Monday, June 09, 2014

Of dread and power

I've just read—maybe re-read, since I'm not sure—Thomas Merton's Contemplative Prayer. My library and interests are eclectic, to say the least. I had forgotten, if I ever knew, the connections Merton draws between his own analysis of religious contemplation and the existentialist account of absurdity and angst. In some ways, he sees contemplative prayer as a Nietzschean staring into the Abyss and waiting for the Abyss—in this case the ineffable Ground of Being—to embrace one. One of his central themes is dread.
This is something I know a lot more about than I do any mystical experiences. There was that one time I had something religious-experience-adjacent when walking the streets of my hometown trying to fix the adolescent depths of obsessive depression and, seeing a slug cross my path, I tasted sublimity. That was a one-off experience. Overall, my life experience has been more one of obsessive depression than of the sublime. But, I know dread, if only on one side.
For me dread is a recognition of lack of control. It is different to Sartrean anxiety at the absolute responsibility that comes with every choice, though I sometimes can be paralyzed by that, as well. Instead, it is a feeling that much of my life and what I value is determined by factors entirely out of my control, a recognition of the vicissitudes of Fortune. And, perhaps, a sub-rational belief that there is a way to counteract or control Fortune. 
I could give any number of examples, but the one closest at hand is the process we are currently in of selling our home and buying another. We have done our part. And, we have done it pretty well, it seems. What ultimately happens, however, depends on the actions of a number of other people: our buyer, our seller, our agent, the agents of both other parties, friends and relatives who might influence the buyer and seller, other people who might—in butterfly-effect ways—impact upon the lives of all these people. And, we have no control over any of these people. Of course, there could also be a number of natural events or disasters or water main breaks or who knows that could affect the whole mess in any number of ways.
If it seems like I've worried too much about this, I am a master of worrying. It runs in my blood and I have years of practice doing it.
Since, there are so many parts of this process—and everything that happens in my life—the rational thing would be not to worry. Or, rather only to worry about those parts of the process over which I can have some control or at least influence. Worrying about the rest of it seems counterproductive. The part of me that admires the Stoics tells me this is what I should do.
I should just give up the worry and let the rest of the world take care of itself. If things work out, well. If they don't, I have done my part. But, not worrying leads to an even deeper dread. A greater anxiety. I probably admire the Stoics because they preach something I cannot achieve.
What purpose does the anxiety serve? Why worry? I think the worry is an attempt to control—in some way—what cannot be controlled. To admit that it is all out of my control is too much; it's to admit to a helplessness that I cannot abide, or that I know is there but I have to ignore. But to worry about it and to worry about it constantly, though it too is a kind of dread, is to hold it all together in my mind. And, if I can hold it together in thought, then that is almost, almost, like willing it together.  To let it slip my thought is to let it be the chaos I really know it is. Of course, my worrying doesn't have this effect. The Secret doesn't work. But, a kind of mental order substitutes for the order that is missing in the messy, the chaotic, world.
The dread of constant worry is horrible, but it is less horrible than the dread of powerlessness and insignificance even to those things that matter most to my own life and my subjective enjoyment of it.
I have more to say, in another context, about the attempt to put order on a world that lacks it, but I'll save that for later. 

No comments: