• Daniel Kephart

Beyond the Wall - Studying Anxiety

Updated: Apr 5, 2019

Confronting Your Hell

When you wake up tomorrow, 40 million adult Americans will be struggling with anxiety. Perhaps you are one of them. It isn’t all that unlikely—since those numbers correspond to just over 18% of the population of the United States.[1] Out of those 40 million, 15 million are suffering from social anxiety. In the United States, mental health is a hot button issue, and in our discussion of anxiety we have taken to thinking of it as a mental illness. If it is just such an illness, then Americans are experiencing it in epidemic proportions. The question must be asked: How are we to prevent this disease from spreading any farther?

In reality, there probably is not a simple answer. The world is a very, very complicated place. In the morning, the first thing I do upon waking is to turn on my bedside lamp, sleepily getting to my feet as light floods the room. For this to happen, myriad numbers of human beings must be involved. There are those who manufactured the lamp, those who sold it to me, those who operate the power grid that powers my house, and the employer who supplied me with the funds to purchase the lamp. These are just a few of the points of interest that must connect to make the simplest part of my daily routine possible. I don’t think about any of this upon waking, however, I simply press a pleasant rubber toggle and watch as illumination floods my darkened bedroom. When confronting a problem as widespread as anxiety—with all its different facets and forms—finding a neat solution is almost impossible. What's more, I'm not a counselor. I'm not a psychologist. I study history and literature. Who is to say whether the problem is with the power grid or with the power cord? There isn’t an easy way to know.

On the other hand, when I find that my lamp is not working, I never assume that the entire power grid for my block has collapsed. I assume that I need a new light bulb. Failing that, maybe I damaged the power cord. Failing that, maybe I just need a new lamp. I start small and scale up when facing the problem. Maybe that’s a poor way to approach the rapidly expanding issue of American anxiety, but I’m not so certain.

The other day I heard the tired example of “the straw that broke the camel’s back” dragged out from whatever hole God had mercifully sent it to die in. Frankly, at this point, I feel bad for the camel, its back has been broken such a multitude of times that I’m not sure we have surgery capable of repairing it. Still, the analogy is popular because it makes a good point: Small problems are cumulative. A camel might be able to withstand a million pieces of straw being loaded on its back, but beware. Sooner or later, a million turns into a million and one. That’s when the very spine and structure of a system or society collapses.

It appears we are reaching just such a crisis point in the American epidemic with anxiety. Malcolm Gladwell, the popular Canadian journalist, wrote that “ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.”[2] If so, it matters little whether anxiety is truly a disease or simply a state of mind. Sooner or later, the disease will have progressed too far, and the tipping point Gladwell speaks of will have arrived.

If so, then the only thing to do is just that, to do something. Immediate action must be taken. The problem cannot wait, cannot be allowed to progress further, cannot be allowed to fester. It must be dealt with. Fortunately, here is where there is a rather simple answer. If it takes a million and one straws to snap a camel’s back, then might we avoid that catastrophe simply by trying to remove a few straws here and there? If anxiety spreads like a disease through our mind, then might not we help fight it by bringing rest to some areas of our mind while helping other areas to improve their diet and exercise regime? Perhaps or perhaps not. We have little to lose by attempting.

I’ve just finished streaming Kevin Macdonald’s historical drama, The Eagle. Reviewing all the films I’ve ever watched, it ranks high among the most mediocre in terms of its dialogue, pacing, and acting—not bad, not good. On the other hand, I think it’s a literary masterpiece when viewed metaphorically. You and I watch films like this and feel a certain rough fondness for them, I think, because of how they speak to our subconscious while perplexing us with how lackluster their artisanship is.

The essence of the film isn’t difficult to convey: In the latter days of the Roman Empire, a wall is built to separate the wilderness inhabited by the Celtic people from the civilized world ruled by Rome.[3] A legion disappears in this wilderness, presumably destroyed, and the famous standard of the Romans, a golden eagle, disappears with it.

Alright, there’s a spot where it’s worth pausing a moment. The wall described in this story is Hadrian’s Wall, a real construction you can still see today, but it’s also a symbolic representation of what’s going on inside the human mind. Aristotle famously said of man that he is a political animal, he likes to govern and to be governed. He lives in social groups. He craves order and structure. That’s the Rome inside your mind and my own. We like routines and known things—just think about how you are able to binge season after season of Friends or The Office on Netflix. It might be because they are phenomenally written, that’s quite possible. It might also be that these shows represent the familiar and the comfortable. Children can watch the same Disney film over and over again. We adults are not so different as we like to think. We are hungry for more of the same.

The problem with this is that the world is not content to give us more of the same. Each of us is aging, exposing our bodies to constant change. Our social statuses and family dynamics are changing. We are beings in constant flux. To a degree, we are made for this. Think of how often you have been bored. If it’s true that we crave same-ness, it’s equally true that we crave novelty. We’re more than content to binge-watch The Office, but the idea of watching nothing but the same episode of The Office over and over again sounds like a fresh hell. We prefer small and expected deviations.

I'm speaking as a student of literature now, not psychology.

The world is rarely content to settle for small deviations. Usually, it hits us with a number of different crises per year. A few are bound to be severe. If you’re an American male, you have a 39% chance of developing some type of cancer.[4] I have a pair of brothers. Statistically, one of us is fairly likely to fall prey to cancer. Given our family medical history, perhaps more than one of us will. When that happens, it’s a crisis that restructures the entire world. That’s a real problem. Think about it—if something restructures the world, it’s a flood, a hurricane, a tornado. It is, literally, a natural disaster. When a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, an emotional and psychological tornado tears through the mind. When that happens, the response each one of us takes is what determines the future of our sanity.

The Eagle is an exploration of a response to just such a disaster. It begins with a wall dividing civilization from the wild, the known from the unknown, the comfortable from the threatening. Beyond the wall is the eagle, which is symbolic of the Roman Empire—for our purposes, the human soul. Without it, the Roman cause is effectively lost. The integrity of the Empire—and here I mean integrity in its truest sense, the wholeness and integrated-ness of a thing—is compromised.

This is what happens when the familiar world of our everyday lives becomes an empty shell. We realize, jarringly, that our day to day life does not match the dreams of our childhood. We are not the people we hoped to be. Most often, this takes the form of a lost job or failed relationship. The future that seemed so certain has now been fundamentally altered. Our externals, usually, have changed very little. We wake up in the same bed, use the same bathroom, and dress in the same clothes. Now, however, it’s as though our very soul has departed in foreign hands.

The critical feature of The Eagle is that the young Roman soldier—who, fittingly, has lost his job due to an injury—decides to go beyond the wall. He consciously decides to travel into the hostile unknown. Make no mistake: The unknown is always hostile. What waits beyond the wall of the known is dark, violent, and probably actively opposed to your well-being. The threat without, however, is one that may be confronted. The threat on this side of the wall, of life without the eagle, is far more insidious. It is impossible to confront the absence of something.

Critically, though, the young Roman hero of The Eagle does not venture beyond the wall alone. He takes a Celtic slave with him, despite protests that the young man might murder his former master once the two are beyond Hadrian’s Wall. The two men are nearly identical in their speech patterns, combat abilities, and family statuses. This is simply because they are mirrors of each other. The Roman and the Celt are two versions of the same person.

You are not one “type” of person. While you are no doubt capable of great compassion, you are equally capable of great violence and cruelty. You are probably somewhat creative and certainly equally destructive. This is not something to be frightened of. Beyond the wall, when facing the very real horrors that the unknown will throw at you, the only way you will be able to survive is by uniting the Roman and the Celt that dwell within your mind.

One facet of anxiety is this inability to reconcile the Roman and the Celt of our everyday thoughts. Part of our mind is structured and orderly while another part is wild and free. Both are powerful in their own way. The person who is insufficiently Roman will be unable to succeed in group dynamics. The person who lacks a developed Celtic portion of the psyche will be boxed-in and easily manipulated. Either way, an ill-developed person will be anxious.

A well-developed person whose Roman side and Celtic side are working in harmony will be no safer than his ill-developed counterpart. The world does not become safer. The difference is simply that the well-developed person is dangerous and threatening in his own right. Nature respects a predator. Part of being able to respond to a world that presses down on your everyday life is believing that you are capable of pressing back.

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[1] “Facts & Statistics | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA.” Accessed September 18, 2018. https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics.

[2] Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 2000, p.7.

[3] The Eagle. Focus Features, 2011.

[4] “Lifetime Risk of Developing or Dying From Cancer.” Accessed September 25, 2018. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/lifetime-probability-of-developing-or-dying-from-cancer.html.

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