Dawn’s Early Light

The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as follows: “… an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.

The association clarifies the definition with the addition of these comments: “People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may avoid certain situations out of worry….Anxiety is not the same as fear, but they are often used interchangeably. Anxiety is considered a future-oriented, long-acting response broadly focused on a diffuse threat, whereas fear is an appropriate, present-oriented, and short-lived response to a clearly identifiable and specific threat.

A diffuse threat that triggers a long-acting response.  Hmm. As opposed to a clear, specific, immediate threat. I tend to equate “anxiety” with “dread,” although dread may be laced with a sense of menace and foreboding, anticipating a harsher experience than simple anxiety. Simple anxiety. What is “simple” about anxiety? What is simple about an emotion characterized by tension, worry, and physical manifestations?

I sometimes wonder whether, after I had swallowed a pill prescribed to relieve anxiety, I would suddenly realize how intensely anxious I had been. How tension and physical/ emotional stress had become “normal” to me. Whether, after experiencing relief from the symptoms of anxiety, I would feel giddy; almost deliriously happy to experience “normal” again. That is a silly thought, of course, inasmuch as I cannot be sure whether I am plagued by anxiety or not. Who knows, after all, whether one’s frame of mind is “normal” or, instead, is the textbook example of maladjustment or even worse?

We place too much stock in “normal.” Normal is an illusion useful only in differentiating one form of abnormality from another. There is no such thing as normal, except to the extent that certain degrees of deviation from an expected range are deemed acceptable or “normal;” deviations outside that range are considered abnormal. Yet we readily accept diagnoses of conditions labeled as “abnormal.” Cancer is characterized by “abnormal” levels of cellular division or growth. Except certain types of “abnormal” cellular division actually are “normal” or, at least, not sufficiently uncommon to be labeled cancer (or abnormal). At what point does “normal” worry or mental tension cross the line into abnormal anxiety? “Pre-cancerous” conditions are considered danger signs that abnormal cellular changes are taking place and that, if allowed to continue, they may progress to the point of becoming cancerous. Is there a corresponding term that deals with anxiety? “Pre-anxious” that could mushroom into full-blown anxiety if not treated properly with drugs or therapy or both?

All of the paragraphs leading up to this one have been pointless exercises. This one, too, is meaningless. Irrelevant. A waste of mental energy that could have been better spent on almost anything else.

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Finally, after literally months of low-level research and exploration, I bought a treadmill. It won’t be delivered and installed for another two or three weeks, but at least I know it is on the agenda. Once it’s in place, I won’t need to be concerned about whether the weather will be suitable for a morning walk; I will have greater control over my days. In the interim, I will attempt to keep doing battle with the buzzing bugs and barking dogs and monstrous chiggers that inhabit this part of the world.

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There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.

~ Epictetus ~

Though I know little about Epictetus, what little I know is enough to spark my interest. Epictetus was a Greek stoic philosopher who, born into slavery, rose above his station in life through the acquisition of knowledge and the cultivation and sharing of wisdom. Epictetus taught that philosophy is more than a simple theoretical discipline; it is a way of life. He believed all external events are beyond our individual control. He counseled those who would listen that we should accept our experiences calmly and without passion; after all, he taught, we have no control over events outside ourselves, thus there is no rational reason we should exercise ourselves over them. Interesting ideas; I wish I could fully embrace them and make them my own.

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My beliefs are not my own. They represent the outcome, after exposure to others’ ideas, of my assessments of others’ opinions. Beliefs are opinions; they have no reliable roots in fact. So, what if my beliefs are “borrowed?” Whose are not? Who has developed a set of beliefs solely on the basis of his own experiences or his own internal intellectual acrobatics? All of this is to say we are an amalgamation of other people, who in turn are fusions of others’ ideas and beliefs and opinions. There is nothing original under the sun. We’re all simply copies; perhaps manipulated and edited and otherwise altered, but copies, nonetheless.

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I am but one among billions and billions of other people. The idea that I could have any unique qualities that set me apart from others is ludicrous. Yet we’re all taught that we are unique. We’re taught that we have something of exclusive value to offer to this world in which we live. I think those teachings are meant to keep us from leaping off cliffs in response to the realization that we have nothing of consequence to offer the rest of our thoroughly common global compatriots.

But that’s not fair, is it? No, some of our characteristics and attributes are rare. But not unique. There are too many of us to allow us to legitimately think for a moment that we are unique. So, we may be rare but we are most definitely not singular.

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As I read about Epictetus this morning, it occurred to me that the multiple “books” his pupil, Arrian of Nicomedia, is said to have written must have been recorded in some form that remains available to us today (including the Discourses of Epictetus). Either that, or else the stories about ancient Greek philosophers are based on delusions. Seriously, I wonder where these so-called original books are located? And in what form are they? Paper? Chiseled stone slabs? From what I’ve read, the Discourses were written in Koine Greek. Where, I wonder, are the originals today? I do not deny faith that they exist, but I would prefer to see evidence with my own eyes. Because I am skeptical; I suppose I think the world around me is attempting to mislead me and to coerce me into believing the unbelievable. Ach! I think it’s time to go outside and howl at dawn’s early light. I’ve been up and out of bed for two hours and fifteen minutes. In that time, I’ve accomplished essentially nothing of any merit. Damn.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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