Making sense and staying sane in the age of anxiety

We all need to reorient ourselves away from the standards of a world that is losing its grip on reality and toward what is permanent and real.

(Image: Sasha Freemind | Unsplash.com)

People have become extraordinarily anxious.

The situation is most extreme among political progressives. Surveys show that political and social attitudes among conservatives have mostly been rather stable in recent years, but among liberals they have been breaking leftward. Since conventional public opinion is liberal, the result has been a strong trend to the left. Notable examples include transgenderism, rising support for socialism, radicalization on issues related to race, and growing suppression of dissenting voices.

But the farther the slide to the left goes the more worried progressives become. The result is constant panic. A Harvard professor tells us that a preference for classical architecture leads to fascism and genocide. Sensitive souls without scientific training are terrified that climate change will kill us all.

A few years ago people saw nothing especially right wing about concerns regarding immigration. In 2000, for example, the New York Times ran an editorial opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants. More recently Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, and Bernie Sanders have also supported stronger enforcement.

But progressives now see advocacy for immigration restriction as “white nationalism,” and view events such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as terrifying signs of a resurgent extreme right. All issues connected to identity provoke similar fears. Fifty years ago identity crises were a niche pursuit for affluent college students. Today worries about identity have become the soul of progressive politics. People multiply them, choosing new identities and then worrying that others may not believe in them—a failure that is felt as an assault on their very being.

In New York City such attitudes have induced officials to establish fines of up to 250 thousand dollars for “misgendering.” There is even anxiety about other people’s identity, which can be felt as a terrifying threat. That is why a poster saying only “It’s OK to be white” would now create a crisis in any progressive community.

On the non-left people are also anxious. Their worries most often relate to the threat of a featureless global society that crushes dissent and flattens family, religion, and nation. They also worry about the increasing irrationality of a public world dominated by concerns about “safety,” fears of a supposedly resurgent far right, and a growing conviction that dissent from progressive orthodoxy is intolerable. To many conservatives, America has come to seem pre-totalitarian.

But why is this happening? Why so much anxiety among progressives, whose various causes have been piling up political and social victories for centuries, and recent opposition to whom has generally been sporadic and populist and therefore disorganized and ineffective? To outsiders, the fears seem paranoid.

Some would say that rightist concerns about globalism and the increasing craziness of public discussion are equally paranoid. But left and right are fundamentally dissimilar. Western life and thought have long been moving away from traditional ways and transcendent concerns and toward secularity and comprehensive industrial organization of social life. Progressives have favored the tendency, while conservatives and reactionaries have reacted against it and wanted to protect various goods they fear are being lost.

So the two sides differ in their basic nature. Progressives are likely to have clearer theories of what they are about. Their cause is usually advancing—that is why people call them “progressives”—while their opponents play defense. And their opponents are likely to be divided among themselves, since they have very different objections to the direction of events.

Nor are the two sides likely to be equally justified. If the direction of events is beneficial, the progressives are the good guys and conservatives are selfish or lacking in vision. But if the progressives are taking us over a cliff, then they are the ones who lack vision and are likely to be acting in accordance with obstinate prejudice and personal and class interests.

Others have noticed some of the same tendencies and given their own explanations. Mary Eberstadt’s recent book Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics blames identity politics on the disintegration of the family and the resulting loss of a sense of self. And almost seventy years ago Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community attributed modern ideological fanaticism to the rise of the modern state and the resulting destruction of traditional and informal connections.

Neither explanation is wrong, but both are incomplete, because general tendencies associated with the progressive movement lie behind both situations. Early progressive governments often provided some practical benefits. The industrial-style organization and secular utilitarian outlook they favored promoted literacy, public health, and economic development. That led to declines in disease and hunger that we can all approve.

But man needs more than physical health and comfort, and the progressive suppression of traditional ways and diversion of attention from transcendent concerns soon turns destructive. Without authority that transcends the individual each becomes a law unto himself. We end up with the view the Supreme Court has made authoritative in American law that “at the heart of liberty [and thus legitimate public order] is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

However, that view makes no sense. We are not little gods, each creating his own world, and an attempt to force such a view on human life will end badly. In theory people will be allowed to do what they want, but in practice there will be limits: they will be required to leave others equally free, and whatever they do will have to support the system—which, after all, is understood as a uniquely legitimate system of equal freedom.

But that means that government will put more and more effort into weakening social connections, since strong connections mean we interfere with each other, and promoting the way of life bureaucrats and billionaires find easiest to manage: one based on career, consumption, various private indulgences, and support for the system. The results will include the growth of the state and the destruction of traditional and informal arrangements that Nisbet notes; the weakening of sexual standards, family life, and settled identities that Eberstadt points to; and the identity anxieties, ideological fanaticism, and general feeling that anything at all could happen, because nothing is settled, that we see all around us.

Left and right agree the situation is likely to end badly. Political movements aren’t going to solve the problem, because what’s needed is a fundamental change of orientation. That is something the Church could and should provide. During the Roman Empire she gave people a new principle of human connection and social integration in an increasingly cosmopolitan and fragmented world. She could do that again.

But the radicalization of post-Vatican II tendencies, together with general mediocrity, has kept her from doing so. Catholic progressives, who line up behind secular progressivism, have mostly been in the saddle, and other Catholics have largely gone with the flow. The result is that even in the Barque of Peter we have increasing disorder and anxiety. The crew is undisciplined, the officers are having fist fights, the passengers are confused and alarmed, and the captain is doing God knows what. Not only cranks and visionaries but even bishops and cardinals openly speak of apocalyptic times.

Under such circumstances, we all need to reorient ourselves away from the standards of a world that is losing its grip on reality and toward what is permanent and real. Lent is a time for prayer, fasting, and acts of charity. This year—more than ever—we have reason for that.


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About James Kalb 103 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

23 Comments

  1. We read: “During the Roman Empire she [the Church] gave people a new principle of human connection and social integration in an increasingly cosmopolitan and fragmented world. She could do that again.” How to spell this out…

    In the Catechism, Solidarity merits one of the seven major headings, while the never-to-be-separated and ostensibly “conservative” Subsidiarity (a linked counterpoint/constraint to any kind of Social-ism) unfortunately does not. Instead, in the Catechism we find more scattered attention to Subsidiarity (1883, 1885, 1894, 2209), plus other clearly related provisions for the Family (2204-2213), the Community (1877-1912), and citizen Participation (1913-1917).

    Based probably on the incomplete format in the Catechism, the USCCB brochures on “Faithful Citizenship” also omit a major heading for Subsidiarity. Yet, the Vatican “Compendium of the Catholic Social Teaching” (CST, 2004) clarifies Subsidiarity with needed merit as a major section.

    As to Kalb’s needed “change of orientation,” I have always valued Theodore Roepke (Austrian school of economics) who taught that the need is “not to set the clock back, but to set it right.”

    And as for Kalb’s “new principle of human connection,” does St. John Paul II already give us this principle in Centesimus Annus (?): “Since it [CST] is NOT AN IDEOLOGY […] in constantly reaffirming the transcendent dignity of the person, the Church’s method is always that of respect for freedom” (n. 46, caps added).

    The “transcendent dignity of the human person” is addressed in the Catechism (CCC 1700-1702, 1929). And here, “. . . (T)he human person [is] the FOUNDATION of all the other principles and content of the Church’s social doctrine” (CCC 1881, Gaudium et Spes, n. 25, caps added). Each human person, without exception, an incarnated fact, like Christ, not an abstraction.

    • Hmm, I thought the Austrian School of Economics was banned for Catholics. I am happy to see another person who has not completely dismissed them.

      • Kathryn,
        Not for this Catholic either. The alternative is the road to serfdom on the ever increasing federal plantation with the principle of subsidiarity totally discarded.
        Tom in Florida

      • Roepke was associated with the von Mises/Austrian school, but also developed his distance by adding room for state intervention on behalf of the common good. Pope St. John Paul II stressed (in Centensimus Annus) that every investment or economic decision can is a moral decision as well.

        The Roepke quote is valuable because it succinctly expresses that true “conservatism” is not really an -ism, but an affirmation of higher truths, rather than simply a nostalgic counter-ideology.

        As for banned books, the Trent Index of Forbidden Books was discontinued in 1966 by Pope Paul VI. The issue remains, however–how best to deal with societal, seductive/nihilistic writings (and now Internet electrons, and ideological/subculture infiltration into the Church itself!) from the dark side.

        The New Evangelization, perhaps, which “proposes rather than imposes”–if it ever finds its feet. Not much academic “progress” on the front ever since the sophomoric 1967 Land o’ Lakes Declaration. And much internal turbulence, too, until the nature of the Apostolic priesthood survived the German-funded shadows of Amazonia, and the “synodal-path” head was cut off the snake in Germania. There is cause for hope, and even some earthly optimism.

  2. For the millenials, I have heard their helicopter parents are to blame for their emotional fragility. But what about easily triggered Boomers? Narcissism and being ruled by their emotions?

    • The boomers are disconcerted that the world has not fitted into their plan – there is an inconvenient fact that people simply don’t conform to ideology (hence the need for State coercion).
      The V2 Catholics still advocate the progressive stand as the only enlightened one, all the while watching their religious orders close for lack of vocations. The ones everybody finds really hateful are the traditional Latin Mass Catholics- they are honed every week by the Mass, which serves as a catechesis itself. It also draws in vocations. It is remarkable that when the Catholic doctrine is not hidden by a modernist version of the Mass (in order to make it ‘accessible ‘), people respond to it. They recognise the Truth and they accept the religion that preaches the supernatural, God and the devil, grace and sin. They recognise it because it is the Church created by Christ. When it is watered down – Catholic lite- the Truth is disguised. It becomes a rational, secular version – Catholic without the hard bits. This is the one the boomers advocate but, funnily enough, reject completely. They prefer to worship themselves, with their narrative in which they are the central character in a success story which they achieved completely on their own and without any help by any person at all.

      • “The V2 Catholics still advocate the progressive stand as the only enlightened one…”

        Hmmm. I’m fairly certain I understand what you are getting at, but as a Catholic who fully accepts Vatican II, but does not attend the Latin Mass (in either it’s Ordinary of Extraordinary forms), I say this is rather broadbrushed, to put it nicely.

  3. Reality is happening.

    I agree 100% with Mr. Kalb that our “institutions” and the prevailing “culture” are demanding that all people must “lose their grip on reality.”

    Since 2013, and the election of the Pontiff Francis, it has become “sacramental” to pretend that reality is not happening.

    But reality is happening, and in reality Cardinal coverup artists and sex abusers elected “their friend” and were pretending to “reform” things, when they intended to protect their occult power network. And “Catholic” journalists (such as John Allen of Crux) will pretend on Mondays to care about sex abuse, while on Fridays they write glowing tributes to sex abuse coverup Cardinals like Danneels (a man publicly exposed in Belgian newspapers in 2010 for standing against the Vangelhuwe family and refusing them justice when they were asking the Church in Belgium for justice against their own uncle, Bishop Roger Vangelhuwe, who for 10 years or so had raped their brother when he was a boy and teen).

    And now the Church of the Pontiff Francis is pleading that “the faithful” must believe the Pontiff when he says he performed acts of idolatry without idolatrous intent, and that Catholics everywhere can now do the same.

    What began in mockery of justice due to “our neighbor” under the 6th Commandment, culminates in mockery of justice due to God under the 1st Commandment.

    And all the Pontiff and “his team” asks is that the cattle pretend this is not happening.

    But reality is happening, and the Pontiff Francis has mocked God, after 6 long years of mocking men.

  4. “We all need to re-orient ourselves away from the standards of a world that is losing its grip on reality and toward what is permanent and real.”

    Well said – Isn’t that what Lent is for?

    • JMJ

      And it is exactly what the author, Kalb, says in his final paragraph: “Under such circumstances, we all need to reorient ourselves away from the standards of a world that is losing its grip on reality and toward what is permanent and real. Lent is a time for prayer, fasting, and acts of charity. This year—more than ever—we have reason for that.”

      Oremus.

  5. Off the rails. A recurring phenomenon even among the very brightest, talented. Progressive evolution, revolution, cataclysmic change to social structure. The chief progressive enemy strongest citation to date by sanely reserved lawyer writer James Kalb the commanders of the Barque of Peter. “We have increasing disorder and anxiety. The crew is undisciplined, the officers are having fist fights, the passengers are confused and alarmed, and the captain is doing God knows what” (a distressed Kalb representative of most of us). As unsavory as is Adolf’s vaunted the Will to Power as his greatest asset he transformed humiliated defeated socialist leaning Germany toward a powerful cohesive entity once again a world force. All based on pride in heroic Teutonic identity [he frequently told journalists if you wish to understand Germany listen to Wagner]. Or listen to the militaristically exhilarating Bavarian Badenweiler march [called Hitler’s march]. The point is if we believe in an ultimate value we are willing to live and die for it. That ideation led Germans to apocalyptic disaster and the loss of only God knows how many souls to Satan [as well as for Frenchmen with the triumphant Marseilles under Napoleon]. What Catholicism has lost is a banner under which to offer our blood. It’s been homogenized into ecological sentimental pablum under this pontificate preceded prior to 2013 by lukewarm clergy more interested in self indulgence than spiritual martyrdom. There are no great ideas to be uncovered no brilliant solutions. Just one eternal pervasive truth spoken by the Apostle Paul who said he no longer lived for himself but for Christ who loved him and gave himself for him. The Crucified Jesus Christ and our response to that unsurpassable revelation of God’s goodness and love is alone and forever the sole means for us to will and to avert impending disaster and instead glorify our Savior and ensure own sanity.

    • I prefer Beethoven – during WW2 when the BBC had a British victory to announce they would play the first 4 notes of his 5th Symphony – dit-dit-dit-dahhhh – morse code for the letter V – for victory.

      In the movie ‘The King’s Speech’ the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony played during the speech itself and if you can watch that without tearing up I pity you.

      When the news of the assassination reached Boston on that terrible Friday in 1963 the BSO immediately played the ‘Funeral March’ – 2nd movement of the Eroica. And there is of course The Moonlight Sonata.

      Wagner’s music is incredibly powerful and moving – Siegfried’s Funeral March for example, but to me it is not noble, whereas Beethoven’s is.

      I would say – if you wish to understand the worst part of Germany, listen to Wagner. If you wish to understand the best part, listen to Beethoven, and start with the Mass.

  6. Added to my comment is Lent and the requisite of discipline of the will. Good or evil is enacted by our will, as fr Stravinskas noted earlier on Lenten observance that discipline is essential. To will justice rather than self indulgence. With fortitude and God’s ever willingness to strengthen us with grace the will to love will always triumph over evil.

  7. Good advice. We were born for these times, although I can think of a number of other times it might have been pleasanter. Now we face a life-threatening virus, which I read today the head of WHO said is unprecedented, to see a community spread respiratory pathogen. Unprecedented. The world is in chaos. But today also I read that Bergoglio has not said one word about suffering Italy, this is by Antonio Socci. The pope gave his beloved Chinese communists 700,000 masks to fight the virus, but has not offered one for Italy. The Italians are not mentioned in the Angelus, but prayers for their current Cardinal gathering are offered. Why would we be anxious. We have a non-pope at the helm, a man interested only in filling the West with Islam and selling out the Chinese Catholics to Communists, his closest friends.
    Next week, we are expecting locusts, followed by frogs.
    Yet God is in charge, He has not stepped away from it. He is still there. It is a time for trust.

    • The conoravirus: “unprecedented [?]” says the head of WHO (World Health Organization). The 1918 flu pandemic killed an estimated 50 million worldwide, including well over half a million in the United States. We’re not there yet. And, a total of some 32 million have died from AIDS worldwide, ever since it worked its way into the general population.

  8. We are suffering from a tsunami of anxiety because we have abandoned the Cross of Christ, the most secure and invincible refuge, not just for our souls but for all society, culture, science, art, etc. Without Jesus Holy Cross, we are nothing but lost, shivering, terrified children. His Cross has Three Saving Nails: Sacrifice, Self-Denial, Self-Transcendence. This Three Saving Nails build Most Authentic Human Beings and Most Authentic Culture. They come from God and lead to God.

    Rejecting all of them or any of them leads to total disintegration, dehumanization and TOTAL ANXIETY. When we reject Jesus’ Saving Cross, we get Satan’s cross of Anxiety, Guilt, Shame and Condemnation. We reject Jesus the Healer and love Satan the Disease. In the 70’s it was all about “sex sells”. That led to emptiness so now we have “insanity sells”. That is leading to further emptiness, fear, depression and anxiety. The “progressives’ are leading us to sentimental, emotional, “comfortable”, idealistic Hell, disguised as a return to ideologically HIDE back in our mother’s womb and reacting like criminals if anyone dares to call us to be born and grow.

    Abortion is a celebration of this Stillborn Lifestyle, dead inside the ideological womb. Anxiety ends at the feet of Jesus Cross in Sacrifice, Self-Denial, and Self-Transcendence. That’s the only way culture will be saved and it is our Sacred Duty for every single day.

    Suggested prayer: “Lord Jesus, hide me in your Holy Cross. May it be the Sacred Divine Womb where I am born again to Eternal Life. Give me the Graces of Sacrifice, Self-Denial and Self-Transcendence so all my anxiety, insecurities, fears, doubts, pain and tragedies die there. Give me the Grace to die with you on the Cross day by day, moment by moment, that I may grow continually in Your Beating Heart of contracting Lent and expanding Easter, all the way to Infinite Life, here and now and for all Eternity. All for your Honor and Glory! Forever! Amen!”

  9. When I was younger, when the rabble becomes to rabbly, I went surfing. Thank God for surfing; Out in the middle of the ocean away people; only a bird or two, a sea creature peering at me from the depths and an occasional ride-able set – but the surfing was always an excuse to get away. I would sing “O Solo Mio”, and I feel like it was just me and God in the beautiful world that he created for me, personally. And sometimes I reminded myself that God is greater than any human foible. When this world gets heavy, I am so thankful that I can relieve this experience praying before adoration of the exposed Eucharist.

  10. Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again; but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

    Yeats

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