I grew up in a family divided by attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors and united by anxiety.
My father was constantly afraid that something horrible would happen to us, to the point of being controlling, unreasonable, and occasionally violent. I don’t know for sure what made him that way, but I have an some thoughts about it; let’s call it the “fear of flying” hypothesis.
Let’s start with a supernatural event that happened when my father was a child. I don’t remember all the details (the place, the people, or the exact time); my brain has decided to save the story that my father told us so many times in the form of a few clear images.
I see a child, perhaps three or four, standing on an unprotected sundeck on top of a building. On the deck there are two chaises lounges with faded blue and orange stripes. It’s summer, and it’s a hot sunny day with a beautiful blue sky. The child faces south and the sun blinds him. He steps forward, stumbles, and suddenly the familiar sense of standing on solid ground is replaced by a new sensation: he is flying.
His terrorized parents found him on the ground unscathed but somewhat delirious. He told his mother that a beautiful angel made of light held him in his arms and delivered him safely on the ground. The doctor who later examined him found nothing wrong with him. I wonder if he absorbed some of his mother’s terror after this event and decided that relying on angels for his survival was not necessarily a wise choice.
A later event might have reinforced this belief. My father had an older brother. He was a cool guy who flew helicopters and looked really handsome in his uniform. He had survived the war and seemed untouchable. Unfortunately, he wasn’t. One day—my father was a teenager—he did not come back from one of his routine flights. No angel showed up to save him.
My father never took an airplane. He made a practice of choosing safe, familiar routes over daring and exciting ones. He tried to teach us the same, with fairly poor results. I still crave very much for my freedom of choice and for daring and exciting experiences. Except that I live them with this nagging feeling that if something can go wrong it will and that I’m risking my life at each step.
My mother’s anxiety was of a different kind. She was afraid of dreaming something good for herself and her family, because she learned early in life that desiring beautiful things (like spending a vacation her father or marrying the man she loved) can turn into devastating losses and long-term suffering. So, she never wished anything good for us, and actively fought our dreams. But really, she was just trying to protect us.
Although I’ve absorbed quite a bit of my parents anxiety, my own anxiety is different and much more American: it’s about having to make every moment of my life productive and valuable at all costs. The result is that I waste a substantial amount of time and resources because I can’t just take time off and relax. If I relax, it has to be productive relaxation or else it would feel as I’m wasting my life. Most of the times, my rebellious other self takes over and decides that it would be a good idea to just waste time: playing a useless video game for hours perhaps, or doing some useless but complicated research online. Anything but relaxing productively or going through my to do list.
I have been out of work for almost a week, and I’m just starting to feel that relaxing may be a really good idea. For example, I could take a walk: no, not an exercise power walk or a walk to the store to buy grocery. Just a walk, for no reason whatsoever except that walking is pleasant, it’s a gorgeous Fall day, and I want to.
And while I’m just walking, I realize why it’s so important for me to do things that don’t have a predefined purpose. I’m taking time to explore what’s happening to me. I give time to my brain to process the latest events rather than thinking of (obsessing over) them. I do what feels interesting at the moment and let myself be aware of how it feels. Does it feel good? Exciting? Boring? Is it enough? Should I move to something else? I realize that I rarely use my own internal signals to drive my decisions.
So, I take some of this hectic time with so many things to do to relax, and spend some quality time with myself. And now that I’m not bossing me around with errands to do, places to be, things to worry about, I even start to enjoy my company.