Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cycle of Fear - NYTimes.com

Like many people, I like to set aside a few hours every day, generally between 3 and 6 a.m., to lie quietly thinking about everything that could go horribly wrong with my life and all the ways in which I am negligent and reprehensible. I have spasms of panic over things I shouldn’t have written, or, worse, things I should have; I regret having spent all the money and wonder where more money might ever conceivably come from; I wish I’d kissed girls I didn’t, as long ago as 1985. I’m suddenly convulsed with remorse over mean things I did in middle school (I am sorry, Matthew Reeve); I force myself to choose my least favorite death (drowning).

I suspect that if I am killed while biking, the state of mind in which I am likeliest to die is extreme annoyance.

It’s worth noting that the order in which these items preoccupy me is more or less the inverse of the order in which I ought to be worrying about them. I tend to obsess over the least pressing problems, the ones over which I have the least control. Some people have suggested that I should stop worrying about things I cannot control. These people are no doubt hardheaded, competent C.E.O.’s of the Fortune 500 of La-La Land. Of course it’s the things I can’t control that I worry about. Worry is not productive; it’s a kind of procrastination. I like to pretend worry is passive, something your brain does when it’s trapped and helpless, but it’s more often a way to avoid taking some direct action that would be frightening, difficult, inconvenient or boring, like drawing up a monthly budget or doing sit-ups or finally just summoning up the nerve to ask someone What, exactly, The Deal Is. Worrying can turn into one of those problems that prevents itself from getting solved, the way that pornography can if you’d rather stay home watching it than go out and meet somebody.

Natural selection has made us hypervigilant, obsessively replaying our mistakes and imagining worst-case scenarios. And the fact that we’ve eliminated almost all of the immediate threats from our environment, like leopards and Hittites, has only made us even more jittery, because we’re now constantly anticipating disasters that are never going to happen: the prowler/rapist/serial killer lurking in the closet, a pandemic of Ebola/Bird Flu/Hantavirus, the imminent fascist/socialist/zombie takeover. The disasters that do befall us are mostly slow, incremental ones that seem abstract and faraway until they suddenly blindside us, like heart disease and foreclosure. So we go about our days safer and more comfortable than human beings have been in five million years, constantly hunched and growling with a low level of fight-or-flight chemicals in our bloodstreams. My doctor assures me that this is the cause of most of our chronic back and neck problems; my dentist says nocturnal tooth-grinding became so endemic in New York after 9/11 it actually changed the shapes of people’s faces by enlarging their masseter muscles. He sells a lot of night guards.

Marcus Nyblom

Which is why it’s such a relief, an exhilarating joy, to break the clammy paralysis of worry and place yourself at last in real physical danger. Even though it’s the time when I am at most immediate risk, riding my bike in Manhattan traffic is also one of the only times when I am never anxious or afraid — not even when a cab door swings open right in front of me, some bluetoothed doofus strides into my path, or a dump truck’s fender drifts within an inch of my leg. At those moments fear is a low neurological priority that would only interfere with my reaction time, like a panicky manager shoved aside by competent, grim-faced engineers in a crisis. I doubt that the victims of sudden violent accidents die terrified; they’re probably extremely alert, brains gone pretty much blank while their galvanized bodies try to figure out what to do. I don’t think our minds are designed to accept that there’s no way out. Based on my own close calls, I suspect that if I am killed while biking, the state of mind in which I am likeliest to die is extreme annoyance. And at least it won’t be by drowning.

The fear gets released later on, while I’m falling asleep and near-misses replay themselves in my mind’s eye like an endless computer game fraught with constant hazards, in which I’m a disembodied Steadicam hurtling through busy city streets at the same speed something falls, pedestrians appearing out of nowhere, the broad flat fronts of busses expanding with terrifying suddenness in my peripheral vision. Occasionally I jerk briefly awake just before being obliterated. These are the dreams that make dogs twitch and snarl.

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Before I moved here, I imagined that I would be far too terrified ever to ride my bike in New York City. I am not what’s called a thrill-seeking personality: I am too scared to go on carnival rides and can only imagine that if I were ever to go ziplining, bungee jumping or skydiving I would turn instantly to stone with terror, a short-lived meteor. The actual danger of biking is incidental; it’s only an external condition that forcibly focuses my concentration, the same way that the violence of war can serve as an occasion for valor. If you’re anything like me, you probably spend the majority of your time either second-guessing the past or dreading the future, neither of which actually exists; having to navigate those teeming streets narrows the beam of my consciousness to the laser’s width of the instant I actually inhabit.

When I’m balanced on two thin wheels at 30 miles an hour, gauging distance, adjusting course, making hundreds of unconscious calculations every second, that idiot chatterbox in my head is kept too busy to get a word in. I’ve heard people say the same thing about rock-climbing: how it shrinks your universe to the half-inch of rock surface immediately in front of you, this crevice, that toehold. Biking is split-second fast and rock-climbing painstakingly slow, but both practices silence the noise of the mind and render self-consciousness blissfully impossible. You become the anonymous hero of that old story, Man versus the Universe. Your brain’s glad to finally have a real job to do, instead of all that trivial busywork. You are all action, no deliberation. You are forced, under pain of death, to quit all that silly ideation and pay attention. It’s meditation at gunpoint.

I’m convinced these are the conditions in which we evolved to thrive: under moderate threat of death at all times, brain and body fully integrated, senses on high alert, completely engaged with our environment. It is, if not how we’re happiest — we’re probably happiest in a hot tub with a martini and a very good naked friend — how we are most fully and electrically alive. Of course we can’t sustain this state of mind for too long. People who go through their whole lives operating on impulse tend to end up in jail. We are no longer purely animals, living only in the moment; we are the creatures who live in time, as salamanders live in fire, prisoners of memory and imagination, tortured with dread and regret. That other, extra-temporal perspective is not the whole reality of our condition. It’s more like the view from the top of the Empire State Building, of people as infinitesimal dots circulating ceaselessly through a grid. Eventually we have to descend back to street level, rejoin the milling mass and take up our lives; you lock up your bike and become hostage to the hours again. But it’s at those moments that I become briefly conscious of what I actually am — a fleeting entity stripped of ego and history in an evanescent present, like a man running in frames of celluloid, his consciousness flickering from one instant to the next.

(Anxiety welcomes submissions at anxiety@nytimes.com.)

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