The Anxiety of Calm: Echos of the Past in the Present Tense.

Posted on August 13, 2014


LookingInFromTheOutsidePeople who grow up in violent environments, whether it be physically, emotionally, or both, are often ill-at-ease in situations of calm, peace, and happiness. Experience has taught them that every calm leads to a storm, so the calm itself becomes a sign of the inevitable storm, and, for this reason, the fact of the calm becomes a source of anxiety. The longer the calm, the greater the chance for a storm, and the greater the anxiety becomes, until at last, the storm finally crashes in upon them. For a few minutes, in the immediate aftermath of the storm, there is, perhaps, some relief.

I wonder if a mechanism like this drives some, many, or all world historical events. It’s easy to imagine political leaders and generals getting increasingly uneasy in a long peace. How much conflict is happening on the world stage right now, I wonder, because the main players involved simply don’t understand — and are even unsettled by — peace.

I also wonder to what extent this kind of mechanism affects us in our daily lives. It’s easy to forget how many of us were raised in homes governed by people who were themselves raised in environments of great violence and uncertainty. Even if our parents weren’t particularly violent, they may have taught us habits more suited to their violent and uncertain upbringing. Is the latest dust-up at the office really about that memo, I wonder, or were some people raised to be so accustomed to conflict that it is impossible for them to avoid it for any length of time?

On a personal level, I also wonder if a similar mechanism is at work with my own indifferent appreciation of my upper middle-class security. I live in a safe, healthy, and beautiful city; I have a good, secure job; I have good, reliable, and caring friends; and I have plenty of leisure time. Shouldn’t I be happy? Truthfully, I am happy most of the time, but I often diminish it with a nagging doubting. An important part of me still feels that life — you know, real Capital-L Life — is supposed to be rough, uncertain, and filled with crisis.

I suppose, ultimately, there really is only one way to find out which kind of life I prefer. Either I commit — really commit — to a peaceful, comfortable, and secure way of life, and, in so doing, give myself a chance to enjoy it, or I should cut the safety cord, and find some way of life more edgy and dramatic. In the face of a hard and uncertain choice like this one, for me, a higher principle often kicks in: all things being equal, choose the option that is new or different. If nothing else, however the decision plays out, at least, I will learn from the new or different experience.

Fittingly, for me, my road less traveled is the one very well-traveled by very many others. If I take the well-traveled road of peace, comfort, and security, and commit to the journey, it will be a new experience. I might even enjoy it. If I don’t, at least, I will get the new experience, the satisfaction of knowing that I was right all along, and then I will be able to disappear into the wilderness in good conscience. The challenge, of course, will be whether or not I can ignore the echos of the past and appreciate the present for what it is, what it might be, and not for what it once was.