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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

We Would Rather Be Ruined Than Changed: Anxiety as a Moral Concept

April 16th, 2024 | 27 min read

By Matthew Arbo


One of my favorite scenes in the Coen brothers’ film The Big Lebowski is when Walter and the Dude walk across the bowling alley parking lot moments after Walter has threatened a competing bowler at gun point for stepping over the lane line. The Dude explains to Walter that Sparky is a pacifist and kind of fragile. Walter replies that he himself also dabbled with pacifism at one time. Seated in the vehicle Walter waves off the accusation as “water under the bridge” since their team is through to the round-robin anyway.

“Am I wrong?!”, asks Walter repeatedly.

“No, no, you’re not wrong, Walter. You’re just an a_____.”

 Brief pause.

Dude rejoins: “Would you just…take it easy, man?”

Walter vaults into a diatribe again when Dude interrupts, “look, just take it easy, man.”

Agitated, “I’m perfectly calm, Dude.”

“By waving the gun around!?!”

“Calmer than you are.”

“Just…take it easy, man!”

“Calmer than you are.”

The absurdity of the exchange is pure comedy. Police cars siren and flicker in the background. Neither of them are calm. Both are anxious, despite pleas to the contrary. Everything is uncertain. Walter Sobchak’s character is the embodiment of anxiety. The Big Lebowski’s comedic genius is in its hurling the unoccupied, easy-going, joint smoking main character through a rather anxious and psychedelic plot. His life of absolute casual predictability is inverted.

Do we think closely enough about anxiety, I wonder? Anxiety is doubtless a contemporary fixation. If anything, we think too much about it. We’re told of a deepening anxiety “crisis.” We’re even anxious about our anxiousness. But thinking about it frequently doesn’t mean we are thinking about it carefully. Can we name it when confronted with it, or has it become shorthand for any and all presentiment? Does the elasticity of anxiety as a concept make it easier or harder to assess? Has the narrowing of emotional vocabulary over-endowed it with significance? How willing are we to accept anxiety as a permanent fixture of human spirit?

I think we really must accept it as permanent. A life bereft of anxiety cannot amount to a human life. That is because anxiety names a specific inward disposition toward the future. It identifies an irresolvable tension, what Kierkegaard calls a “presupposition,” to our humanity. Anxiety is therefore first a moral—and so also theological—concept. It has other applications too, naturally, not least psychological; but those applications are secondary. It is first a moral concept. To elaborate I want to touch upon a couple of historical points and then reflect briefly on Christ’s agony in the garden.


The risk of over-pathologizing anxiety, which tends to occur when treating an internal human experience on naturalistic terms, is that it morphs into an object of therapeutic design. The psychologist may claim that modest levels of anxiety are tolerable but, should levels rise, therapeutic interventions are warranted. No one wishes to live with paralyzing anxiety if it can be helped. To what level must anxiety rise to qualify as intolerable? According to the APA Handbook, generalized anxiety disorder consists of excessive anxiety and worry about a number of matters for at least six months. Symptoms may include: restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, tension, and disturbed sleep. The definition and symptoms make sense; there’s definitely a know-it-when-we-feel-it element to anxiety. Only, with these criteria as a basis, who wouldn’t be diagnosable?

There are two related challenges here. The first is the threshold problem. That is, what counts for clear evidence a line from normal to disordered anxiety has been crossed? The APA definition specifies that it must be excessive and persistent, which helps narrow things some. In determining whether the intervention-line has been crossed, the therapist encounters a second problem: the only source for determining whether a patient’s anxiety is excessive and persistent is the patient herself. No one else has a clearer vantage point. When the patient reaches this determination, differentiating abnormal from normal anxiety levels, the therapist develops an appropriate treatment plan. Psychologists and psychiatrists could, but irregularly do, require patient bloodwork prior to treatment. This I find particularly strange given the number of non-psychiatric illnesses and disorders in which anxiety (or agitation) is a known symptom. How does one effectively treat anxiety long term without treating the root cause?

Be that as it may we are all to different degrees anxious about a rather wide variety of things, and the things we aren’t anxious about we could easily find a way to be. Under the genus of Anxiety there are several species—and the number of us afflicted by one species or another is considerable. For a not small slice of society’s members, anxiety is a Merciless Adversary; leaving the sufferer pensive, lonely, and melancholic. We don’t exactly know why some individuals are more anxious by large crowds, for example, while others are undisturbed, not conclusively. We don’t know why financial pressures afflict people differently, not conclusively. We don’t even know exactly why the experience of anxiety is so widely variegated, not conclusively.

Anxiety is akin to feelings of fright, anguish, disappointment, dread, melancholy, and nervousness but is not identical to them. It carries surplus meaning. My experience of anxiety is simply not the same as my experience of these other feelings. The ancient Greek term for anxiety, merimnao, denotes a sense of care, even distracting care. The Latin, anxietatem, conveys a similar sense of inner disquiet or solicitude. Even without the assistance of modern psychology we know what it is, or what we’re feeling, when we experience anxiety. The question, I suppose, is whether our anxiety could be anything more or anything else?


Is ours an Age of Anxiety, as W.H. Auden’s poem suggests? Data demonstrating dramatic increases of anxiety is either non-existent or unreliable. Perhaps rates of generalized anxiety are historically constant and refinements to the diagnosis process has precipitated the increased rates. Decreasing stigma surrounding anxiety has certainly encouraged wider public admission to its affliction. In the absence of requisite data, who can say with exactness? Still, if anxiety is at all an identifiable trait of modern life, then the novelties of our time, technical or otherwise, may give us clues to what ails us.

It happens that the stoics were especially interested in anxiety. Epictetus, for example, explains that when he sees someone in a state of anxiety, he asks a question: “what can this man want?” It is a symptom of desire. “Unless he wanted something or other which is not in his own power, how could he still be anxious?” To illustrate, he draws upon the contrast between the musician performing only for himself and the musician performing for an audience. Alone he is unperturbed. He is anxious playing before the crowd because “he wants not only to sing well, but to gain applause, and that lies beyond his control.” Therein lies the key: control. “Where he has knowledge, there he has confidence.” Anxiety naturally accompanies things we do not know or understand.

The stoic solution to anxiety is well known and hinges on a particular understanding of “freedom.” For several physical and metaphysical reasons I won’t get into here, the stoics held we have no real influence on reality. We cannot sway the cosmos. The course of existence is fixed by the One.  We are free only in one narrow respect: that to which we give our “assent.” Inward freedom (of a kind) is possible. We can issue our own Yes or No to our subjective experiences. It is similar to what your high school coach told you: you decide how you’re going to respond.

Here’s Epictetus again:

If things outside the sphere of choice are neither good nor bad, and all things within the sphere of choice are in our power, and can neither be taken away from us, nor given to us, unless we please, what room is there left for anxiety?

We are anxious, in other words, about what lies outside our control. And few things induce anxiety quite like not knowing others’ opinion of us. Epictetus wants to say that when we acknowledge that others’ opinion, like a great many other things, lies beyond our control, we can overcome our anxiety, accepting what we can and letting go of what we can’t. The anxious can be truly free once anxiety no longer impedes their will.

The stoic notion of anxiety only makes sense within a stoic notion of freedom, and as such has limited application. Plainly there is more to anxiety than our degrees of ignorance and impotence. How does someone go about deciding to be content and blind oneself to the future? Cultivated ambivalence is not identical to contentment. The stoic account is in any case for us a touchpoint, and we shall want to return later to Epictetus’ question ‘what does this man want?” For now, let us leap to the nineteenth century and consider Kierkegaard’s treatment of anxiety.

Anxiety is a personal concern of Kierkegaard's. It haunts much of his life. And like many writers he chooses to write about a thing that vexes him. His journals spark and roar with feeling and insight. He has, plainly, a vibrant relationship with his inner self. At the very center of his thought—always—is God. Everything is thought out in relation to God. This is especially true for what he calls the “existing individual.” For him the individual is a “transcendent reality” whose character and purpose is eternal. To understand the individual requires a phenomenology, a consideration of consciousness from the agent’s point of view. A purely empirical psychology is by contrast less useful in understanding the individual, seeing as there are three parts constituting the person—soma, psyche, and spirit—and psychology can speak (with partiality) only of one.

As powerfully explanatory as the natural sciences are, they cannot explain or comprehend the individual. Kierkegaard insists that every human being “is within himself the complete expression of humanness” and “whose essential meaning cannot be gained from scientific studies.” This is another way of saying that a human being is not reducible to neuro-chemical composition. Instead we strive for unum noris omnes—to know thyself. And it is precisely in this knowledge that we encounter anxiety. As it was for the first Adam, so it is with us: anxiety accompanies consciousness of our agency.

Kierkegaards speaks of anxiety memorably as “the dizziness of freedom.” He invokes the image of looking down into the abyss. The person who gazes down into the abyss becomes dizzy. This dizziness occurs because freedom "looks down into its own possibility” and leans upon finiteness to support itself. Anxiety is the product of a genuinely free and finite creature; the creature whose possibilities are so many and expansive yet whose finitude makes them unactionable or unreal. This staring down into the abyss produces anxiety, which is the state that precedes sin, according to Kierkegaard. What is left is for the individual to learn to be anxious in the right way.

Anxiety is a symptom of human finitude. Drawing directly on Kierkegaard, Reinhold Niebuhr for his part suggests that “anxiety is the inevitable concomitant of freedom and finiteness” and is “the inevitable spiritual state of man.” The human condition is paradoxical: free but bound, creative but limited, eternal but finite. This condition strains our self-relation and if left unaddressed descends into self-estrangement. It is vital not to underestimate the threat self-estrangement poses. Authenticity consists in a certain quality of self-relation. To live self-estranged, by contrast, compounds anxiety, for the future craters under the intensifying demands placed upon it. For Kierkegaard, the only way this self-relation is secured, finds its grounding, is for the “self to rest transparently in the power that establishes it.” God. The one by whom all things are made and in whom all things consist. We lose ourselves and he alone gives us back ourselves.

Suppose one were to wave these many abstract distinctions away by conceding to anxiety as a fact of life. “All are anxious,” they admit, “but what is actually to be done about it?” Options abound. Silliest of all, we could deny the reality of anxiety; a patently unsustainable self-deception. Or we could follow the stoics and resign ourselves to fate, deciding not to be anxious about that which is beyond our power. Or we could develop our own anxiety damping techniques. This is the most natural and common option, I think; to curate our own therapeutic devices. Or we could entrust a professional therapist to guide us to a position of greater personal clarity and resolve from which to understand our anxiety. Or we could seek more formal medical intervention, medicinal or institutional or both.

The latter two options, it is worth pointing out, are comparatively new. Talk therapy was professionalized around the turn of the twentieth century and in its roughly 125 year development has branched into various specializations, treatment of anxiety disorders being just one. The history of medical interventions for anxiety is more complicated. But in either case the aim hasn’t been so much to cure anxiety as to control it, to weaken its grip on the the sufferer. Individuals with debilitating anxiety are afforded mental leeway to pursue courses in life previously closed down. Life is livable again.We should appreciate proportionate interventions that restore some measure of agency to the most anxious.

Is admission to acute anxiety stigmatizing? The social presumption today seems to be that the stigma has largely evaporated. I say ‘largely’ because, yes, extreme displays of anxiety are often visibly neurotic. It doesn’t have a quick fix; we sympathize although we don’t ourselves know what to do about it. Perhaps extreme cases are also most rare. But the reduced stigma around anxiety has also had a surprising inverse effect of (over) sensitizing people to anxiety. It slipped into the zeitgeist. Suddenly people hear of others’ struggles with  anxiety and wonder if they’re too anxious themselves. The affinity then catches on. Anxiety stories go viral on instagram. No one need suffer (at all). This enculturation of anxiety doesn’t explain everything, of course, but it helps understand why it can happen that 70% of teens and young adults say anxiety is a “major problem” among their peers.

I should be clear that I am making no claim about when or how someone should be treated for anxiety. My claim is rather that anxiety is a fact of human existence and cannot be expunged. Nor should it be so expunged. The challenge for all of us is learning how to live with it.


As I write this essay the church has waved its palms inaugurating holy week and it has me wondering about Christ’s agony in the garden. (Mk 14:22-50) Jesus has already eaten with his disciples, consecrating the bread and wine as body and blood. Departing to the Mount of Olives he tells them that all will fall away, scattering like sheep, a charge they subsequently deny. At Gethsemane he instructs them to “sit here, while I pray.” He takes Peter, James, and John with him and according to Mark’s account began to be greatly distressed and troubled. He tells them as much, “my soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch.” He goes a little way from them, falls to the ground and prays that the hour may pass from him, for the Father to remove this cup. Returning to the disciples on three different occasions he finds them each time asleep.

Was it anxiety our Lord experienced in the garden? It seems so. His knowledge of what soon would transpire weighs heavy on his spirit. His disciples will abandon and betray him. He is anguished even unto death. When most needful of the disciples' prayers, they sleep. Christ is afflicted above all, however, by the knowledge of his dereliction. It is this — what he must do and what must be accomplished as Mediator between God and man — that elicits anxiety. It is the finite human response to infinitude, the absolute claim upon him as the Christ. A future full of foreboding summons him and when “the hour has come, the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.”

If Christ cannot be spared the anxieties of human life, no human can. We cannot shield ourselves from eternity’s radiance. So long as we live we approach the invisible line between eras. In crossing over, time is unmade. The prospect of Forever endows our present with special significance. We must do now what we have been given to do before the time when we do what we shall forever do. The feelings converging upon us in the exercising of our agency are inflected (to different degrees) by anxiety because anxiety naturally attends creatures conscious of their telos. Anxiety necessarily spurns and shapes out agency, and as such is a moral concept.

What a consolation it is that Christ tells us precisely what eternal life consists of: This is eternal life, that they may know you the one true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (Jn 17:3) To enjoy loving interactive relationship with God — for that is what ‘knowing’ means in the New Testament — is eternal life.[1] To participate in Christ’s life is to dwell within his eternal kingdom now.


I find this line from Auden’s Age of Anxiety, one of the more oft-quoted, especially moving:

We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

Purposelessness is its own existential cage. But there is also, inversely, the terror of aspiration, of daring, of taking the leap. Embarking upon some noble task carries uncertainty. We cannot be guaranteed the fruits of our action. Misadventures have we all. Accidents and happenstances encircle us. And that is all in part because of the abyss between our present and future.

Risk. The word naming the uncertainty in our relation to the future. We each have our tolerances, of course; some averse and some eager. Still, accepting risk is basic to our humanity. Try as we may to cancel out contingencies, we recognize in the course of things that we’re pitifully inept at controlling people, nature, or eventualities. Do we get any better at controlling ourselves? Perhaps. In my more hopeful moments, I would like to think so. It is possible. Growing in knowledge and understanding of ourselves, of what we are for, sharpens aptitudes for self control. That same growth brings risks into starker relief, only now from the stronger position for determining whether the venture is worth it. Temperance is a virtue, after all. We can in fact develop excellences of soul requisite to the ordering of appetites.

Jesus and Paul exhort us not to be anxious. In the context of Christ’s sermon, the imperative regards earthly goods—what you will eat or wear—rather than about freedom or eternity as such. It addresses worry over not having enough. The same concern seems to guide Paul’s admonition. It has to be said because it is so naturally what we humans do. We worry. We fixate on insufficiencies and failures, and in turn our anxieties are compounded. Releasing the concerns opens our hands to receive peace that passes understanding.

Anxiety is a moral concept because how we respond to encounters with it matters fundamentally to leading a life that turns out well. Our responses vary, as do the things that elicit our anxiety in the first place. When confronted with Christ’s agony in the garden the disciples sleep it off and then when the mob arrives turn heels and run. They cannot bear to stay up or stand by their Lord. Peril overshadows all. We each have our own shadows to reckon with.

Can we endure anxiety and give our cares to God? The temptation to inoculate ourselves to anxiety is omnipresent. We will often feel, perhaps understandably, that full riddance is the most agreeable path forward; or at least as much riddance as possible. And perhaps for some this intense level of mitigation makes life livable. But I think if we’re honest, most of us can endure anxiety’s swells and vicissitudes. We can persevere. Dread and despair may forever mark us, but perseverance is possible all the same.

Endurance is constitutive of hope. May we be anxious for the Lord’s return? As I have described it, I believe we can. We await not merely our own death, whenever it may come, but await with far greater anticipation the coming Lord. We stand not in bleakness of Gethsemane but in the glory of Easter: Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again! The object of hope is the unseen. Christ is Light the darkness cannot comprehend (Jn 1). Our hope in Christ supposes that we endure with him. Anxiety is one such obstacle. Anxiety is paradoxical in this respect. It is simultaneously an obstacle and animator to action. It can inhibit action or provoke it. We act, in a sense, through our own anxiousness.

Can you detect any anxiety in the disciples’ question to Jesus, as they are assembled around him moments before Ascension: Will you now restore the kingdom? So much anticipation! The culmination of all that has been promised and foretold! But no. It is not for you to know the day or the hour. Power will instead arrive when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. And in due course the community of faith is launched upon its voyage by the winds of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit, our paraclete, comforts and sustains us in this transitory life, not unmaking our anxiety but redeeming it. For it is by walking in the Spirit that we are adorned by the Spirit’s fruit. We quest with He who is our peace.


[1] I owe this insight to Dallas Willard, who mentions it in a sermon I can no longer find the recording to.