Anxiety vs. Insight

I tend to like things pretty neat and orderly. I geek out over recently organized libraries and preen when I’ve organized even the tiniest corner of my child-riddled household. I’m a far better baker than cook, and had I any appreciable mathematical talent, I would most likely have gone the way most of my extended family has – toward physics and math and science, laboring gladly under their cerebral frameworks.

But alas, my Jewish doctor of a father fell in love with an Irish poet, and there you have it: a girl who wants to multiply but can only sing. Still, when the world is thick with the unknown and the unanswerable, sometimes it’s the songs rather than the solutions that keep us afloat.

That said, living without solutions can be hair-raising, to say the least, and I know I’m not alone in feeling a little overwhelmed by the miasma of thoughts and feelings and emotions in our society right now (actually, they’re always there; they just happen to be coming to a fierce boil on the surface right now, for better or worse).

As a lifelong navigator of overwhelming emotions, I’ve noticed that at the peak of our experiences, we encounter both tremendous opportunities for insight and the temptation to dissolve into an anxiety-riddled mess. In all honesty, you can have both simultaneously, and despite how uncomfortable that is (kind of like having ants in your pants and several cups of mental caffeine kicking in simultaneously), you’ll survive it.

But personally, this is not my favorite way to go, and I’ve struggled mightily with alternatives. Surprisingly enough, sometimes it helps enormously to just recognize the difference between anxiety – the persistent voice that assures you, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you left the door unlocked and all thieves in the area are having a field day in your jewelry and lingerie drawers (no pun intended) – and insight – the persistent voice that tells you that Trump is probably just as scared as the rest of us.

So how do you tell the difference? I’m not entirely sure, but I think the trick lies in tuning out the voices and going deeper, tuning in to a place where voices cannot reach. For example, does the confidence with which you know the world is coming to a screeching have a vice grip on your chest? Is it tightening a rough, impenetrable sailor’s knot in your gut? (One that is probably teaming with fish slime, making it just a matter of time before either the infection or the ulcer takes you out?) Or does it start in your heart and spread like a wave through your consciousness, not demanding that your nervous system go from all’s well to Bush-era levels of code orange; just making its presence known like a wave with a momentum all its own?

You can’t always tell the difference right away. When there’s so much honking and squawking around us — when some of those honks and squawks are our own – it can be hard to even decide what to have for dinner. It helps to have allies in the cause. Recently, I’ve returned to enjoying my love of Marc Chagall, an artist who managed to paint scenes that were at once entirely whimsical and entirely spiritual. They crack me open and up – all those goats and brides and breasts – and they somehow also make me feel like everything is going to be OK. Something about this French Jew using every primary color and its neighbor to paint floating nonsensical scenes of love flanked by sorrow and music in the wake of World War II reaches deep inside me and thrums with a resonance I can’t even be bothered to deny. Few facts could be traced within his work, but truths abound.

Here’s a news flash: insights are unlikely to lead you to facts. They’re experiences of deeper connection to the world around us. Frequently, they’re riddled with truths that make facts look like penny-pinching grouches at a soup kitchen. But the point of letting insights be and appreciating them is not about being right or wrong. It’s about letting your little tentacles of truth and awareness reach out and touch other, similar feelers in the world and make connections that are based on open-heartedness and open-mindedness. Immediate truths might not fall out, like so many dominoes clicking down in order and leaving a glittering, lifeless train of order, but deeper ones will swell and rise under the good care and faith you have in them.

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