“The natural role of twentieth-century man is anxiety.” – Normal Mailer, The Naked and the Dead.
In the last two blogs we looked at the characteristics of contentment by distinguishing its philosophical form from similar terms and concepts. The result was an examination of its positive features through a comparative analysis. We concluded that contentment is facilitated by a good life, peace of mind derived from the satisfaction of living virtuously and engaging in purposeful activity. It is not the product of simple pleasures and is more stable than joy. It is also distinct from salvation while more individual and less comprehensive than happiness.
We can learn quite a bit more about the great thinkers’ ideas on contentment by looking at antagonistic dynamics, including at least the following: anxiety, fear, dread, unease, suffering, want, dissatisfaction, and absurdity. Invariably most of us will find these negatives interfering with our lasting contentment, and thus will require strategies to overcome them.
Anxiety, viewed psychologically is of two types; (1) exogenous – meaning due to external or identifiable factors, or (2) endogenous – in effect organic in nature as an ongoing state of the brain. Exogenous factors include environmental factors such as lack of money, external threats such as exposure to violence, or worry over loved ones or about one’s conduct. When based on legitimate concerns some of these fall under the category of fear, although of course one can have irrational fears as well. Finding peace in such circumstances depends on fixing the causes or developing equanimity when they are inescapable. Endogenous anxiety (arguably unexplained fear) is most often overcome by clinical management such as cognitive techniques or medicine.
Dread or angst is a more profound degree of anxiety – best used in reference to fear of death or meaninglessness, but at times referring to happenings in the world involving little immediate threat to the individual afflicted. Medication may reduce symptoms, but to some extent the origins of these feelings are irremediable and thus surmounted by philosophical and psychological means. One good example of a strategy for some forms is Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy.
Persistent unease is more subtle. Although similar to anxiety, I reserve its use for recognizable inadequacies regarding oneself. Guilt may be the best example; contentment is evasive when one knows of past vices or missed opportunities. Foibled behavior and a wasted or misdirected life tend to leave one ill at ease with the cure being the very difficult measures of acknowledgement, atonement, redirection of one’s life, and possibly restitution.
(continued next post)