by David Fireman, LCSW

This article is the first in a series on the subject of coping with precariousness and uncertainty. The Covid-19 pandemic and socio-political conditions are significant factors, which I attempt to take into account as part of the analysis.  It has a decidedly philosophical tone.   Readers can expect increased focus on examples and pragmatic considerations in subsequent articles.

During the pandemic, a painter friend hung several new works on the walls of his stairwell.  Walking down it one day, I noticed tightly packed colorful abstract images busy with multiple angles, crisp juxtaposed lines bordering on frenetic.  I saw risks, vulnerabilites, obsessional circular thoughts, and fundamental questions jumping off the canvas like, “what’s real, what’s not?”

Facing the paintings on the opposite wall, was one equally colorful piece, using the same color palette, but these lines were hazy, merging, cloudy; their crispness disintegrating and beginning to blur.  I saw a process of disillusionment, a kind of paradoxical isolation and longing for the piece to be with the others, but simultaneously desiring to stay away from them.

These past three years have been an ongoing exercise in learning to manage profound uncertainty and the precariousness it generates.  Our entire world was traumatized.  Yet, long before the pandemic, but especially since then, the mushrooming possibilities—both positive and negative—for our individual lives and our society have been dizzying and destabilizing.  And like it or not, we have all been enrolled in what the existentialist philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard called, “the school of anxiety.”

Perhaps the biggest issue that encompasses all other concerns at this time is whether we can live within our current precariousness, while our capacities to cope with it have been severely injured.  The answer is we just don’t know.  The current turmoil of political division and animosity signals a still deeper concern about whether there is enough will and momentum to build a better society.  Our wild see-saw-no-solid-ground status belies a search for a steady, coherent, reliable life; we want satisfaction and release from so much pent up fear, frustration, and anger.  The tribalistic blame, hatred, and sneering accusations, outrage twitter culture especially, being flung into real and virtual platforms leads to more fiery escalation and less rational discourse.  There is no real center.  Yet, the resulting disorder may have hidden potentials for growth.

To focus on the potentials within disorder is essentially to permit a philosophical opening into what we’re going through that could jolt us out of our disorientation and onto a constructive path.  Perhaps there can be new growth if we can endure the current precariousness.  Will there be new forms of order and organization that come given the revelations of the many societal cracks exploited and exposed by the pandemic?  For example, we know that black and brown communities in America were more than twice as likely to die from Covid-19 than their white counterparts.  We know that their medical traumas were increased by a mountain of social stressors including, unemployment, social isolation, the rigors of full-time parenting without child care, and the chronic deleterious effects of poverty.  So, will these freshly re-revealed problems be addressed in more effective ways that take into account the need for individual and systemic change, personal equilibrium and social justice?

In the aftermath of any change there is loss, and loss often propels us to return to and reinvest in what feels normal.  When upheaval fractures normalcy, we rush to find the stability of our former predictable habit-patterns. However, there is another option available, one that demands a change of attitude.  We can take a different turn and humbly submit to the serious challenges of learning to reconsider, reorganize, and attempt to reconstruct our subjective reality.  Often it’s all we can do, and perfectly valid, to simply restore the previous order.  But sometimes that very restoration is counterproductive and gasses out, rendering us scared and resistant to the natural call for and pressure of, change.  On both individual and social levels, this anxious tendency to turn back is often diminishing, propagating new problems.

To discover a better way or future won’t come about by hiding behind a wall of anxiety.  It is hard to change a well-worn attitude, but not impossible.  Kierkegaard’s way through is to attend the “school of anxiety.”  He says we must contend with and use our “freedom” to influence our future and open to the possibilities of surprise and self-realization.  Potential can only be developed and actualized by using anxiety constructively.  We choose to respect the anxiety that comes of moving beyond our safe(r), but limiting, self-preservational instincts in order to increase self-awareness and heed the call to become more of our true selves in the world.

Furthermore, if anxiety is a kind of curriculum or “school,” then what is it trying to teach or at least point out?  What are the messages imbedded within our own unique versions of anxiety?  What might “it” be telling us about our current way of living that could or should be addressed?  Does the anxiety communicate something useful in terms of thinking creatively and acting in reconsidered ways?  In many respects, anxiety seems to want to snap us back to who we believe ourselves to be when the environment demands something new or different from us.  Following this logic, it may be interpreted as resistance to change.  But it’s just as possible that anxiety serves as a self-protective coping mechanism, sparing us all our wild oscillations of hope and dread.  If we can see the “what for” of anxiety, then perhaps we can soften its grip to make use of what it signals to us about ourselves and life situations.

I believe my friend’s paintings capture many of the dimensions of the arduous challenge to endure anxiety through difficult times.  They certainly inspire such thoughts in me as I study them.  The pandemic and its continuing rolling complexities certainly is such a time and some artists are able to convey such complexities in their works.  Clearly, both individually and socially, we are struggling to recover and meaningfully reconstruct.  Change is inevitable.  If the pandemic and our exposed social inequities and injustices haven’t yet, what more will take to drive it home?  The paintings show, through abstract imagery, an honest struggle to tolerate ambiguity, uncertainty, and precariousness, let alone to hold their many tensions.  They invite deep questions about the nature of how we perceive reality.  And yet, this is precisely what we are called to do. Once busy, crisp and well-defined, the artist’s conceptions must slowly dissolve, even disintegrate for a time, then merge into new forms.

What shall the former images retain of themselves as they change?  What should they hold on to?  What must they let go of?  Engaging such questions requires a certain kind of respect for and tolerance, perhaps at some point acceptance, of anxiety and the potentials it can mobilize.