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Russell Collins: Well, Aren’t We Special?

Accepting the ordinariness of our lives can free us from stress, anxiety and depression

Our 3-year-old niece spent some long hours with us at home this weekend, and the experience of having a small being banging around the house again ... well, it’s a great thing.

This is an especially warm and charming kid, who garners a lot of attention with her smiles and laughter. Children seem so simple in their desires and their transparent efforts to get all of the attention — especially when you compare them to the elaborate manipulations we attempt as adults.

Russell Collins
Russell Collins

As I watched her, everything seemed directed toward one of just two goals. Three goals, really, but leaving out the gummy bears, all of her activity could be classified as either a) efforts to gain attention or b) efforts to leave a mark. These two can be further boiled down by lumping them under the single heading “evidence that I make a difference in the world.”

Filling up page after page of copier paper with crayon marks, spreading her output across the living room floor, pausing regularly to admire them and call our attention to them, she seemed to be acting out some ancient biological toddler script: Put color where it was blank, create shapes where no shapes existed, cover the old floor with new work, and — always — check in with us to see that the whole production was still generating attention, still mattered to us. Then once in awhile, when she lost our attention and couldn’t get it back, she’d begin to fret and get anxious.

Everyone is getting anxious, it seems. A recent American Psychiatric Association poll showed about 80 percent of Americans are experiencing stress related to worries about the future. And anxiety-related disorders already constitute the largest category of mental illness complaints. There are many good mental health techniques and practices for the alleviation of anxiety symptoms, but some anxiety is notoriously difficult to treat. Generalized anxiety, particularly, is difficult to ameliorate with therapy because its sufferers tend to be worried about everything. The most effective evidence-based psychotherapies for anxiety disorders focus on individual fears and phobias, but this is hard to do when everything is a source of worry.

Here’s one idea about anxiety that may point toward a solution for the anxiety that seems to be in the air right now: As humans, we yearn ceaselessly for evidence that we are special, that our individual life makes a difference. We are anxious because the view from 50,000 feet suggests quite forcefully that this isn’t true. From up there, our individual lives just aren’t that important. And it goes downhill from there! Because our quest for the missing evidence of our individual specialness just makes things worse. It’s a futile quest, it turns out, that leads inevitably to lives of increasing emptiness and despair.

This is the approach taken by existential psychology, a school closely related to existential philosophy, which deals with issues of freedom, responsibility and death. Existential psychology has never quite gone mainstream in America, and you can see pretty quickly why. It’s kind of a downer. Talk of emptiness and death just seems so negative in this land of infinite optimism. But I think the ideas of existential psychology — especially this idea of specialness — deserve a place in the mental health toolbox, and may have a role to play in healing all of us from the “original anxiety” of human existence: our vain but unquenchable thirst to be special.

Understood from the perspective of evolution, it makes a lot of sense: To transmit our genetic heritage (goal No. 1 in the evolutionary model), we have to survive long enough to mate. In human societies, even 35,000 years ago when early modern humans wandered across Europe, support from your group was required for survival. You had to be special to others to survive, in other words, and so you developed an intuitive antenna customized for the task. You learned to sense how people saw you, and adjust your behavior to curry the group’s favor. This gave you an edge in the survival contest, and as a result, a thousand or so generations on down the line, one of your distant descendants sits on the floor of a California home and colors furiously to make herself feel special.

Predictably, the specialness drive that worked so well in the Pleistocene (and in kids) causes problems on the safer but more crowded planet of today. As each of us grows up, the evidence that we are not so special impinges more and more intrusively upon the naïve assumptions of childhood. We notice that there are, oh, six or seven billion others running around who, to a visitor from outer space, at least, look a lot like us. Likewise, we eventually realize that after a brief stay, we will disappear from the face of the Earth and soon be forgotten.

Unless we do something really spectacular like Shakespeare or Michael Jackson, it appears, the day-to-day world will go on as if we never existed. How special is that? This is a painful realization, of course, but in the scheme of existential psychology, it isn’t our sad but ordinary fate that causes us the deepest suffering. It’s our attempts to avoid thinking about it.

As cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker said in his much-quoted The Denial of Death, man is “a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity. This immense expansion, this self-consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god. Yet man is a worm and food for worms.” We dream, yet we are stuck in these little primate bodies, only a genetic 2 percent removed from the yammering chimps and apes — destined to live, defecate and die, then be heard no more. No wonder we’re depressed!

The name “existential psychology” alone is enough to drive most Americans away (compare that with the breezily titled “positive psychology,” currently making its way up the charts of successful psychological models), and it’s certainly not as efficient as the current, brief methods for treating the specific symptoms of anxiety quickly. Yet for those who are willing to open up to the tragic dimensions of life, the existential perspective has a payoff: a chance to be calmly present in the moment.

To accept the inevitability of death, in other words, is to stop struggling against it and thus achieve peace. To be open to the ordinariness of our lives is likewise deeply freeing; we can relax and stop striving frantically for an ever-higher rung on the social or economic ladder. This doesn’t mean we should give up being productive — quite the contrary. It means we are free to construct whatever game of life we like, and play it full out. We are playing just for the fun of it, because we know from the outset what the final score will be when the clock runs out. Our goal is aliveness for the time we are alive.

Though it is religiously agnostic, the existential perspective has something in common with the freedom described by the mystical traditions of Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam: It focuses you in the present moment, enriching and intensifying it. American psychology is picking up on these traditions — now termed “mindfulness” in the psychological lexicon — in a way it never adopted existentialism. This is largely because mindfulness comes with techniques for quieting the mind and alleviating the suffering of anxiety, stress, chronic pain and depression.

Where existentialism is a set of ideas leading to a healing conversation, mindfulness is a set of practices. But many people distrust the spiritual roots of mindfulness and for these, the tenets of existential psychology may hold the promise of deep and lasting relief from the anxieties of an ordinary life.

(If the ideas of existential psychology interest you, you only need one book to start: Irvin Yalom’s classic Existential Psychotherapy. Click here for practical advice about anxiety and its treatment. For a great book on mindfulness by a pioneer of its therapeutic applications, read Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn).

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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