27 September 2013

"What, Me Worry?" (Part II of the "Cancer & Society" posting)

Alfred E. Neuman, Mad Magazine
Harvey Kurtzman, Adaptation
Mad magazine has been around since the early 1950s.  For us Baby Boomers, it was something of a comic relief staple in the 1960s.  I may have explored every issue published between about 1965 and 1972.  Like many things, with growth and change, I moved on to other forms of finding levity in what was (as an adult) becoming a more complex world. The icon of the magazine was the image of Alfred E. Neuman...along with his motto, "What, Me Worry?"  The picture to the right is the cover of issue #30, December 1956.  As an aside, the price of this issue was $0.25 in 1956.  Amazon now has this issue available for collectors at $125.00.  Harvey Kurtzman was editor of Mad magazine from 1952-56 and "found" the image that would become the mascot/icon of the magazine.  It is said that the image was based on an actual person, but the fact of that may be lost to history.

For us humans, anxiety is the foundation emotion for almost all manifestations of the ego-self in our outer environment.  It is akin to a low level electrical current that keeps the system functioning in ways that insure cellular integrity and our capacity to engage all dimensions of our physical reality.  When all things are functioning in a "neutral" mode (read:  metabolic normal and all senses registering safety), we feel "at peace."  If we are triggered by a sudden thought that must lead to action or engagement on some level, the anxiety in the system rises to motivate the appropriate response activity.  Psychologists and neurologists call this normal anxiety function "eustress."

If our ego structure or physical nervous system registers that there is a threat to the system, the anxiety level can amp up to a level that has a number of hormonally engaged responses.  The most basic of these is the "fight-flight" response.  Safety is the first order of life business...insuring survival.  When the human system responds to this level of anxiety with sudden movement, genuine "worry" and other feelings and physical responses that keep us at a heightened "security alert" status, it is known as "distress."

In our evolutionary pattern, we humans were designed to experience distress for only short periods of time, and in the kind of energy packets that would meet immediate survival needs.  The overall affect/effect was not problematic and most always automatic.  However, as interpersonal relationship dynamics evolved (along with the emergence of stable societies) the periodic distress of hunter/gatherer was replaced by ego manufactured distress.  This kind of anxiety is more chronic and does not necessarily abate when things get to a place of overall safety and security.  Chronic anxiety in relational systems has to be acted upon in some manner.  Fears, phobias, projections, paranoia (inventing a foe that needs to be fought or fled from) and a host of other ego manifestations lead to actions that are designed to reduce the effects of heightened internal anxiety.

George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, did not invent the little litany that Yoda shares in an early episode:  Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to destruction.  This progression is actually part of the "neural equation" of emotive progression in all humans experiencing a rise in anxiety.  The actual progression:  anxiety leads to fear; fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to destructive behavior.

The progression I just shared is a foundational element of Bowen Theory, which I reflected upon in my last blog posting.  Just the idea that every human on the planet does this may create some anxiety in, and of, itself.  Our lives, in this culture, are relatively safe -- compared to our ancestors.   We are not concerned about being another creature's lunch.  We can protect ourselves from the shifting elements.  Food is relatively easy to procure.  Our culture has laws in place that are designed to maintain our safety and security.  To the extent that all of this works, our anxiety levels should be fairly normal (i.e. "metabolic normal").  This, however, is far from the case.

The ego projections of anxiety I described above (paranoia, et.al.) are now normative in our cultural relationship fields.  We can make fun of them, ignore them or try to change them, but they do not go away.  Social Media has allowed high anxiety to become a 24/7 reality.  Think about any given day:  someone posts what they believe to be a sincere warning of impending danger to our security (e.g. Facebook is making our photographs available to the world).  Within hours, there can be a hugely intense "fight-flight" response.  Even after individuals have introduced data that assures such is not true, the anxiety (expressed as fear or paranoia) continues or rejuvenates for a long period of time.

Our society has learned to use anxiety as a marketing tool.  In the course of doing extensive research on diabetes, nutrition and healing, I have tapped websites that now send me daily "warnings" about the dangers of what I am eating, or what is lacking in my daily intake, or the supplement without which I am in danger of shortening my life.  We can begin to believe we don't have the latest breakthrough knowledge, because the anxiety surrounding our wellness has been manipulated by talented marketing folks.

This could go on into a lot of ways our anxiety remains amped.  Healthy individuation (i.e. optimal personal functioning in a relational field) requires one to be a "non-anxious presence."  We are not equipped simply to do this as an act of will.  It requires some tools.

1.  Internal Controls.  Imagine your your mind has some dials in it.  One dial is volume.  The inner voice, which is a function of ego structure, can be lowered.  Identify the origin of the voice's expressed anxiety.  Is it actually real (impending) or imagined (an idea or possibility)?  Sit with what is going on in your head and try to become the observer of the activity.  This takes some practice, because our ego doesn't want to be observed.  It wants to run things. Dial it down.

2.  Explore Data.  Most of what creates modern anxiety is couched in perceived distress.  The only way to neutralize most of this is with sound data.  If I am about to take a trip, and I have identified a level of anxiety as being generated by a fear of transportation problems, I do research and take responsible steps to address those fears.  The anxiety abates when I know the facts about what I need to do.  Assuming that what I see or receive is valid in our culture, without supporting data, invites anxiety to move into the domains of fear, paranoia, and misplaced anger.

3.  Be Flexible.  The biggest source of anxiety is transmitted in the need to be acceptable to others.  We want to be with the "right group."  We want to belong, but we become owned by that to which we believe we must belong.  To protect ourselves, we become rigid in our belief structures that guide/govern that group.  This rigidity is very much like the narrowing of an artery surrounding the heart.  It will eventually lead to dysfunction.  When a leader in a group begins to narrow the group's flexibility by touting a "party line," (either/or, all/nothing mentality), anxiety levels go up at a tremendous rate.  Everything outside that sphere of relationship becomes a threat to one's integrity (read: lifeway).  It takes diversity to make a true unity.

4.  Disengage.  "But, you said we are relational...disengage?!"  Just the descriptive word can make some folks anxious.  One can use a variety of terms that embrace disengagement.  My term is "contemplative mode."  Some might call it "prayer" or "meditation."  Most of the terminology carries anxiety producing responses for most folks.  Contemplative modality, for me, has no words.  I haven't prayed, internally, using words or formats in a pretty long time.  I do use "mantras," which are simply in the form of either a word, or a short phrase used to move from ego awareness to a place of relative silence...where the word or mantra dissipates.  In this place, I am free to be in my most elemental, created Self.  It is the least anxious stance we can attain.  Even 15 minutes is good to begin being non-anxious.  What I find, as a gift, upon completion of a contemplative time, are helpful insights to the things that may be producing anxiety in my functional, daily state.

5.  Abide.  The absolute hardest part about being a parish priest was living with the expectations that parishioners had for how I would function...on all levels.  It included such things as where we should live, where our children should go to school, what my political, social, professional affiliations should be.  Most folks want to create or remold their priest into their own image of "the perfect one."  For a long time, I labored under the premise that it just might be my job to be "all things to all people."  Real fact: This is impossible and can lead to a mental and emotional breakdown in time...a disintegration.  It is an invitation to lose all self-regulation or specialization as a unique human living in community.

What I have learned in my journey is that it is far more important and, in fact, vital that I abide in the level of function and with the tools I have been given to live this life.  It does not require that I be a card carrying anything.  My journey and place in community is only dependent upon the integrity with which I function in relationship.  To abide in a place that defines my "Self," and puts "self" (ego) in a properly balanced part of being, is the ultimate non-anxious space.

Do I get anxious?  For sure.  Do I get distressed?  Of course.  Do I get angry?  You bet.  However, as I continue to grow and shift, the anxiety, distress, and anger are no longer defining characteristics.  I don't have to be anyone but me.  And, when I show up, that's who is present.  Folks can define it any way they wish (and they try).  It's fine.  It's their story, and why should I bother trying to change it.  It's not my story.  The integrity of functioning is to do so with as little anxiety involved as possible and to speak the best truth I have at the time of speaking...being flexible enough to shift as I encounter new and more complete truth.  Abide.

Jeff Bridges,  The Dude
The Big Lebowski
Love and Blessings!


A number of friends in the Kansas City/Lee's Summit area began calling me "The Dude" when I grew my hair out during sabbatical in 2008 and again at retirement in 2011.  In sunglasses and with my goatee, I guess I reminded them of Jeff Bridges' character.  Tall cotton! eh?  

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