Is it possible to have a plan for life?

Attention is the rarest and purest forms of generosity.

–Simone Weil (the quote from Weil was brought to my attention by my friend Carolyn Veith)

This past week, one new conversation partner told me, “I had a plan for my life and I didn’t stick to it. Now I feel awful.” Her assumption is that a meaningful life would have to be one that was realizable in the future and, in the meantime, that the present will require of her immense fortitude, serving as a means for this external end. Her implication in the second sentence is that she lacks the willpower to follow through on her plan for life. She fears she lacks the strength or resolve. I want to show her that something else is at stake.

But wait: here come the experts! Enter first the cognitive therapist who will claim that she must train her will to act more effectively at the same time that she learns to be “more reasonable,” to “lower her expectations.” Habits and expectations, he will say, mind your habits and expectations! Enter here the life coach who will troubleshoot the plan for bugs and micro-manage the means she employed with a view to determining whether some more effective means might instead be implemented. Chew more vigorously, take more bites, but by God plan well you must!

Ahem. Tap, tap. Let’s bring the philosopher on stage and let him have a go. A bit of swagger here, some swagger music please for our longhaired hero. He begins:

All parties at the table assume that the idea of planning for life falls well within the ken of the faculty of volition: to will or not to will; to choose prudently and to avoid obstacles; to be motivated always by the consciously free will;  and to persist, as ever, in willing till the end is fulfilled. In addition, they assume that instrumental reasoning does and must hold sway. This is the form of reasoning according to which the means and ends are analytically separate, the one occurring in the present, the other manifesting itself in the future, the acting and acted upon means serving to bridge the gap between the two. (An example of instrumental reasoning: Tom exercises for the sake of having hypertrophic muscles. An aside: Tom is a dolt. A further aside: Andrew was once Tom. Ergo…)

I doubt all of this very much. My hypothesis is that “having a plan for life” is a conceptual and logical error because, by my lights, it is not possible to have a plan for life, a plan for the future. In place of a “plan for life,” I wish to put a “way of life.”


To see why we can’t possibly have a plan for life, let’s consider some  garden variety cases where we typically talk of planning.

Case 1. “I am planning a meal for my family.” I take it the concept of “planning” involves, at a minimum, arranging certain kinds of food in a certain sort of order. My plan may include making some kind of a salad, bread, pasta, and desert for dinner tonight. Saying that I am “planning” to make this kind of meal seems to me perfectly reasonable.

Case 2. “We are making plans to meet at the movie theater at 7 p.m. on Saturday.” “Planning,” in this case, means something like “agreeing to do whatever is generally necessary to meet each other at this place and this time.” Here, planning could well be synonymous with making a promise. “Planning” also seems to presuppose the qualifier: “under normal conditions.”  Under extraordinary conditions, it would be utter madness for you to meet me at the movie theater when your mother had just been hit by a car. The basis for a good Monty Python skit, though.

Case 3. “It is likely to be cold in the morning but get warmer throughout the day, so I am planning on dressing in layers.” “Planning,” in this case, seems to mean “preparation for foreseeably changing conditions in order to protect oneself from, e.g., being too cold or too warm.” Reasonable enough.

Right. So far, so good.

It would seem, e.g., that wedding planners, event planners, and caterers get paid to make the proper arrangements for an upcoming event. Front office workers, e.g., get paid to schedule appointments. And various forms of “storing up”–savings accounts, CODs, investments, etc.–are “set by” in the event that X should be befall one, where X is something very bad indeed.

And what do all these cases have in common? There are at least three shared features (there may certainly be more):

1. Planning has to be very finite in scale, i.e., in terms of time (Wednesday at noon) and place (this coffee shop near Central Park). Some examples of possible jokes: a wedding planned approximately 31 years from now; we plan to meet on Tuesday around Australia.

2. Planning has to be concerned with what is generally foreseeable or likely. A weather report saying that there is a 70% chance of rain today tips us off to the idea that we would have reason to prepare for rain by wearing a raincoat.

3. The plan must lie within our human capacities. I cannot, even in principle, plan to become a Martian tomorrow or ever. I spent the first 5 years trying to be one, only to spent the next 25 sitting fairly pretty with the idea of being all too human.

Now then: does a concrete plan for life (or a concrete plan for the future) satisfy these 3 features? It does not. A plan for life is indefinite in scale. It falls beyond the range of the foreseeable or likely. (Try planning for Judgment Day. Pack galoshes and kevlar vests.) It lies beyond the scope of our human capacities, as if we could make the indefinite future sit and heel before our all too human wills.

But if a plan for life is a conceptual error, what motivates us to hold onto it?


I am of the view that claiming that a concept such as planning is overextended, misapplied, or misunderstood can be, and often is, a vital spiritual exercise. Conceptual analysis can be vital, to be sure, inasmuch as it may show us in what “native soil” a concept is at home and in what transplanted soil it is bound to die. However, conceptual analysis only goes so far, since it fails to consider what reasons we might have for wanting to create and stand steadfast by plan for life in the first place. Why, in other words, do people hunger for life plans, why are they gripped by them, and why do they pay copious amounts of money to people who promise to make these life plans into a reality? (Damn me. In a former life, I would have been an excellent swindler.)

I can imagine two very basic reasons for holding to the concept of a life plan.

1. We long to lead meaningful lives, but we posit (the German here is good: setzen–to place or put over there) the essential or meaningful out there, over and against the life we lead here. Hegel wrote insightfully of this form of life which he called “unhappy consciousness.” The basic setup is that our inessential lives are separate from the essential (God, the meaningful, plentitude, fulfillment, utopia, the afterlife, the summer home in Maine, the perfect family, and so on). It is also important that the inessential does not partake at all of the essential, and yet, being inessential, it is put in the service of providing access to the essential. The inessential is, as it were, the “slave” of the essential.

In these terms, the puzzle is insolvable, not to mention a source of continual strife. For how can one kind of substance (the inessential) “be put in touch with” another kind of substance (the essential)? That would be bizarre! Hegel’s first proposal is this could happen through work. In his phenomenological investigation, he observes how the one who works strives toward the essential, only to find that the essential continues to fall just outside or well beyond his grasp. This realization may lead the striver to think that it is not the general structure that is at fault but the level or extent or amount of his efforts that is to be blamed. Best to work harder then. No? Nothing? Still no good? Then best to try a different means. No? Nothing? Hmm…

Unhappy consciousness is now frustrated and so thinks it better, after all, to wait for the essential to approach it. He waits, does unhappy consciousness, getting older all the while, yearning for the Messiah to return. He waits for Godot but without signs of his arrival. No? Nothing? Pointless?

The puzzle, once again, is insolvable in these terms, for the essential either recedes as I strive toward it or it does not approach as I wait for it to arrive. Perhaps, the problem lies not with the will but, as I suggested at the outset, with the understanding. Sorry to say, there is no way to win in the terms set by “unhappy consciousness,” no matter how hard we have tried or are willing to try again. We can always fail and fail harder, but this is the way of madness and despair.

 2. The second reason is far scarier, however. We fear that the lives we are currently leading are not actually worth leading. This fear drives us to reason thus: either we continue to lead this form of life and hence fall into despair (the terminus is suicide or, simply, “soul death”), or we make a plan for life and stick, come what may, to it. Yet if it is true that to make a plan for life is to fall into a conceptual error, per point 1 above, then it seems to follow that we must fall into despair. And this is indeed quite scary. What to do now?

We needn’t be tempted by this conclusion since the argument is valid but unsound. The first premise, either A or B, either this way of life or a plan for (another) life, should be rejected. Care to go with me in search of some lovely and loving third option: a way of life, here and now?


Let’s remind ourselves of a simple fallacy. We tend to infer from the claim that way of life P has gone under that (our) life full stop has gone under. The suicide’s claim is that the end of this way of life is the end of life period; thus it is best to kill oneself. Not so.

Our horror stems in large measure from drawing this erroneous inference. The truth is that way of life P’s going under can very well open us up to the idea that way of life P was not that good after all and so there may very well exist a way of life Q that could conceivably fulfill our basic life needs. I know there is.

The temptation, at this point, is to posit way of life Q as being “over there” and then to return to “unhappy consciousness” for another go around. We can learn; let’s learn together. We need to remind ourselves, therefore, that however way of life Q is to be it mustn’t be posited in a space and time beyond the here and now. It follows that way of life Q must be one that we can inhabit, one we can live out in the here and now. Way of life Q must allow for the mundane cases of planning sketched in 1-3, but it mustn’t get caught up in that old saw about planning for the future, giving all for the sake of some impossible future plenitude.

So far, so good. It’s nice to know that way of life Q must be with us and we must be with it. (Reader, are you still with me?)

You have no doubt already picked up on the line of thought I am following. To spell it out further: a plan for life seems to be concerned with invariant arrangements–with having a sense of ‘finishedness’ and possessing that ‘finishedness’ for good and with holding what we have forever–whereas a way of life is focused on a way of being in the world: on our comportment toward the world, on the qualities of our lived experiences, on our generous attentions, on the way in which our life “hangs together” in the long present.

At this point, it will be said the I am urging us to “live (only) in the present.” But this is true only if “living in the present” allows for a specific understanding. It does not mean “maximize pleasure!” nor does it mean “treat each moment as if it were a discrete instant unrelated to past or future.” What, then, does it mean?

It means be a good friend now, where attending to your friend’s needs is both full (all there is) and a culmination of a past inquiry (all our experiences with her friend up to now). When I reply to my friend, I can only attend to her fully, here and now, if I have no desire to be elsewhere than with her for as long as we are together. But attending to her, here and now, is also the “memory” of all the conversations, exchanges, and interactions we have had up to now. She is not an atom posited before me but a flow of overlapping pasts rolling into the now that we two inhabit.

Extend this line of thought to any activity that actualizes entirely our way of being and the result would be that our lives are faring well. Extend it to doing meaningful work, here and now; to having good relationships (friends, neighbors, lovers, children), here and now; to tending a decent home, here and now; to being attuned to nature, here and now; to inhabiting a hospitable world, here and now; and so on.

But how do we ensure that the future is in keeping with this fullness, this fecundity, this experiential plenitude? Easy enough: we keep attending, perceiving, acting, working gently, and attuning every day of our lives. In this way, the future, so to speak, will take care of itself. Besides, we are going to die someday and there is no sense in planning for that.

In memoriam Compaq Presario, 2007-12

This time my Compaq shut down for good. I was about to say hello when all went dark and pixely–all except the well-lit room and the glistening night and the buildings mocking my pixels.

My childhood dog had grown glistening eyes and vacant ribs in the years before he died. He died in his sleep when I was gone, the sleep having been induced. I came back to him and saw him in the black bag, but the damp body meant nothing to me. The grief was all in the body, mine, the grief still to come.

For over a decade, I had been in the habit of opening the back door for him. I would let him in first and then go in behind him. It was one of those spring-loaded doors that required strength and patience and twisting. With Butterscotch, I had learned to be awkward and effective. I would open the door, round out my back, and let him hunker past. The benefit of this maneuver was that I wouldn’t have to pull open the door and walk back a few steps in order to let him in. Instead, I could stand close to the door, like the dolt I was, and let him saunter by. Then I would file in right after, the door following my follow.

The grief was all in the habits of my body, all fingers and spine and knees. For in the weeks and months after the black bag, I would open the door and pause, my body rounded out. Nothing would pass by, no yellow- and white-haired mutt would scrounge past, nothing grimy would slough through, no spiny body with bony shoulders and withered hips, no living vertebra slide past me.

The pain, bared, born, borne, was nearly unbearable.

I remember grief-stricken Antigone whose brother had died alongside his brother, against his brother in war. One was honored, the other condemned to rot, sun-parched, vulture-picked, god-damned. Defying Creon’s order that he shall go unburied, obeying the higher order of the gods, Antigone went to her brother and threw dirt over his dead body and wept.

I imagine Sicilian women wearing dark dresses and moaning and throwing ashen dirt and bellowing. I envision old men and young boys mumbling and chanting and spitting like madmen from sunrise to twilight, spitting words and rocking sounds till the moment when day breaks. I recall an early scene from Gilead when the preacher and the preacher’s son head foot-bound from Iowa to Kansas to properly bury their preacher kin: the father of the father, the grandfather of the son. The son, near death, near 80, is himself a preacher writing to his 7-year-old son.

But not we, oh secular sons, not we oh hardheaded daughters. For we secular sons and hardheaded daughters have no religion but pleasure, no binding rituals but sport. We do not heave dirt or ourselves. We do not lie on the ground and moan and bleat and yip. The dead succumb to withering, modern technology throwing up its silver hands, the dead brought to incinerate off-stage. It is appropriate in our age, in an age without religion, that the dead should be blasted in the dark by hot fire, should be destroyed by a blazing stove, should be stored in a sealed jar, then spread somewhere in a fashion cooly reminiscent of Successories inspirations: a golf course, a gulf coast, a dock beside the bay, a supermarket aisle.

(The horror of More’s Utopia: the cemetery beyond the city, the dead beyond the wheat fields.)

We need not grieve the dead because the dead had, during their too long spell on earth, frittered away their lives. They did not deign to speak to death, did not care to face it, to face its ashen face, because they… well, because they had rather not do that, do anything like that, do anything so unpleasant as all that. If their lives had no meaning, then neither did their deaths. There’s harmony, yet none so poetic, in this.

But, listen now, a stray word amid the diurnal ruckus. It goes, chiastically, thus:

No good life without good death, no good death without good life.

A philosophy of life is, at its very first moment, a meditatio on death–on skulls, on corpses, on Dickinson, the abyss, despair. And only then, like a rolling turn toward the rolling earth, can it possibly be justified in sounding a goddamn hunger hymn for living well. For only then will true death, this singular awful dearth, the one that always kindly drops by oh just a bit too early, be worthy of our reverence, some blessed communal rituals, our horribly bellowing women, these manly bowing shoulders, our screaming children’s voices.

Pulp and sand.


She told me to select a ripe mango. She sent me salt the color of lavender, the hint of Moab, the feel of fine sand. She told me to cut the mango into thin slices, told me that as I approached the seed I would feel “fibrous resistance,” told me to dip the sinewy pieces of flesh into the patina of lavender madness, “savoring,” she said, “on the lips and tongue and teeth.”

The first time was too early; the second, occurring yesterday, was not. She said,

The first bite may be shocking. The black salt shows you where the mango might go if it gets too ripe, too wild, if left too long to its own. But it hasn’t, it isn’t, not yet: the mango is just ripe enough, the black salt is only a reminder.

I tell you it was.

‘I had my regret and so I wrote…’

I remember it being cold and she was underdressed. That night I offered her my gloves but not my coat. I have since regretted that.

It was the Sabbath, Hegel writes, but Jesus paid no heed. He saw the hungry man and plucked an ear of corn, giving it to him.

I got reacquainted this morning with the sobering thought that it is not our grave injustices but our nightly missed kindnesses that turn us cold to each other.

I had my regret and so I wrote, “You want for human warmth.” And, later that day, she replied in kind, “I seek for soul warmth.”

I regret not having offered her my coat. I regret all the sole coats I have worn but never offered another who was in search of soul warmth.

(Of soul warmth. If not from me, then from whom? If not now, then when?)

This life is hard enough, but it becomes even harder as we, little by little, harden to each other. Our peccadilloes against our friends and beloveds accrue almost daily like dank autumn evenings until, some years on or seeming lifetimes after, they bear us down and we are borne unweeping and unfeeling, unsewing, unmending.

Nearing home, we put on our coats and feel nothing except the fibers rubbing. The regrets will come much later, on some Tuesday autumnal evening, reshaping us for feeling, reawakening us to the pain of living.

When a vague question is asking to be asked

In his actions, gestures, demeanour and speech, the [Daoist] sage shows himself to be responsive but steady, focused but spontaneous, firm but flexible, reserved but accessible. He follows no rigid plans, and does not espouse goals that are to be achieved come what may. Hence, he does not force people or things to fit in with plans or goals.

–David E. Cooper, Convergence with Nature: A Daoist Perspective


In my philosophy practice, I have had the experience more than a couple of times in the past year of feeling that a question is asking to be asked but not knowing exactly what needs to be asked. But something. I say: “I see an opening.” I say: “There seems to me something here.” I say: “Hold. Stay with me. I think something important could happen if only we persist.”

(I hear a voice saying: “Be firm but flexible.” I hear: “Follow no rigid plans.” I hear: “Be calm but careful, cautious but persistent.” I hear and I do not know. It offers no instructions.)

The time is dangerous and the air is fraught because I don’t know what I am doing, I could hurt the other in my folly, and the sought-after insight may not arrive at all or on time. I want to be careful, therefore, and in this long moment I am not sure whether to resist further inquiry or to press on in the face of not knowing. In which direction does courage lie? How much patience is required? Am I exercising good judgment (phronesis) by persisting, by not persisting, by persisting lightly or pointedly, forcefully or nurturantly? I do not know.

(“Be firm but flexible. Follow no rigid plans.”)

Reader, you must understand that this is not some intellectual exercise; a life is not the kind of thing to play around with; there are vital concerns at stake, tender souls open to inquiry. Know that I have cried with others during glimmers of insight, and know too that I have felt sorrow for having misled them (us). Know that, when we examine our lives in the sacred space of philosophical intimacy, the wrong question at the wrong time can unravel a person, a relationship, a life. I grant this tragic shade to life. I honor it.

(“Do not force people before their time, but act spontaneously when the time comes.”)

Before you, I want to be answerable for my life. I want to understand what it means to sense that a question is asking to be asked but having no better sense of what question exactly needs to be voiced.

In one classic Daoist text, the Zhuangzi, we come upon a craftsman who seeks to make a bell stand. In order to do so, he must cut down a tree. But how does he know which tree would serve his purpose and how to do so in accordance with the Way? He reasons thus:

When I am going to make a bell-stand… I enter into the mountain forests, viewing the inborn heavenly nature of the trees. My body arrives at a certain spot, and already I see the completed bell-stand there: only then do I apply my hand to it. Otherwise I leave the tree alone.

(Beautiful, I cry, beautiful: I cry. Here, the grace exhibited in bringing a reverent hand into the flesh of a living being in the hope of transformation.)

To begin with, the craftsman is called forth by a need; he would not enter the forest to cut down a tree unless this were so; nor does he cut down any more trees than would suit his immediate purpose. Second, he has a conception in mind of a completed bell-stand. Third, he walks about in search of a tree that would accord with the idea of a completed bell-stand. And, fourth, he selects the particular tree just because he can “see the completed bell-stand there.” That is, this tree is a fit for the conception he has in mind. Colloquially, we say, pointing: “Ah! This is it.”

We have, in short, (1) a need, (2) a specification, (3) an inquiry directed at the specification, and (4) the fitting together of thing and specification. This should look like the basic shape of a good inquiry.

Unless I’m mistaken, most of my life is spent moving, gracefully and not so, through 1-4–this with one minor modification. I would venture that the specification is rarely so clear as “the completed bell-stand.” More often, in a philosophical conversation, we are inquiring about something or other at the same time that we are discovering our reason for inquiring about something or other as we go along.  When an inquiry is going well, the criterion or specification becomes clearer in and with the going. Not so easy. If only it were so easy as seeing the completed bell-stand there!

Notice, however, that the question I presented at the outset only satisfies the first condition fully and the third condition somewhat. There is a need, one that pulls me up to it, one to which I am attuned. In my heart, I feel disquietude, urging, displeasure, demand–I know not what the intimation is, but a need of or about something in connection with the other. Yet here I pause or stutter or mumble or gasp. I put my hands behind my head. I breathe and search. I close my eyes. Should I ask when I don’t know at what the question is directed, especially when I do not know how this question, here and now, will be received?

I may give pain.

I am speaking of vagueness. How dim must a specification be before it is no specification at all? And if there is no specification or none to be had, then in what sense could we say, after breathing deeply, after putting the vague questions, after unnerving each other enough or unraveling our relation–after all this, in what sense can we say that we have arrived at something: at some insight, some realization, some greater clarity?

(Am I forcing things? Am I succumbing to impatience?)

But then perhaps the aim of the inquiry just is to put us in the ditch, showing us that something is amiss. If so, do we have the strength to persist despite the fact that doing so will surely draw us further apart? But perhaps we are pressing at something that isn’t there or questioning something that isn’t ready to be questioned? But if that something is not ready to be revealed, not open to us yet even despite some vague intimation, then perhaps this is the truth of the inquiry, a truth that could not have otherwise been known had we not had the fortitude to forge on a little further? I do not know: the possibilities are dizzying, the inferences quiet, unforthcoming.

Before you, I want to be answerable for my life. I want to inquire further about myself, my part, my failures, my responsibilities, my guilt. Our ethical lives demand this much from us.

Let’s suppose, as I have done in the instances I alluded to in the opening line, that I have essayed a question or a thought on the understanding that the other’s reply or the next or the next might “tell us something,” perhaps allowing us to draw nearer to a–to the–well-formulated question that will, in the end, let itself be asked. From this perspective, it feels as though this inquiry is a propaedeuctic to inquiring further.

The danger lies near, nearer still, almost here, in the shadows, provided the opening reveals nothing in the way of insight.

(Do I sense the danger? Its magnitude? Am I still attuned to him, to her, to us? Should I ease off now or is that cowardice?)

For soon enough it shall become clear that we don’t know what we are looking for (an intersubjective realization); that we have no idea how to go on ‘from here’ (a dizzying abyss, without coordinates); and that we do not know how to get out (a lostness beyond lostness). The terminus of “what are we doing here?” is the splitting of the ‘we’ into an ‘I’ and a ‘you,’ with the further consequence that I am causing him, her, you harm. And since I initiated, led the inquiry, and persisted, I am now causing you pain.

(What does it mean to honor the pain I have caused another? Is there a ritual for this, an action akin to tossing sand and ash and dry spit into the wind? Are we staring face to face at our human vulnerabilities? If so, was that what this was all about all along? Or am I missing the point again?)

In the face of sorrow, we draw on strength. We slacken, we shake out, we walk apart, we dwell in great silence, we return. Before you, reader, I honor the sorrow, my fallibility, our desire for insight. I must acknowledge the void. We return to the last stepping stone, recalling what more intelligible, fruitful inquiries were like, and start again from there, scratching marks with calloused hands in the dry dirt.

I imagine us holding a stick together and, with slow hands, scratching a few loose marks in the dirt.

(I can feel sorrow for having harmed you and I can have no regrets. I can owe you something, something further, and have no regrets. I can love my fallibility and know sorrow and be sorry to you and have no regrets. Our ethical lives are dents, dense, complex.)

Have I learned anything from this? (Or is this, just now, the wrong question?) Perhaps I have learned, as if I had never bled, as if I had never wounded another till now, to be more mindful, more attentive and responsive, knowing full well that the lesson of the vagueness may arrive somewhere down the road and thereby be redeemed–or not at all. It may never arrive. I have learned that I can do no more but learn to practice again, practice and, after, toss earth as insufficient amends, to act this time again with the greatest care I can urge: and then, again, with greater care than that.

On the concept of anxiety: A reconsideration

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; 
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.

–T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets


First a detour through the Dia Trip (good pun fun) for a visual inquiry into tranquility, the opposite of anxiety. In case you missed it, Morning Glory, here’s the story. In the first photo, you can just make out the friendly bees which, as it happens, were just about everywhere.

Exhibit A: Attention to blooming nature.

“Home of the Busybodies”

“Homebuddies,” I replied. “Homebuzzies?”

Exhibit B: Attention to burlap windows.

“Amor Mundi, Burlap Woods: A Still Life”

“Oh Cloudforest, just another day at work,” I thought. “Good old philosophical life.”


My thesis consists of two parts. First of all, I seek to show that the concept of anxiety is obfuscatory. The ‘diagnosis’ or ‘explanation’ it seeks to provide of a certain set of lived experiences lacks sufficient explanatory power. Second of all, I set out a better philosophical approach–one informed by a more poetic understanding–for understanding and examining our lives. Throughout, I imply that talk of anxiety does human beings a grave disservice by ‘treating’ a wide range of wondrous, if trying, life experiences as if they could be subsumed under the category of ‘illness,’ of ‘having a condition,’ and so on.

A precis of the argument. To begin with, I provide a survey and analysis of the concept of anxiety. From this, I seek to offer the most basic definition of anxiety. I conclude that this definition, despite its being ‘the most basic,’ actually covers a disparate set of lived experiences. We’d do well, I suggest, to start our inquiry anew: with simpler words, more vivid experiences, and more particular understandings and local theories; most of all, with good practices.


By my lights, the concept of anxiety has always been fuzzy. Freud seemed to gather this when he sought to distinguish Angst (anxiety) from fear. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which he wrote in 1920, he insists that fear is associated with a determinate object (say, the dog with its bloody bark) whereas anxiety is an expectation of danger from an indeterminate object or a preparation for danger from a source unknown. I am reminded of Harold Pinter’s plays which are said to evoke a general, pervasive sense of menace. To the characters and to the audience, there is something dark and foreboding but what exactly remains offstage, out of sight, sensed but never grasped.

What Freud’s definition appears to capture, indeed builds into itself, is the all-encompassing dimness of the uneasiness. The person said to be anxious does not know exactly where the anxiety comes from but may sense it more in some quarters of his life and less in others, more at some times and less at others.

Still, I can’t make out why indeterminacy isn’t anything other a pre-philosophical stance toward oneself, a stance summoning us to further inquiry whose immediate aim would be to transform indeterminacy into determinacy, dimness and vagueness into clarity and distinctness. And I can’t understand how Freud’s definition could help us distinguish between, e.g., some especially surprising and serendipitous experience from one of menace or anxiety. For if the object is, according to Freud, indeterminate, then how would we determine whether X would likely bring about joy or suffering? Would there not be something about my relation to particular objects, as yet not well understood, or about my relation to the world more generally that may be calling, urging, enjoining me to inquire?

So far, anxiety is (i) fear together with indeterminacy. Now, let’s turn to other candidate definitions:

(ii) The Stoics. Anxiety, they claim, arises from the belief that what we deem valuable will soon perish or what we care most about will never come to pass. (I used this definition in my post on Hurricane Irene. As will become clear shortly, I have come to regret using the term.)

The phenomena this definition “saves,” so to speak, are those like a parent saying that he is anxious about his child (the thought that a valuable entity might perish) or the job candidate who is anxious about getting a good job (the thought that it will never come her way).

The trouble with the definition is that the panic some feel, intuitively a case of anxiety, is neither about losing something valuable or, only tangentially, about the incapacity of gaining something valuable. She may, quite simply, feel existentially alone, the idea of absence near crippling.

(iii) Pop Psychology. “Anxious people,” Lisa Miller writes in New York Magazine, “dwell on potential negative outcomes and assume (irrational and disproportionate) responsibility for fixing the disasters they imagine will occur” (“Listening to Xanax,”  New York Magazine, March 18, 2012).

On this definition, which certainly has a few things going for it, it is impossible to distinguish between a meditation on worst case scenarios, the goal of which is to bring us to a state of tranquility, and the preoccupations with negative outcomes. It could be said that one exercise is undertaken for the sake of reminding us of our powers while the other, the “dwelling on” kind, is done for the sake of returning us, over and over again, to what ails us, and that would be true. However, it begs off the question of what kind of thinking would train us in the former and remove us from the latter. How, simply by observing these two activities, do we distinguish one from the other?

The trouble is that only philosophical training can do the former, teaching us to reason logically, sequentially, and moving us, like following steps on a path, toward clarity and insight. Yet this author, Lisa Miller, chillingly concludes that she would prefer foolishness to genuine truth. She writes in the final line, “Because the truth is, and I’ll speak for myself here, I want tranquillity once in a while. But I don’t want a tranquil life.”

That is horrible. For the pre-philosophical, nothing much can be said or done.

(iv) Diagnostic and Stastistical Manual (DSM-IV). We read,

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is an anxiety disorder that is characterized by excessive, uncontrollable and often irrational worry about everyday things that is disproportionate to the actual source of worry. This excessive worry often interferes with daily functioning, as individuals suffering GAD typically anticipate disaster, and are overly concerned about everyday matters such as health issues, money, death, family problems, friend problems, relationship problems or work difficulties. Individuals often exhibit a variety of physical symptoms, including fatigue, fidgeting, headaches, nausea, numbness in hands and feet, muscle tension, muscle aches, difficulty swallowing, bouts of difficulty breathing, difficulty concentrating, trembling, twitching, irritability, agitation, sweating, restlessness, insomnia, hot flashes, and rashes and inability to fully control the anxiety.

To its credit, DSM does put its finger on the thought that anxiety is concerned with “worry” and that worry is associated with fairly run of the mill, “everyday things.” I take it the reference to “everyday things” is intended to distinguish anxiety from catastrophic fear, fear of really, really bad and large things happening. The problem is that this worry is so spread out over so many different kinds of examples, experiences, and scenarios as to be virtually meaningless. And notice the range of everyday matters DSM mentions–virtually the whole gamut of our lives–plus the exceptional number of ways that anxiety ‘manifests’ itself in ‘physical symptoms.’

Quite apart from the philosophical question of what anxiety is, the great danger here is that most pre-philosophical people living in the developed world could be diagnosed with anxiety.

(There is a rider about the person’s having experienced these symptoms, together with these thoughts, for 6 months or so, but I can’t see that that rider does much good, in terms of our understanding. A life may not go well for a while or for a shorter period of time. The length of time may only indicate that the person has yet to learn how to examine his life.)

(v) Existentialists. Anxiety, Kierkegaard wrote, is the “dizziness of freedom.” But the dizziness of freedom, spinning in the abyss, just is the fear of death. I suppose it could be the crippling or dizzying or paralyzing fear of my death or of those I care ownmost about. In “Kierkegaard, Danish Doctor of Dread” (New York Times, March 17, 2012),”  the academic philosopher Gordon Marino expounds on this Kierkegaardian line of thought concerning the abyss of freedom:

It is in our anxiety that we come to understand feelingly that we are free, that the possibilities are endless, we can do what we want — jump off the cliff or, in my case, perhaps one day go into the class I teach and, like Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, say absolutely nothing.

The existentialist conception seems especially fruitful as a way of understanding one kind of anxiety–namely, the idea of panic, the metaphysical sense of utter aloneness–but one is hard-pressed to see how it applies to other, more garden variety experiences such as those mentioned in DSM or by the pop psychologists or Stoics.

In sum, the concept of anxiety appears to apply to the most mundane and the most existentially primitive, the most indeterminate to the most determinate (e.g., money), the most intense (spinning or falling in the void) to the least so (shaking hands before an important presentation).

Before I conclude that we are far better off not thinking of our lives in terms of anxiety, I want to offer a simpler definition that will, I hope, gather together many (or most) of the elements in play in the definitions above.


I propose the following conjunctive definition of anxiety:

Anxiety is (1) the fear of not having (enough) of what is good; and/or (2) the fear of not being (here, around, alive, or entwined with another); and/or (3) the fear of not knowing the general layout of the social or natural world.

Consider (1). The thought is that I may not have enough of what is good speaks to our basic human needs and desires. Let’s call this “lived human anthropology,” where anthropology is concerned with the question, as Kant put it later in his life, “What is Man?” The child who is ‘anxious’ about not having enough of what is good (love, food, etc.) is growing up with a deep sense of this insufficiency, this idea of scarcity.

Consider (2). The thought is that I may be afraid of someone’s not being around: a beloved, myself, etc. Perhaps it could be stated even more simply: it is a fear of absence in a very deep and primitive sense. On this understanding, ‘anxiety’ points to our human vulnerabilities, our carings or lacks. Let’s call this “lived sociality,” following Aristotle’s first principle that human beings are, and cannot otherwise be, social animals.

Consider (3). The thought here is that I am in the midst of epistemic doubt bordering on epistemic nihilism. It seems as though I can’t really know others, that I can’t know the everyday world of experience. Let’s call this “lived epistemology,” on the understanding that I am living with a sense of doubt about my standing and place in the world.

And what do we notice about 1-3? We notice, it seems to me, that they are concerned with different experiences and would therefore invite different kinds of considerations, different sorts of inquiries. But if that’s the case, then what good would this definition of anxiety do when what we’re after is understanding, say, why the idea of insufficiency is on our minds, or what reasons we have for believing that our beloveds might leave us, or what grounds we can give for thinking that others are “opaque” to us.

My provisional conclusion is that this is not one river, so to speak, with three different tributaries, but three different rivers entirely. In which case, we’d do well to follow the river in question toward its logical end.


The assumption in much of the ‘therapeutic understanding’ above, one that I am challenging root and branch, is that our lives should be ‘analyzed’ in parts. For example, the cognitive behavioral therapist (CBT), one of the most common in the US and UK today, presupposes that there is this single bit over here that is amenable to ‘analysis’ on its own.

I admit that conceptual analysis can be useful, when the time comes and our conceptions get hazy, but I submit that our lives must be understood in holistic terms. I remember working with a woman–beautiful, intelligent, brave–who told me, during our second or third conversation, that she was an ‘introvert.’ I smiled to myself (we were talking over the phone). It seemed as if the label ‘introvert’ was helping her explain the kind of person she was, but in reality the label functioned as a way of ending an inquiry about herself. Through a lengthy and stirring Socratic dialogue, we concluded that she was not, after all, an ‘introvert’ but neither was she an ‘extrovert’. She was subtracted, as it were, from these psychological categories, from all of them.

We arrived, together, at the place of not-knowing what or how she was, and from here we have since inquiried further. With time, our conversations have only gotten better, more vibrant, more loving.

There are three important points to make. The first is that we have inherited a set of psychological and psychotherapeutic categories that do not enhance understanding but rather close off further inquiry. “Ah, well, so-and-so just is a narcissist.” Bump. End. Stop. The second is that we have inherited the assumption that we really understand a person when we can provide that person with such a label. To say that I’m feeling very sad seems, at first blush, to say something insufficient. But when I say that I am “clinically depressed” or “moderately depressed,” then I feel as if I’ve gotten to the bottom of something. I think I understand something deep about myself, but I don’t. I’ve simply re-described myself in different terms, once again shutting off further inquiry. And the third is that I think something’s going awry (you see I’m even trying, ever so hard, to avoid the use of the word ‘problem’) should be ‘treated’ in analytical terms, as if it could be ‘cordoned off’ and contained in one small sector of my life. “Really, I think, the problem has to do with family.” Nonsense. Whatever is awry, I’ve learned, is not a this or that, not one thing or another, but a way of being in the world, a whole form of life.

(We want to be like cherry blossoms, beautiful, graceful, and light.)

The last point reminds me of a conversation I had with one dear conversation partner. I was telling her that one could, in principle, learn about the whole of a person’s way of life by inquiring about the most mundane of experiences. If someone says that she is shy or that she is always late, then assuredly, like a thread of a sweater, all this needs is a gentle philosophical pull and the sweater will rather nicely come unraveled.

Lives also unravel. Through practice, the good ones come together, flourish, harmonize. And so begins a philosophical inquiry into the nature and possibility of a radiant life.


In this final section, I want to provide a very short sketch of what a philosophical inquiry might entail. I’m afraid, it’s a very short sketch indeed, but at least it provides an intimation, a glimmer, a vision of what examining our lives together actually involves.

The first thing we’d want to do would be to “bracket” the concept of anxiety (etc.) in order to undertake a phenomenological inquiry into the qualia (the individual feel) of the lived experience. Supposing you couldn’t avail yourself of anxiety (etc.), let’s look further into what this experience is like. Let’s provide thick descriptions, let’s write a poem, let’s get some metaphors and analogies in front of us. How about a picture? An image? An image and an explication? Recently, one intelligent woman said that the experience of ‘anxiety’ was rather like having your thoughts ‘captured’ by a glass cube attached to her forehead, with the glass cube spinning around and around with those thoughts.

The second thing we’d want to do would be to build a “local theory” of what’s going on. We’d want to build a framework that would be unique to this person’s experience but also general enough to be communicable to other philosophical souls, other kindred spirits. A local theory would provide the necessary conceptual scaffolding, showing how this experience hangs together with other experiences, how she sees her life ‘fitting’ into a broader scheme of things.

What needs to be emphasized, though, is that a local theory is not a Procrustean Bed. It is not, that is, some General Theory that I have ready to hand and into which every new conversation partner’s experience must then be jammed. The General Theory approach does a grave disservice to the range, diversity, and irreducible complexity of the human adventure.

The third thing we’d want to do would be to develop good practices. To lead a radiant life is to practice well, over and over again among kindred souls, the way of living well. It is here that philosophical friendships, good neighbors, and caring others provide us with ongoing exercises the imminent end of which is living flourishingly. On this understanding, learning to be tranquil and calm is like learning to see the world, time and again but also for the first time, as if it were a cherry blossom in spring, a window becoming a burlap tapestry. By means of practice, we learn to attend.

Further Reading

Supposing I haven’t exhausted your patience and attention already, I want to add that during the next year or so I’ll be trying to show that many so called ‘psychologistic’ and ‘therapeutic’ understandings and problems are actually failures of philosophical self-understanding. One post where I began to discuss this shortcoming, on CBT, can be read here.

In this endeavor, one of my influences was the science fiction writer Ursula Guin, who, in her short story “She Unnames Them,” invites us to examine what life would be like without certain taxonomies. Though I knew it only inchoately at the time, I had begun this line of inquiry here, which led, like a lovely river, to the post above.