Cosmic anxiety and dirt therapy

There are days when I wake up and find out that I’ve turned into Woody Allen overnight. Not just the sagging face that looks at me from the mirror, my whole outlook on life seems to be under his spell. I catch myself taking quotes of his seriously,  like the hilarious More than any time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly. When I can’t even smile at black humour, there’s a good chance my day will be an uphill battle.

The reason I don’t laugh is that deep inside there’s a deeply rooted cosmic anxiety or Weltschmerz that has been part of me – for as long as I’ve been able to reflect on myself and my place in the world. Some days it’s just lingered with me through the night and already has the upper hand when I wake up.

The champion of cosmic anxiety, Kierkegaard, describes it as the result of the finite mind horrified by its own limitlessness. Others have claimed it is the result of the ambivalence between fear and desire: You desire to act but are paralyzed by the fear of what happens if you do act. My own cosmic anxiety I experience as an imbalance between all the overwhelming knowledge I accumulate about what’s wrong in the world, and how any action on my part seems pointless, since it can only go so far.

Cosmic anxiety sometimes would keep me in bed for whole weekends, paralyzed, while I was in university. And I’d spend the time reading more and more, exasperating the imbalance between what I knew and what I did.

That feeling of overloading the brain while the body goes limp, is certainly not unique to me, rather, it makes me an exemplary case in point of a universal phenomenon. The German theologist, Paul Tillich, once summarised his view of history as the battle to overcome three Cosmic Fears. The first one  was the fear of Death. This first great fear was defeated by the Christian gospel of the resurrection. That led to the second great fear, the fear of being Guilty. This age began as people pondered the implications of Hell and Heaven. The preaching of the Reformation represents a break and a solution to this, by underlining faith alone instead of weighing of good and bad deeds against each other.  Gradually people began to lose their crushing sense of sin and guilt with the preaching of free forgiveness. In turn, the third era dawned, with the fear ‘that life has no meaning’ and ‘History is a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing’.

And it is in this latter category that my own cosmic anxiety falls, I’m terrified that whatever I do, it won’t make any difference; whatever life changes I make, it won’t influence the world’s inevitable descent into ecological disaster; that whatever knowledge I accumulate, will only deepen the feeling of my life being meaningless in the course of history.

When I was younger, the only way out of this abyss would be the process of “numbing” the anxiety: Bad TV-shows, chick-lit, the works. Inevitably, numbing your anxiety makes any kind of action or correction of your course impossible, making the next moment of anxiety even more terrifying.

I don’t know when exactly I discovered that leaving my indoor, book-centred existence for the outdoors, changed the whole picture.  “Nature deficiency disorder” has been proposed as a term for the problems we create when we build a wall between the natural world and ourselves. Anyone spending time dealing with existential questions will be highly susceptible to this malady. When I spend too much time indoors, I become increasingly  overwhelmed and moody. Rooting around in my garden or going for a walk in the nearby woods somehow reconnects my body and my mind. From an egoistic point of view, these activities are important element in my personal health plan. It even seems like researchers now have an explanation to why we feel better psychologically when engaging in these activities : the bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae seem to activate a set of serotonin-releasing neurons in  the very same nerves that are targeted by Prozac.

This piece of information gives birth to a new question:

If weeding my vegetable garden has the same effect Prozac has, is it then just another way of numbing the pain; or treating the symptom of my cosmic anxiety without addressing the cause?

I my experience, the answer to this is no. Reconnecting with nature is more to me than a mood-stabilizing drug. While walking in the woods or getting dirty in the garden, I don’t just feel better; I feel connected. And feeling connected is more than a happy feeling of the moment, it gives me the rationale and strength to be active and to be the change.

I like to quote the great Thomas Berry, whose work on our place in the Cosmos as humans, is of great inspiration “The present urgency is to begin thinking within the context of the whole planet, the integral earth community with all its human and other-than-human components“. Reconnecting with nature, even in my own small and limited ways, is a baby-step towards acquiring a fuller view of my place in the universe, and to start to act accordingly.


~ by Hege on June 26, 2010.

2 Responses to “Cosmic anxiety and dirt therapy”

  1. Have you read Richard Louv’s book on Nature Deficit Disorder? It’s called “Last Child Left in the Woods.” Richard gave the keynote address a couple years ago at my organization’s annual conference. It’s amazing how true that theory is. I truly believe the reason people are so surly these days is simply because no one has that connection with the Earth anymore. No one gets outside to play. There’s an energy in the Earth that has the ability to heal absolutely. Garden, weed, walk barefoot in the grass, hike in the mountains. Touch the trees, the plants, feel the sun on your face. I highly recommend borrowing the book from your local library and reading it on a blanket in the park on a sunny afternoon.

    • I actually have read parts of it, as it was used in a discussion group at my daughter’s school. Great book!

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