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September 6, 2019

Richard Viso 2020: Chapel Talk

“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom” – Søren Kierkegaard

Imagine this:

The sun begins to set on a blue Friday night. You and your friends want something to eat, but no one wants to choose the restaurant. Someone then turns to you and asks, “Well, what do you want?” Take a moment and think about how you would usually respond.

 I know that my response would sound a little like:

“Oh no, no, no. It’s up to you guys. I am fine with anything.”

Am I really fine with anything? Probably not, but in the face of many options, I feel overwhelmed. Often, I find it easier to adopt an attitude of indifference, allowing others to decide.

We will probably not regret the choice of Neo-Burrito or Bojangles on our deathbeds. Whenever someone asks us, “where do you want to eat?” we can ignore the question without worry because the outcome is inconsequential. However, when we face a life-altering decision, how do we overcome our feelings of helplessness? We can begin to answer this question if we understand what makes decisions seem hard: passivity and anxiety.

I believe that we – the students in this chapel – feel the pressure of conformity more than any recent generation. Our culture rewards people that “go with the flow” and organize their lives around the latest trends. We face the issue of becoming passive and allowing our environment to shape our values. To elaborate on this issue, I am going to refer to a book that the Seniors read in European literature last year. Seniors, sorry if you have some traumatic flashbacks, and Juniors, sorry for the spoilers. In Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, the protagonist, Ivan Ilych, does not make his own decisions. He chooses his job based on what authority figures value and marries his wife because “eh, it’s convenient.” He never questions his decisions until he falls ill. Last year, during final exams – about the time Mr. Jones shaved his beard into that weird mustache – we reviewed this story, and as ridiculous as it sounds, I felt anxious. On his deathbed, Ivan Ilych asks himself: “Can it be that I have not lived as one ought? But how not so, when I’ve done everything as it should be done?” What if we end up like Ivan Ilych, lying on our deathbeds filled with regret? What if we live only to question every decision at our life’s end?

In an article from Psychology Today, Kimberly Key explains how passiveness comes from a desire to seem agreeable. To some degree, every person wants to appear pleasant. We want people to like us. To illustrate, let us look back to the issue of choosing a restaurant and the, “Oh, it’s up to you. I’m fine with anything” response. Personally, I answer with a non-committal response because many times, I am actually neutral on the issue of where to eat, but I also avoid a definite answer because I want to seem agreeable. I feel like my opinion does not carry that much importance, so I allow others to make a choice. This insignificant example shows how we can fall into passivity. Such agreeableness is fine for insignificant decisions, of course, but what about questions like those of Ivan Ilych: our occupation, who we marry, what we value?

When we confront these questions, we cannot act like Ivan Ilych. We must take an active approach.

To start taking an active approach, we must understand our motivations. In her Psychology Today article, Dr. Key says that if an individual’s desires do not align with “the desires of the hands that feed them,” they will experience “cognitive dissonance.” “The hands that feed us” – that is our parents, a teacher, or another authority figure – shape our values during development. If your parents tell you that the wealthy are greedy, or on the flip side, that poor people are lazy, then these statements, or “rules” as Dr. Key calls them, will determine how you view economic status in your early life. However, as you mature, you will likely form new values based on YOUR experience. These new values will clash with the values that authority figures instilled in you, and many times during this internal clash, we subconsciously align our beliefs with the beliefs of “the hands that feed us” because it is the easiest path to take. Sometimes, we benefit from adopting the beliefs of “the hands that feed us,” because, well, figures of authority may understand the world better than we do. However, as many of us in this chapel know, that is not always the case. So, we must acknowledge the forces that shape our values, we must understand our motivations, but then we must create our own.

Another reason for indecision exists completely opposite from Ivan Ilych and his passivity. In another example from European studies: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet considers taking action but struggles to act. Eventually, after his debilitating existential crisis – “to be or not to be” – he finally decides to face the “slings and arrows” of life. He decides to kill his uncle Claudius, and yet, even then, he hesitates. I can relate to Hamlet because I can see myself in his struggles. Not that I want to kill my uncle, but I relate to his inability to act – his tragic flaw. If we continue to wear out the restaurant comparison, we can say that Hamlet would become helplessly overwhelmed by the seemingly endless restaurant options. He tries to make his own decision, unlike Ivan Ilych, but he becomes overwhelmed.

Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher and theologian, wrote the passage that Ben read so beautifully. He thought that the anxiety we feel in the face of decisions ultimately comes from a positive source: freedom. Most people prefer freedom over restriction, so Kierkegaard found it odd that people struggle with decisions.

Let me elaborate: we, in this chapel, are privileged. Some much more than others, but we all are fortunate enough to go to a boarding school with plenty of resources. Many people are less fortunate. All of us may be created equal, but we most certainly are not created in equal circumstance. Some people have no freedom – no privilege – but you, in this chapel, regardless of your background, have a great deal of freedom – maybe not an absolute license to do whatever you want, but you still have opportunities. So, if privilege creates freedom, and freedom leads to some uncomfortable anxiety, then why do people throw away their freedom in the face of anxiety? Why do people throw away their freedom by being passive like Ivan Ilych?

People pass on their privilege to make choices because of how easy it is to fall into passivity, as we talked about in relation to Ivan Ilych and the Psychology Today article. However, Kierkegaard said that people also hesitate to act because of guilt. We often feel guilty whenever we break from the status quo. Saying, “You know what, I actually want Sushi tonight,” or “I actually value this over that” can feel wrong. It can feel selfish to create our own values. Rollo May, a 20th century phycologist and philosopher, explained these feelings eloquently in his book The Meaning of Anxiety:

One would have no anxiety if there were no possibility whatever. Creating always involves negative as well as positive aspects. It always involves destroying the status quo, destroying old patterns within oneself, progressively destroying what one has clung to from childhood on… Creating new and original forms and ways of living… brings guilt towards oneself.

Most of you are probably dozing off and thinking, “What in the world does this talk of anxiety, guilt, and life-changing decisions have to do with me?”

Well, I think it will help if we conclude by imagining a hypothetical Junior at Asheville School. He has been a student since freshman year. He joined the soccer team because his dad loved soccer, and he plays lacrosse because all of his friends are lax-bros, but he feels unfulfilled. He wants to experience art, to try out mountaineering, to explore some other interests. However, he knows that quitting soccer or lacrosse will come with backlash. His coaches and friends value commitment, duty, responsibility, so of course, he cannot quit. If he quits, then he will feel guilty. I think in this situation, this student should consider his motivations. Why does he want to try something new, and why does he feel an allegiance to his current activities? After some thought, the student may find that he actually does value commitment. The friendship of his soccer team may outweigh his desire to try something new. Or maybe not, after some soul-searching he might find that his motivation does not come from what HE values. The worst response to this situation would be if this hypothetical student did not consider his values, and instead just “went with the flow,” because one day, he might look back at his time at Asheville school and ask, “What if I would have found a passion for art, or for nature? It feels like I missed something. Eh, but surely not, because I did everything as it should have been done.”

Go in peace.