buttons to click on the computer.  When someone said files, I looked around the room for metal cabinets.

Maybe I had missed something.  Years later I can find the files on my computer, but I have no idea about GIS. But something from that class stuck.

“Data about data.”

Though we were “coding” meta-data, it was not what we most cared about.  It pointed to something far more important.  The actual data.

That’s what we wanted to see; to understand.  The meta-data showed the way.

I’ve been writing about fear regarding your art/business ideas and anxiety plays a role early in the process.

Anxiety is information about what we should really care about.  We can use it.

The Age Of Anxiety

About a year later my brother, who was taking a college history course, asked me what I thought nationalism meant.

“It’s an extreme form of patriotism,” I said.  “Mostly a negative thing.”

They were learning about the “Age of Anxiety.”  He taught me that general, society-wide, anxiety between 1900 and 1914 had contributed to two world wars.

There was lots of nationalism worldwide and war broke out.


I needed to find out.

Anxiety leads to Fear leads to Anger

Where is the balance in this equation?

Around 1900 people were anxious about fast changes in technology.  Society was reorganizing from an agrarian base to an industrial one.

People didn’t know where they would fit into the new ordering of everything.  Would they have to move to big cities; go into factories?

National officials showed signs of anxiety, too. Some countries didn’t have all the resources they needed to compete.

All the anxiety would eventually ignite a war.  Fear denied, ignored, or resisted, turns into fear on steroids.  The definition of anger.

Certainly, a sudden shock can take us all the way from neutral, or low levels of anxiety, straight into anger.  Sometimes it can’t be avoided—when 9-11 happened, for instance.

The trick is to be present with the anger, getting back to fear, where courage happens.

The heroes we read about from WWII—Captain Winters from Band of Brothers—seem cool, calm and collected.  Not angry, but present with the fear—courageous.

Anxiety, I learned, was worse than fear in the lead up to the Great Wars.  Rather than move from anxiety into action, facing fear, the nations retreated into themselves.

Until the greatest war in memory broke out.

It Starts With Action (or the decision to act)

Fear isn’t first.  We act, or decide to act, and then face fear.  Anxiety signals where we need to go.  The center of the equation is where the creativity is.

But society-wide, we wouldn’t act.  It was mass paralysis.  Finally, there was a spark and mass warfare between 1914 and 1945.

WWI basically can’t be explained otherwise.

In four years 2 million French, 2 million Germans, 1.5 million English, and hundreds of thousands of Americans would die in The War.  And virtually nothing was either won or lost by either side.


Anxiety is fear of fear. We all get it. Every animal shows signs of it.  It’s natural.  Nature gave it to us.

But like meta-data it’s not what’s real.  It’s information about information.  It’s pointing to something else.  If you don’t know what, then experiment until you find it.

When you’re engaged in something you know is positive, but you feel fear anyway, you’re going in the right direction.

I said fear is a result of action and anxiety a result of inaction.

The exception is that as humans, we can decide to act ahead of time.  For our brains, this may as well be action.

Even if we don’t know consciously what’s coming next, our gut might.  One way, or another, we’re going.

The key, is to be present with it.  Maybe I have all the information I need.

Maybe 1,000,000 years of gut instinct is signaling something for me.  “Go this way.  Towards it.”

Can I use anxiety to tell me where I need to go; what I need to do?

In my 20s, peers of mine taught me that courage wasn’t being unafraid.  It was being afraid but not letting the fear stop you from doing what, deep down, you already knew you needed to do.

Anxiety is an early detection device.

The Thin Red Line

It reminds me of the character of the New York soldier in the late ‘90s film “The Thin Red Line.”  The redhead who’d volunteered for the critical assault on the Japanese machine gun bunker.

The first time I watched this movie I thought they were setting him up as a coward.  Why else would he be hyperventilating while his comrades waited stoically beside him?

But it’s a movie with deep characters.

He was terrified because he knew what no one else knew, or could know—that he was going all the way.  He had already decided.  Or something deep within him had already decided.

It was like he was already there.  The most intense fear can come before action.  In his mind he was already maneuvering towards the rattle of the machine gun fire, saving his comrades, which he did.

Alternatively, anxiety is a state of indecision.  The most dangerous state.  Paralysis.

I’m not saying all heroes behave this way.  But to show cinematically what he was feeling, he was portrayed with physical signs of outward terror before the battle even began.

First there is action, or the decision to act, and then fear.

Is the The Thin Red Line the space between panic and courage?

Go Where The Fear Is

Sometimes I don’t know, professionally, where I need to go or what I need to do.  Who knows what’s right all the time?

But this is what “follow your gut” means.  Anxiety, fear, and anger are identifiable emotions.  If you are anxious about something maybe you need to engage that thing.

The reptile part of our brains is millions of years older than the parts responsible for creativity.  It wants to keep you superficially safe.  It will say no to your ideas.  Particularly at three in the morning.

But creativity is where we expose ourselves; living in the creative world, and not hunkered down, in the mind.

In the lead up to WWI whole nations avoided the world.  Hindsight is always 20/20.  But we can learn.  There was no engagement.  Engagement was fearful.  We were afraid of fear.  Anxiety is fear of fear.

Your positive ideas are in you.  Engage them.

No one chooses anxiety.  It’s forced on me.  But I can choose to be with fear instead.