Anxiety vs Miracles
My Attempt to Explain Half of Everything
by LAURENCE SHORTER
I have a strong drive to join things up. Some people like fixing electronic equipment or vintage cars, I like fiddling with my mental framework so everything fits together.
Like many hobbies my drive for clarity can be obsessive – it can lead me around in circles heading nowhere. It’s also expensive – I’ve had to turn away all kinds of gainful employment to dedicate time to it. I could post endless pictures of the notes I’ve scribbled to myself in pursuit of clarity. One day I plan on turning them into a work of performance art.
This garage tinkering, though, does something important for my functioning, the slow work of perfecting a process over time. It also powers my career (asking people annoying questions).
When I was much younger – in my 20s – I felt out of kilter with myself and the world. I couldn’t make sense of what I was or how I fit into things, why aspects of my life felt ‘wrong’. I had an image in my mind of badly laid tiling, something fatally bodged but overlaid with a tidy veneer so you couldn’t see it. Dirt swept under the carpet.
Feeling that way, I did all sorts of things to get myself into the right life, from startups to standup comedy, from praying to therapy. I was looking for coherence, which involved quitting things when they didn’t feel right and experimenting with healing in a mind-boggling variety of ways. I didn’t so much leave the old world to find the new as leave multiple worlds in search of Shangri-La. I went into the woods.
But mainly, I was fiddling with my mental framework.
Over time this penniless side-hustle bore fruit: I started to feel more at home in my body. It took at least a decade to escape the feeling of wrongness, but eventually I got myself into a position where I didn’t feel like a total fraud. I soon found I was able to help other people feel better too.
Now the carpet fits together better – no imposter complex, no sense of being in the wrong life – but still the tinkering goes on. As long as the world seems broken, there’s work to do: heaven and earth to join together, ideas and reality in harmony, an ordered universe that begets abundance and flow. That’s my drive. I’ll probably do it ’til the day I die. Or until I feel relaxed enough to let go and watch TV.
Earlier this year I heard the once-popular Jordan Peterson explain that “anxiety is caused by axiomatic confusion.” The medieval alchemist in me understood this immediately: if your beliefs are contradictory, you’re going to feel it viscerally, even if you don’t understand why. It was a reminder to double down on seeking the Holy Grail of mental coherence.
Because, sure, I still feel anxious from time to time. Parenting small children can feel like piloting a tiny boat in a wild sea at nighttime, in a storm, while bailing out water with a broken sail – and no skipper’s license.
It only takes a last-minute childcare cancellation to send things into tailspin. Like civilisation itself the infrastructure of nuclear family life is fragile and prone to swift collapse. There was that winter when we both had Covid, between lockdowns, with a newborn baby and two boys they wouldn’t accept into school. It was raining and it was cold, and I still had to walk my daughter to sleep with frozen fingers.
That’s the universal experience of parents of young children – woken at dawn by raw infant needs, the weekend stretching endlessly ahead, no gas in your tank and already your body feels like it’s time for bed. No village of grannies and uncles to help you raise them. No village full stop. Overwhelming.
But these are not the only sources of anxiety (naturally). There are other bugbears to contend with too:
Like Death – the idea of it – rushing closer as the years accelerate and time speeds up, devouring life in great gulps, and the end suggests itself less diplomatically than it used to – often in the middle of the night. In moments of unwelcome clarity, I remember that my body will one day cease to exist – possibly even before the turn of the half century, and most likely without me having quenched the world’s thirst with my contribution: almost certainly with various things in disarray around me.
Then there’s us – the world, the human condition in 2023 – everyone busy all the time with everything (regardless of age), childhood and retirement eclipsed by obligation; problems and opportunities queueing endlessly to be solved, processed, made the most of, accelerated by tech and globalisation – and that was before AI.
Now we have ChatGPT + war + climate change (+ ?) ushering in a feeling, quite new to me, that it may be actually impossible to model what the future looks like 5 or even 2 years from today, let alone a decade.
My dentist says I grind my teeth. Reading the above, why should I be surprised? Some mornings I wake up peaceful and alert, ready to spring out of bed. Sometimes I wake with fear churning in my guts like undigested beef.
So – what does my mental framework have to say about all this, after all my years of work? What’s the conceptual structure that unlocks this parade of confusion and sorrow?
On to miracles.
Miracles are defined variously as:
- An extraordinary event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to a divine agency (Merriam Webster)
- A very lucky event that is surprising and unexpected (Cambridge University Press)
- A violation of mathematical, divine, immutable, eternal laws (Stanford)
Miracles don’t have a great rep in the thoughtful mainstream. They’ve suffered the same fate as angels and saints: collateral damage in the discarding of religion as out of sync with grown up or progressive thinking.
But I like the breadth and generosity of the word. I like how it joins up the explicable (material) with the inexplicable (divine), and how it gives official title to something impossible. In that sense it’s both real and not real, which seems to me a pretty good description of life itself.
True to their definition, miracles don’t usually happen. Usually, life is samey and difficult. It’s repetitive, it’s a grind, and it’s easy to lose your optimism without even realising it. So much energy and time invested, so little return!
Every now and then, though, something great happens. Not just great, but welcome and unexpected: a new possibility you had no inkling of before, an opening that bails you out of trouble when you were out of options and ideas (NB: I find myself in this situation all the time).
I’ll lay out why as simply as I can:
The older I get the more I realise there are two domains in life. There’s everyday life, which is full of problems that will never be fixed or solved for long enough for anyone to relax and feel satisfied. But in parallel to this there is another domain of experience which is free of problems entirely and is close to an absolute description of how things really are. It’s what you might call objective reality – from a god’s eye view, there are no problems. It’s what many people call ‘the moment’.
It’s obviously a good idea to live in the moment – everyone knows that. All the research shows that people are happier when they meditate (swim, play, ski etc). But it’s hard to do this well – or more than sporadically – because we’re so busy trying to solve problems in the human domain. No time, I’ll be present later!
This impasse gets solved, though, as soon as you start to notice that the act of relaxing into the moment is itself a problem-solving act. When I do it well, I start to experience a flow of solutions from the no-problem space into the problem space (i.e. into my head).
Once you clock this, everything starts to change, because you realise you can actually outsource problems, at least part of the time, to a different part of your mind – and not just problems but the arrangement of whole swathes of your life where you are stuck or do not have direct control.
This ‘space’ has been called everything from God to the subconscious and this ‘out-sourcing’ known as meditation or prayer, but the vocabulary doesn’t matter so much as the fact that it actually seems to work. I don’t mind using mystical terms but I also see this state as a secular, even a physical, reality. It’s the space between thoughts, the unearned emptiness of the mind – but it’s also slower brain waves, hemispheric alignment and cognitive openness. In perceptual terms, the zone I am talking about occurs as a sort of vast and empty field around me that I live inside and am part of.
This ‘handing over’ movement is not the only answer to my difficulties. Even someone as lazy as me has to acknowledge that most problems require hard work before clarity has a chance to emerge. You have to do your bit: define problems carefully and specifically, research avenues, look for insight, imagine solutions and execute on them. This takes time and care, and it’s easy to skip it in favour of action or distraction.
But insight also requires an almost mystical commitment to not knowing. The practice of taking one’s foot off the problem-solving accelerator, of letting the brain wander, neurologically open and uncertain, has been described in many ways by many of the world’s greatest thinkers and artists (including John Cleese in this legendary talk about creativity).
What happens next is miracles: Images and ideas suggest themselves, arriving from somewhere else. A little portal in my head opens up and I get to see things in a different way. From this different way of seeing, different things happen.
Usually, I’m too busy thinking what I’ve always thought and reacting the way I’ve always reacted. But sometimes, I can stop thinking and remember there is a place I can outsource my problems to. I can just put it all away and relax. And then the next thing will happen.
© 2023 Laurence Shorter