A Word for Anxiety

Angest (æŋst) • noun

Definition: angst, anxiety, dread

Origin: Danish

On June 17, 1844, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard published his book Begrebet Angest and it was translated into English about 100 years later with the title The Concept of Dread (current editions use the title The Concept of Anxiety).

Angest, and the German angst, are relatively new words. They grew in popularity in the 1800s when both nations were grappling with the freedom that came with the collapse of monarchies across Europe and the changing relationship with the church. Angest and angst represented the fear and insecurity that comes from realizing that your life has not been preordained by God, and instead is a series of infinite decisions you must make and be held responsible for.

These two words spread across central Europe, but Kierkegaard’s analysis of the word did not spread to the English speaking world until a century later. America’s understanding of freedom and angest remain largely uninformed due to the lack of philosophical discourse. 

The Dizziness of Freedom

In Begrebet Angest, Kierkegaard uses the phrase “the dizziness of freedom” to describe the sensation of angest, or anxiety. I appreciate this phrase because “the dizziness of freedom” also reminds me of l’appel du vide. The choices you make with your freedom can make you feel dizzy, just as you would when peering over a cliff and a thought enters your head that imagines what it would be like to jump. The “dizziness of freedom” focuses primarily on far less lethal choices, but the dilemma is still the same because freedom means that we must comprehend and bear the responsibilities of our own decisions. 

Kierkegaard describes “the dizziness of freedom” as follows: 

“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom that emerges when spirit wants to posit the synthesis, and freedom now looks down into its own possibility and then grabs hold of finiteness to support itself.”

This sentence may appear confusing, but it describes a sensation that we have all felt countless times. 

In the first part of the sentence, our “spirit,” or geist, imagines the coming together of two possibilities and becomes anxious. Right now many of us encounter the anxiety of leaving our homes and imagining the possibility of getting COVID. Similarly, parents often imagine the possibility of some potential injury befalling their children when they are out of their sight. These imagined possibilities make us all anxious, and we all encounter anxiety because it is unavoidable once you understand freedom.

In the second part of the sentence, we attempt to cope with the infiniteness of freedom and existence by grabbing a hold of something finite to provide stability. Regarding COVID, many Americans rely on the advice of medical professionals to stay safe. Tragically, there are also many other Americans who rely on absurd ideas that COVID isn’t “real,” is a “hoax,” or that their Christian God will protect them no matter what. The former uses science and the latter uses ignorance as their finite sources of stability within the infinite possibilities of freedom.

Anxiety is inevitable within a free society. It is neither good nor bad. However, a society’s and an individual’s ability to manage anxiety determines the very capacity that people can exercise their freedoms within a supposedly free society. America does a horrible job of this and is unable to confront its own anxieties.

American Anxiety

America remains awful at managing anxiety because American freedom is based on a finite understanding of the world, and we still have a cultural undercurrent believing that God is taking care of us and ensuring that everything is okay. The belief in a Christian God always blessing America makes our society dangerously finite and allegedly preordained to be good, so as a result, most Americans remain ill-equipped to cope with the bad things that happen in the world and avoid the anxiety that comes with it. Americans get shot and killed in schools, stores, on the streets, and in their homes, and still a large segment of America believes that you can solve these man-made problems with prayers. No solution comes of it but the finite idea of God having a reason for everything provides some Americans with the comfort they need to live within a world full of infinite possibilities and chaos.

Additionally, our systemic cultural division created by our ethnocidal society conspires to ensure that anxiety resides almost exclusively with the ethnocidee. The implementers of ethnocide oppress other people so that they have less to worry about themselves. If the enslaved and oppressed clean the house, help raise the children and provide revenue for the oppressor, then the oppressors rarely need to confront the infinite possibilities of life and just have to worry about the factors that allow them to keep their power. This is their main concern because once the oppressed become free and no longer obligated to provide labor for them, the oppressors will have to confront the infinite anxieties of freedom.

In contrast, the ethnocidee lives in an environment with perpetual anxiety. They are consistently aware that lethal terror could befall them anywhere and at any time. They know that their employment, housing, education, and health are not determined by what is beneficial for them, but by what benefits the oppressors. This creates constant anxiety, angst, and dread because you know your semblance of stability could disappear at any moment, and America intentionally creates this fear for the oppressed.

As a contemporary example, the negative response from the Trump administration and other Americans to the Black Lives Matter movement is due to those dependent on sustaining ethnocide and not wanting to confront the anxiety of freedom. They want to remain “free” from anxiety, and they sustain this “freedom” by perpetuating oppression. 

Due to COVID-19, we all have anxiety about the possibility of catching a deadly disease, but we also have anxiety about our economic instability. This instability is due to America creating an economy based around the perpetual labor of the ethnocidee, and when the ethnocidee is unable to work due to COVID, America struggles to imagine how to restructure its society and economy. Many Americans are constantly saying that they want things to “go back to normal,” or complain that wearing a mask is taking away their rights and going against “God’s will,” but these are just different ways of saying that they want to go back to our ethnocidal norms of certain groups benefiting off of others.

American anxiety is due to a finite, ethnocidal grasp on our society, and then the stark realization that hundreds of thousands can die and far too many Americans will nonchalantly shrug at this dystopian state of affairs. American angest has nothing to do with the dizziness that comes with the infinite possibilities of freedom. Our anxiety derives from seeing America clearly, with all of its ethnocidal practices, and then deciding on what to do next.

Anxiety is not something you can avoid by forcing it upon others or taking medication to numb yourself. It will also not be solved by divine intervention. To deal with our angest, societies must create services to provide stability and security during the inevitable ups and downs of life, and individually we must cultivate practices similar to nervenstärke that teach us how to remain strong, calm, and focused.


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