In his epic poem, The Age of Anxiety: a Baroque eclogue, published in 1947, WH Auden wrote: ‘We would rather be ruined than changed/We would rather die in our dread/Than climb the cross of the moment/And let our illusions die.’1
These lines, written two years after the end of World War 2, spoke bitterly of the ruination wrought by war at that time, and also echo down the decades, speaking not only to the ideological, political, religious, ecological and internecine conflicts and crises that currently besiege our world, but also, on an intrapersonal level, to the everyday neuroses from which we all suffer to differing degrees, and which, when we’re in their dread grip, can prevent us from changing in ways that might enable us to live to the fullness of our potential.
Here is the paradox we sit with as therapists when we work with our clients, and that we also grapple with inside ourselves: while, on a rational level, we might profess we want to change, on another, mostly unconscious level, our defence mechanisms operate in ways designed to maintain the status quo, even though, in Auden’s words, this might cause us to ‘die in our dread’, both psychically and possibly even literally.
As Thomas Merton eloquently writes in The Seven Storey Mountain: ‘The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.’2
Anxiety – a word that derives from the Latin substantive angor and the corresponding verb ango (to constrict)3 – while being a normal response to the distress and pain that are natural features of human life, can also choke us in its strangle hold, and inhibit us from living our lives to the full.
Change requires us to accept that, despite the slings and arrows that life will inevitably cast at us, it’s the attitude we take in relation to our suffering that will ultimately dictate our capacity to ‘climb the cross of the moment/ And let our illusions die’. And chief among these illusions, as we see play out time and time again in our consulting rooms, and know all too well from our own lived experience, is that staying with the familiar, however much pain it may cause, is safer than embracing uncertainty and stepping into the unknown.
Anxiety is the theme of this conference special issue. I hope the range of perspectives on the topic offered here will provide you with nourishment for your practice.
I’ll give the closing words to CS Lewis, who sums up brilliantly all I’ve been attempting to express: ‘Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.’4
John Daniel, Editor