The Age of Anxiety?

So, yesterday, I posted a picture of Alan Watts’ “The Wisdom of Insecurity” – which carries the tagline “A Message of an Age of Anxiety”. My friend Ciaran made a comment about it, that I have myself thought about before.

But how long is an ‘age’ exactly? I’d imagine anxiety has always existed (and always will) in every ‘age’ and is not just specific to the ‘age’ in which Watts wrote this. Surely the stone age was also an age of anxiety as was the ‘space age’ as is the current information/technological age… and so on. It makes it seem like it is just a passing phase.

Well, the first thing I would note is that the tag line says it is ‘A Message for AN Age of Anxiety’. Which, it is. But Ciaran does raise a larger issue, one which immediately recalled a New York Times article I read some time ago, which alerted me to the fact I was previously unaware of, that “Age of Anxiety” is a term that predates Watts’ book.

The title comes from W.H. Auden’s 1948 poem “The Age of Anxiety”. The Times notes that the poem is not particularly well known – but the title is.

From the moment it appeared, the phrase has been used to characterize the consciousness of our era, the awareness of everything perilous about the modern world: the degradation of the environment, nuclear energy, religious fundamentalism, threats to privacy and the family, drugs, pornography, violence, terrorism. Since 1990, it has appeared in the title or subtitle of at least two dozen books on subjects ranging from science to politics to parenting to sex (“Mindblowing Sex in the Real World: Hot Tips for Doing It in the Age of Anxiety”). As a sticker on the bumper of the Western world, “the age of anxiety” has been ubiquitous for more than six decades now.

The Times article then asks – is it accurate? Do we live in THE Age of Anxiety? Maybe Watts was being particular (as was his way) in using the word “An”, acknowledging that it is probably wrong to describe this as THE age of Anxiety. Surely anxiety is something that has afflicted all times?

The other issue it raises is what do we mean by anxiety. For many, including the author of the Times piece, as well as friends who have heard me mention the title, anxiety is a very real thing, not just a throw away word to represent ‘worry’. Taken as a real disorder, anxiety is the most common psychiatric complaint in America.

But just because we have statistical evidence of the diagnosis, doesn’t mean that we are any more anxious than any previous generation. As the author, Daniel Smith, notes, previous eras were certainly more tumultuous than our own. I sometimes think of when people talk about how crazy and out of control modern times are, and I can’t help think that compared to the history of man kind, we must have it relatively easy? Smith claims that the difference is self-awareness. We are aware of our anxiety, and this in turn makes us even more anxious. Indeed, he points to evidence that there certainly was anxiety in previous eras – the difference is that we talk about our anxiety.

So, I think Watts got it right – we are living in AN Age of Anxiety, not THE Age. All ages are, an age of anxiety.

Incidentally, Watts book was written in 1958 – and in his introduction he describes a world about to collapse in on itself financially, culturally and socially. And when you read it today, he could have been talking about the last few years.

And his ‘message’? As relevant and important as ever. Go read it and find out.