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Living in the Age of Anxiety and Disappointment

Living in the Age of Anxiety and Disappointment

By Ahsan Qazi

Published in 1953, Rollo May wrote in The Man’s Search for Himself, that “Two world wars in thirty-five years, economic upheavals and depressions, the eruption of fascist barbarism and the rise of communist totalitarianism, and now not only interminable half-wars but the prospects of cold wars for decades to come while we skate literally on the edge of a Third World War complete with atom bombs—these simple facts from any daily journal are enough to show how the foundations of our world are shaken.” This sentiment is like the sentiment of our present times. The foundation of our world is certainly “shaken,” and it is shaken to a point where the present time is brimming with anxiety, mass confusion, and disappointment.


In the last two decades, War in Afghanistan (2001-2014), Iraq War (2003-2011), the financial crisis (2007-2008), Libya Conflict (2011-present), Syria Conflict (2011-present), Yemen Conflict (2014-present), Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, (2014–present), COVID-19 Pandemic (2020-present), now the Russia-Ukraine War (2022-present), a 68.2% chance of economic recession (according to the New York Fed probability indicator), bank failures, and mass employee layoffs are a grim reality of the twenty-first century. Each tragedy of our current times is a subject of its own and requires an in-depth analysis; however, examining what has occurred in the last two decades and continues to take place, rationalizing such major events and their impact leaves people questioning “How can anyone attain inner integration in such a disintegrated world?”


May believed that the middle of the twentieth century is more anxiety-driven than the previous ages. Anxiety, according to May, is “the human being’s basic reaction to a danger to his existence, or to some value he identifies with his existence” [sic]. The twenty-first century is still the age of anxiety, and this age of anxiety is not just an output of wars and economic disasters. It is also an age of disappointment and mass confusion. It is the age of mass refugee crisis, climate disasters, age of economic, cyber, and combat warfare where major powers are in hostile competition of achieving global dominance and returning to their former glory, and the age of technological revolution where technocrats are architecting a different type of world than the world that politicians are architecting. The modern world is in complete crisis. It suffers from polarization, contradictory values, and mass confusion in the current situation.



To put this into perspective, David Brooks points out in “America Is Having a Moral Convulsion,” published in The Atlantic that “over the past few decades, America became a more untrustworthy society. It is an account of how, under the stresses of 2020, American institutions and the American social order crumbled and were revealed as more untrustworthy still. We had a chance, in crisis, to pull together as a nation and build trust. We did not. That has left us a broken, alienated society caught in a distrust doom loop.” The events of the last two decades where the world witnessed major wars, a pandemic, social and political injustices (Palestinian crisis, Rohingya genocide, Uyghurs oppression, civil conflicts in Burundi, Rwanda, Kashmir, etc.), unjust killings of African Americans by the police, which continue to happen, and the rise of ultranationalist politicians leave the society shocked and numb. As Brooks noted, these events “were like hurricanes that hit in the middle of earthquake.”


According to Brooks, “We are living in the age of that disappointment. Millennials and members of Gen Z have grown up in the age of that disappointment, knowing nothing else. In the U.S. and elsewhere, this has produced a crisis of faith, across society but especially among the young. It has produced a crisis of trust.” Because of many social, political, environmental, and economic crises, the emerging generation does not possess any sense of security. The young generation is left to define their own value system, each creating a social or a virtual bubble of their own to fend themselves from the present realities of this world. May had diagnosed this problem earlier when he stated in The Man’s Search for Himself that “When our society, in its time of upheaval in standards and values, can give us no clear picture of ‘what we are and what we ought to be,’ as Matthew Arnold puts it, we are thrown back on the search for ourselves.” It not only becomes an issue of identity crisis on a personal level and a societal level, but it also becomes a question of what psychological impact it has on individuals. In plain words of May, “it makes us prey to that peculiar psychological pain and turmoil called anxiety.”


For May, “It is a mistake to believe that the contemporary wars and depressions and political threats are the total cause of our anxiety, for our anxiety also causes these catastrophes.” The result of such anxiety also manifests itself in another form such as mass shootings in the United States. May emphasizes, “Those who wish more detailed evidence of modern anxiety—as it shows itself in the rising incidence of emotional and mental disturbances, divorce and suicide, and in political and economic upheavals—can find it in the book mentioned above,” referring to his book The Meaning of Anxiety. The mass shootings that the United States continues to witness and suffer from are an output of extreme frustration and a result of harbored anxiety. From January 1st, 2023, to the present, there have been 327 mass shootings according to the Mass Shooting Tracker, and 5,462 mass shootings since January 1st, 2013. What are the mass shootings signs of?


Jillian Peterson, an associate professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Hamline University was presented with the question, what role does mental illness play in mass shootings because the commonly held belief that local leaders, politicians, and law enforcement present to the public is that the mass shooter must be mentally ill to carry out such a crime. Is mental illness truly the cause behind mass shootings?  In an interview with the American Psychological Association, she responded, it is not always the case because the answer to this question is more complicated than just categorizing it as a mental illness. No single diagnosis can be suggested for the mass shooters; however, Peterson does state in the interview, “So we looked really deeply at histories of mental illness, at diagnoses, at previous counseling, psychiatric medication, anything that we could find. So, we did find most mass shooters, about two-thirds, have some sort of mental health history.” Although psychosis's active role is just 10% for mass shooters according to Peterson, 90% is more complicated than the active role of psychosis. This points one to seeking a deeper understanding of what changes may be happening underneath the fabric of our modern society where anxiety in the present-day stems from. May proclaims, “The anxiety prevalent in our day and the succession of economic and political catastrophes our world has been going through are both symptoms of the same underlying cause, namely the traumatic changes occurring in Western society.”


What are the traumatic changes occurring in Western society, especially in the United States? Brooks provides an answer to this question. He observes that in the changing culture of the present time, the meritocratic system is increasingly a harsh mechanism that excludes most people. It leaves people in insecure and secondary positions while it pushes the "winners" into an exhausting and unhappy lifestyle. The value system that is emerging sees "privilege" as a shameful wrongdoing, and the rules of status are reversed. Those who achieved success are viewed with suspicion simply because they have succeeded. Displays of "success" are closely examined and criticized. In the present age, equality becomes the primary social and political objective, and any form of inequality be it racial, economic, or based on merit becomes perceived as hateful. What kind of social environment is this creating?


According to Brooks, the current cultural shift provides individuals with more personal security, but it comes at the cost of increased polarization within society. People are drawn back into their communities and groups, but in this era of distrust, these groups view each other with suspicion, anger, and hostility. While a move towards a more communal perspective can be beneficial if directed correctly, it also risks fueling a "cold civil war." Unless trust is reestablished, the danger of polarization leading to a civil war will remain. The core issue at hand is to rebuild trust, and the nation can function only when social trust is reestablished between groups and between groups and institutions. Brooks writes, “There’s no avoiding the core problem. Unless we can find a way to rebuild trust, the nation does not function.”


The underlying causes and the traumatic changes, which May and Brooks both suggest, are a correct diagnosis of what is happening in the modern world. Anxiety, mass confusion, and disappointment are present in society and when it continues to go untreated, it becomes no less than a pandemic. Per May, when an individual experiences anxiety for a long time, individuals fall victim to psychosomatic illnesses. Comparatively, when a group faces prolonged anxiety without any clear plan of action, the group members eventually turn against each other. As a result, when a nation is in a state of confusion and uncertainty, its members expose themselves to destructive forces like character assassinations, witch hunts, and the pervasive pressure that breeds suspicion among neighbors, as seen during the era of McCarthyism, points out May.


Perhaps, this explains the extreme polarization in many of the Western nations and some non-western nations. The present politics have turned into a theater of character assassination that is conducted like a perfect assault. Such character assassination leaves no room for leaders or ideas to emerge. Ideas that can be implemented to benefit the public are always lobbied against because of the absence of social trust. Brook’s essay, “America Is Having a Moral Convulsion,” makes this point clear. His central thesis is about social trust, and in writing about social trust, he states, “Social trust is a measure of the moral quality of a society—of whether the people and institutions in it are trustworthy, whether they keep their promises and work for the common good. When people in a church lose faith or trust in God, the church collapses. When people in society lose faith or trust in their institutions and in each other, the nation collapses.” This thought finds itself in what May also proclaims.


Per May, if one shifts his or her focus from society to individuals, one sees anxiety manifesting in numerous ways, such as the presence of neurosis and other emotional disturbances. This anxiety is now a modern-day epidemic that is affecting human health and well-being. Beneath the individual’s anxiety, there is a deeper source beyond the immediate threats of war or economic instability. The source of anxiety in the modern world is the fundamental confusion and complete confusion about the paths an individual should pursue and the principles he or she should believe in. This is why May pointed out at the very beginning of his book, “The painful insecurity on all sides gives us new incentive to ask, is there perhaps some important source of guidance and strength we have overlooked?” May believes that the inner source of guidance and strength is to look within, find the center of strength within ourselves and work towards achieving meaningful goals one can rely on when there is insecurity all around.


What should one do according to May? Should one work towards being financially successful and esteemed life or should one prioritize being well-liked by everyone? Should one conform to the norms of society, or should one live a monogenous life? Such examples, as May lays out only show the surface of a condition about the inherent perplexity about goals and values that afflicts modern individuals, a reason an individual does not what he feels and why he feels, which results in anxiety and emptiness. Social trust has disappeared. Brook summarizes it best when he states, “Human beings need a basic sense of security to thrive; as the political scientist Ronald F. Inglehart puts it, their ‘values and behavior are shaped by the degree to which survival is secure.’ In the age of disappointment, our sense of safety went away. Some of this is physical insecurity: school shootings, terrorist attacks, police brutality, and overprotective parenting at home that leaves young people incapable of handling real-world stress. But the true insecurity is financial, social, and emotional.”

When the social and political climate has the absence of fundamental values based on objectivity and political engines are used to corrupt the social and political fabric of society, the citizens are the victims. When the citizen loses his sense of direction, worth, and the means to help him remain firm on solid values that are also universal truths, it damages the individual and pushes him into the fold of anxiety; hence, the individual reacts in some severe form that is usually an act of violence. May writes, ”For when a person does not know with any inner conviction what he wants or what he feels; when, in a period of traumatic change, he becomes aware of the fact that the conventional desires and goals he has been taught to follow no longer bring him any security or give him any sense of direction, when, that is, he feels an inner void while he stands amid the outer confusion of upheaval in his society, he senses danger; and his natural reaction is to look around for other people.” Resting hope on people who seek guidance themselves in the present state of mass confusion and disappointment cannot produce a positive result. People are unable to guide each other and guiding each other in their current state would mean the blind leading the blind. The individual “hopes, will give him some sense of direction, or at least some comfort in the knowledge that he is not alone in his fright. Emptiness and loneliness are thus two phases of the same basic experience of anxiety.” To shake the anxiety and disappointment of present day, social trust, finding the center of self, and reviving universal truths, which translate to universal values (based on objectivity) need to be a priority for every individual, so true leaders can emerge, and great ideas end the loneliness and emptiness that haunts us all.



*Opinions expressed in this article are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The South Asia Times   

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