“It’s not lymphoma, it’s leprosy!” Ack!!!! Yes, I admit I was watching re-runs of House the other night. It seems the other televisual options included a ruined baseball stadium filled with Godzilla eggs, a WWII movie about carnage on the German front, and a variety of news shows featuring politicians and pundits running around with their hair on fire, not to mention winter storm warnings and a meteor exploding over Russia. As Mel Brooks said, “High anxiety, you win!”
What is it that people find so attractive about the raised emotional pitch, especially in fiction? (As if we didn’t have enough of that in daily life.) I’m not going to say this is a recent phenomenon, or an American one. Check out Grimm’s Fairy Tales, or better yet, Greek and Roman mythology, not to mention the ancient Egyptian story about what happened to Osiris. (Look it up.) We humans enjoy being shocked and horrified. But why?
If Plato is right, it might simply be a common and understandable mistake. “Whenever anyone’s soul feels a keen pleasure or pain,” says Socrates in the Phaedo, “it cannot help supposing that whatever causes the most violent emotion is the plainest and truest reality, which it is not.” (83c) Really? If things that cause a profound emotional surge aren’t the most real, what is?
The Buddhist scholar and retreat master, Thich Nhat Hanh, suggests that we deal with our emotional storms the same way we face violent weather; go home, close the doors and windows, be still. Reality is to be found in the quiet of our hearts when we are calm, not in the tempest.
Elijah found that God was not in the heavy winds or in the earthquake or in the raging fire, but rather in a still, small voice. He had to be very quiet to hear it. And once he listened, he was refreshed and fortified. (I Kings, 19:11-13) He did not withdraw from the chaotic world permanently, but he did need to take a break.
We, too, need a break, but events and entertainment conspire to keep us riled up. Even when we go on vacation, there is so much to do and to experience that we return home exhausted as often as not. And when we “relax” with our portable electronic devices, well, de Tocqueville would not be surprised. We need a real break.
But we also need to do something different. We need to be still yet alert. And this is a work quite unlike what we are used to, as well as a relaxation that can’t be found on TV or the internet or in collision sports. There are no fireworks in this practice of being still. But there is a deeper reality, a plainer and truer reality than what we can encounter by any other means. Be still, yet alert, without trying to control the outcome. Then sometimes, High Anxiety, you lose.