The Metaphysics of Anxiety

An insightful note came in today from one Michael Bush, referring to the first phrase of our Manifesto, “Killing the Buddha is a religion magazine for people made anxious by churches.” He writes:

To paraphrase Mrs. Roosevelt, no one can make you anxious without your permission.

You might consider changing your tag line: A religion blog for people who are anxious about churches.

As the saying goes, “Just sayin’.”

Take responsibility for your own stuff.

Presumably he means Eleanor Roosevelt’s adage, “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission [or, elsewhere, ‘consent’].” It’s discussed all over the internet. But in fact, according to Ralph Keyes’s apparently invaluable The Quote Verifier, there is actually no evidence that the First Lady ever said or wrote those words anywhere. A quick Google Books search through various editions of her This Is My Story, from which the words supposedly come, corroborates Keyes’s conclusion.

I don’t point this out to undercut Michael’s point—after all, a statement can be true even if it didn’t come from the head of Mrs. Roosevelt. But it does, I hope, at least complicate the prospect of “Tak[ing] responsibility for your own stuff.” Whether they be quotations or or inferiorities or anxieties, we often find ourselves in possession of things that come with uncertain pedigrees. Sure, I could declare that it is me making myself anxious. It might be empowering to do so. But does that mean it’s right? What if, in fact, there are other forces at play? What if my attribution, like the attribution of the quotation to Mrs. Roosevelt seems to be, is mistaken?

There is a metaphysical question at work here. In Aristotelian philosophy, any occurrence can be said to have several different kinds of causes operating at different levels. On the one hand, I could say that I am letting myself be anxious. But I could also speak of the material causes, the neural engines at work in anxiety. Or, somewhat more removed, the formal reasons why I might be anxious, the contexts in my life that set the stage for anxiety to arise. And so on. It seems to me, therefore, that Michael’s suggestion that “I” should be the ultimate arbiter of anxiety is a choice among a multitude of possibilities—useful in certain cases, perhaps less so in others.

For certain religious traditions—and much modern self-help—taking personal responsibility in the way Michael describes is a cardinal rule. It is part of the process of constructing conscientious yet autonomous community members who take ownership of their decisions and, in turn, their sins. On the other hand, there are other traditions that eschew all of that. “I am not the doer,” they say. There is no I; the I, and thereby all sense of separateness from everything else, is an illusion. Or, instead, “Not yet I,” says Galatians 2:20, “but Christ lives in me.”

In our writing classes, most of us were taught to avoid passive voice constructions—like “made anxious by churches”—whenever possible. But, like most rules learnt in writing classes, there are lots of great reasons to break it. Scientists, for instance, should cling to passive voice in order to avoid making unproven causal relationships. In this particular case of our Manifesto, to my reading, the passive voice construction expresses something meaningful, a genuine sensation of helplessness. Michael might be right, that we would do well to buck up, to not let ourselves be so pathetic, and to grab life by the horns. But if we did, maybe we would be a different KtB. Maybe the sense of helplessness, the sense of being imposed upon, needs to be explored too.

According to some thinkers, notably Karl Marx’s inspirer Ludwig Feuerbach, supernatural religion is a projection people make of their own agency, ideals, and selves onto an outside, imaginary being. If this is at least in some sense true, KtB would do well to probe this experience of being imposed upon from the outside, even when perhaps it truly comes from within oneself.

All in all, I think we can stand by our phrasing, though Michael’s suggestion, clearly, has been extremely thought-provoking. Thank you!

Oh, and by the way, I don’t think we’d call ourselves a blog. We have a blog (you’re looking at it), but Killing the Buddha as a whole is rather more an online magazine.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.