SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - In a Statelessness of Anxiety
Some questions have no good answers.
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I enjoy research too much and I’m a shameless critic. Weird & Güd is the conjoining of those misanthropic qualities into something useful: recommendations and fascinations neatly packaged together for you every week, some hermit-ism required after all.
You live in a strange time. You probably already have some of those strange elements in mind, but those are the more obvious oddities of modern life—technology or a global pandemic. Yes, those are part of the strange time you live in, but you can also remember a time without them
What’s even more strange about the time you live in is the part of your life you may have never considered: the state.
You might’ve moved, switching your status from one state to another, but if you’re reading this, you’re likely not one of the 12 million stateless people in the world.
When we speak of the state today, it’s usually in reference to the nation-state, a physical location over which a sovereign government leads a people recognized by this state.
Most countries you can name are a kind of nation-state—so where are these 12 million stateless people?
If you’re gearing up to knowingly nod at the term undocumented immigrant, you’ll be disappointed. Though a person may have fled their home country to live in a new country that doesn’t recognize them as a member, being undocumented isn’t identical to being stateless. Even a person lacking recognition by a new state often still holds membership in their home state.
The stateless person isn’t only unrecognized by the state they live in, but by every state on earth.
The stateless person lives in limbo, with no nationality and none of the protections and rights granted to those with a nationality.
Who are these pioneers, these global citizens, these rebels against tradition? The stateless life—something so foreign to you and me that our state-status never strikes us as the strange invention it is—was the only state of life humans knew for most of history. It’s our nation-state membership that makes us the odd ones out, having only existed for 6,000 years at most.
When inventions like writing, agriculture, cities, and organized religion were born, so too was the state. Ancient Mesopotamia is the earliest evidence of a city-state, existing around 3700 BC.
It’s the state that’s strange, not the stateless.
The state was crucial in the expansion and progress of the human species—of that there’s no doubt. The ability to organize and maintain cohesion among large numbers of people in a set territory wasn’t possible for the hunter-gatherers or tribal societies of the past. Stateless people were the norm for nearly all human history, yet today, statelessness is either a philosophy or a problem.
For some, the end of the state is a goal. Both the anarchist and the textbook Marxist aim for the abolition of the state as a path to opposing goals—either full individualism or full collectivism.
The Kelly Rolland to Marx’s Beyoncé, Friedrich Engels penned the phrase “withering away of the state.” He believed that after a certain level of Marxism was achieved, there would be no need for a state to control its people. The old state would wither away as people needed less instruction in how to be Good for society. In place of the old state would be a system left for nothing but resource allocation.
Lenin was into this idea too; Stalin, not so much.
Otto Marseus van Schrieck
Humans have existed for most of their history beyond the confines of any state. Are we an inherently stateless species, meant to exist only in relation to each other’s laws, and with no respect to the laws of any land?
The term stateless might be too sloppy for the complexity of what governs humans.
There are real benefits to the state membership we take for granted today. There are the interesting figures who’ve renounced their state membership temporarily in an act of performance art; there are some who’ve lost their state membership through the messiness of a flawed system, either through lost documents or geopolitical changes, like the dissolution of the Soviet Union; there are even those few who’ve become stateless through persecution by their own state, like Bedoon people in parts of the Middle East who are denied birth certificates and public school or the Rohingya in Myanmar.
In cases like the latter, the lack of state recognition is the lack of existence. No state, no state membership benefits. No birth certificates, driver’s licenses, no public services like schooling or even hospital access, no protection of rights like the ability to protest, vote, or even prosecute crimes in a court.
If you end up on the wrong side of the state, the motherland can easily devour its own.
The state may be like all world-altering changes—replete with benefits and problems, both changing depending on who’s asked. Though, even the stateless person today is stateless in only the narrow definition of the nation-state.
Statelessness exists only in our modern sense; a stateless clan still abides by the customs and leadership of their group.
Groups have always excluded other groups and conferred benefits to their own; granting citizenship at birth or through special trials is, in some ways, only a scaled-up version of an ancient in-group, out-group game. In the place of an official state, people often took their grievances to village elders who, unlike the state we know, didn’t require force and coercion as tools for keeping the peace—community was enough.
In our tribal past, the punishment of ridicule and ostracism did just as much if not more than any threat of imprisonment or capital punishment does for us today.
That’s where the debate about the state stands—whether statelessness is a goal for the highest reaches of human progress or a primal regression that leaves us at the mercy of our tribal past.
Like most unsatisfyingly complex answers to the challenges of human life, it’s probably a little bit of both.
Fear, nervousness, panic, short breaths, fast heartbeats.
An overwhelming wave of paralyzing paranoia that something—something isn’t right.
Yes, populism last week, anxiety this week. Will nothing obviously good show up in the Güd section of this damn newsletter again? For as long as we shun everything that isn’t obviously good, probably not.
We have a unique problem with what we believe is good and bad today.
Is pain bad if it’s the pain of ending a destructive relationship? Is money good if it feeds your weaknesses and sends you into a rapid downward spiral? Is anxiety bad if it can expose a looming problem you’ve been avoiding?
The existentialists didn’t think about anxiety the way we do today.
Mare Nostrum, 2008, Miriam Cahn
Medical science has miraculously taken the demons out of our heads and the blame off our shoulders. It’s surgically seized upon and separated the pesky parts of our hardware that send the error messages we think of as psychological plagues as today.
Anxiety disorders are one of the most common of psychological plagues we face, with 19.1% of American adults and 31.9% of adolescents experiencing them.
While the advent of medicine to quell the mind has helped many, it seems that even in the age of medical miracles, anxiety is here to stay. Is there simply something wrong with almost a quarter of the population?
For anything that entangles itself with human existence, you can bet existentialism has something to say. From Kierkegaard to Sartre and Paul Tillich to Rollo May, the sense that the gnawing, universal experience of anxiety has something more to tell us than we’re often willing to hear is the core of understanding existential anxiety.
The idea behind existential anxiety isn’t a rejection of the medical approach, but an extra layer of analysis to contextualize and approach anxiety from.
Just like someone who lives in a decrepit little apartment, has no healthy relationships, and is dealing with the trauma of violence has every external reason to experience depression, so too, does someone who harbors trauma, avoids the reminders of that trauma, and lives in an unstable world have every reason to experience anxiety.
Existential anxiety sees that mental illness error message as still being a coherent message worth deciphering. What makes anxiety uniquely difficult to decipher is how that sensation of fear wrapped with helplessness veils the mind, tainting all that we observe with the anxiety we’re trying to understand.
The fact that anxiety is a threat to the essential, rather than to the peripheral, security of the person has led some authors like Freud and Sullivan to describe it as a 'cosmic' experience.
It is 'cosmic' in that it invades us totally, penetrating our whole subjective universe. We cannot stand outside it to objectify it. We cannot see it separately from ourselves, for the very perception with which we look will also be invaded by anxiety.
―Rollo May, The Meaning of Anxiety
This cosmic anxiety becomes a kind of haunting—a dark, looming force seen only by what it affects in the material world—palpitations, shortness of breath, destructive habits to appease the monster momentarily.
Dealing with existential anxiety is like banishing a demon; you don’t fight with the phantom, you find its origins, its source of power, and face what spawns the demon.
Your own freedom is the origin from which the demon of existential anxiety can escape. To Kierkegaard, a human being is defined by their ability to see and materialize potential.
You know what you can do, but will you take the risk to realize that freedom?
Existence is a challenge and demands you face up to the massive effort of living your life. With all this ability to act coupled with uncertainty, turning away from the tasks of life and into our heads is an attractive escape. But life is the manifestation of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
The anxiety that comes from being faced with all the possibilities for your life is only replaced with a different, gnawing kind of anxiety when avoided. In our attempt to run from facing the challenge of living, we run into the arms of destruction. Paul Tillich warned against where running from what you should face can take you:
He flees from his freedom of asking and answering for himself to a situation in which no further questions can be asked and the answers to previous questions are imposed on him authoritatively.
Taking on the burden of your own existence requires answering for your own fears and doubts. Will you fail? Will you lose? Will you be hurt? Can they be trusted? Can you truly achieve what you think you can?
The exhausting inner cross-examination that comes from the anxiety of living makes the rejection of it all seem like a release from suffering. Yet, turning away from the inherent risk and doubt of life moves you from out of the existential frying pan and into the fire of full-fledged neurotic anxiety.
This attempted escape from what we know has no true escape leads us to hide in places where our rejection of doubt and our desire for simple, enforced answers will be satisfied.
At a cost, of course.
잘 부탁드립니다, Please take care of this, 2009
If existential anxiety stems from the avoidance of accepting the task of existence, the next question might be, “what specific task am I avoiding?” Both Kierkegaard and Jung believed our anxiety answered this question, like a cryptic messenger, not simply a biological error message.
Think of your anxiety like a terrifying, half-decomposed zombie Lassie, risen up from the grave but still incessantly barking at you to follow it.
The inescapable anxiety of living requires facing the possibility of Timmy’s death by following Lassie, rather than staying paralyzed, forever imagining the possibilities of pain you’ll find if you follow.
You get to choose which anxiety you’ll bear—the kind that contains insecurity, fear, and loneliness while offering growth, freedom, and occasional calm—or the kind that offers all the negative aspects of anxiety while pulling you off the path of your own life, often into worse realms, which only compound the pain.
There is an oddly beautiful other half to human anxiety, and that’s the dizzying knowledge that life contains more potential than can ever be realized.
For every anxiety-induced doubt about whether we’ll fail, fall, be left, or lied to, there is the potential for success, growth, love, and truth.
Rather than avoiding the threat of death or damage that every human must face, it’s creation—of ourselves and our world—that offers a little satisfaction, pride, and wisdom to chase the bitter taste of the ever-present anxiety of living.
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
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