The Speeding Car
Imagine you’re standing in the middle of a road and a car is speeding towards you. Under these circumstances most of us will normally feel immediately anxious.
If, on the other hand, you’re standing in the road but you have your back to the car and you’re talking animatedly to a friend, or have your iPod at full volume, this time you won’t see, or hear the car coming. Under these circumstances you’ll feel no trace of anxiety. You’ll feel nothing until the car hits you.
This tells us something very simple and obvious, but still very important. The Speeding Car, and the fact it’s speeding towards us, cannot by itself make us anxious. To feel anxious we have to PREDICT what might happen. We have to be able to see what is speeding towards us, and to work out how fast it is going and in which direction. We also have to know something about impacts between flesh and speeding metal. We do all this complex data processing in an instant.
We can take the example one step further. Suppose you’ve reached the age of 100. You’ve achieved most of your ambitions and sorted out your affairs. You’ve had a reasonable life; a good innings. You know life is not forever. You’d rather not end your days by getting Alzheimer’s or cancer. Under these circumstances we can imagine standing in the path of the car, predicting what was going to happen but not feeling afraid. We might say to ourselves, “This is my time”, “Better this way than some others”, “C’est la vie”.
Perhaps, in reality, not many of us would be able to do this when it came to it, but at least we can see it would be possible if we were able to fully accept our fate.
So PREDICTING what’s going to happen is not enough. To feel anxious we also have to NOT WANT what we’re predicting.
PREDICTING and NOT WANTING are both things we do in the private, inner world of our thinking.
The Speeding Car shows anxiety is not something that happens to us but it’s something we are doing. The fact most of us would feel anxious if a car were speeding towards us only tells us we often think the same thoughts in similar situations. We have similar concerns and interests and, therefore, make similar predictions, and want to avoid many of the same things.
The idea we’re DOING anxiety may at first seem strange. It certainly does not feel like it. But we can see how this can be the case if we appreciate how we do many complex things quite instantaneously without knowing how we do them. We walk and talk. We read and write. We sing and dance. We don’t doubt we’re actively doing these things. The Speeding Car suggests anxiety is just another thing we do instantaneously without knowing we are doing anything. Predicting and not wanting are things we do without having to stop and think deliberately.
Why do we doubt we are ‘doing’ anxiety when we don’t doubt we’re doing the walking, talking, reading etc? The answer is partly because of the way we talk about anxiety as something that ‘happens’ to us or as a feeling caused by outside events. These everyday ways of talking stop us seeing that we’re actually, but unintentionally, making ourselves anxious.
These everyday ways of talking make things harder for us. If we see anxiety as a ‘thing’ or an ‘it’ that happens to us we can react badly to it in many ways. We can dislike it; feel ashamed of it; wonder how bad it will get; imagine other people don’t feel it; and worry there is something wrong with us. These reactions contain more predicting and not wanting. They feed the feelings of anxiety. Worried, anxious thoughts are the oxygen of the fire of the feelings of anxiety. Just as fire cannot survive without oxygen, anxiety cannot last without an on-going supply of predictions of things we don’t want.
The everyday words we use to describe anxiety and how it works have become part of the culture we live in. We all tend to use them if we are not thinking. This doesn’t help anyone who has an issue dealing with anxiety. However, it could help if they saw their struggle as partly a cultural problem not just an individual one.
[There is a much longer description of The Speeding Car and the conclusions we can draw from it on The Origin of Anxieties on Amazon.]
NOTE: The Speeding Car is not an argument that we should never feel anxious. In fact it is the opposite. Some anxiety is inevitable all the time we’re interested in how things will turn out for us and other people who matter to us. The thinking behind anxiety is thinking with a purpose. We want to work out what might happen to us, our family and friends. The Speeding Car simply unpacks anxiety and suggests that if we want to understand why we feel anxious we should focus on what we are predicting and what we are saying we don’t want. Focusing on these can help us keep our worries in perspective and ensure that a concern does not become a panic.