Part I: The Invisible Enemy
Anxiety is a fear without object: if I am afraid of spiders, then it’s relatively simple, I avoid being around spiders as much as possible. Anxiety, therefore, is a fear that somehow, at some unknown point in time, something bad will happen and we have no control over it. In other words, anxiety is, as some politicians referred to COVID-19 threat, an “invisible enemy”.
In fact, this is precisely why some of us tend to “warify” (the war on drugs, war on terror, war on climate change, etc.) threatening things that are bigger than us. By objectifying anxiety, we give a ‘face’ to an otherwise faceless threat.
It is indeed true that by immediately giving an identity to an otherwise identity-less threat, we appear to reduce anxiety. In reality, however, we are just numbing ourselves, and we end up missing the whole purpose of anxiety: to gain crucial information about our vulnerabilities and hidden fears, which is the only path toward building resiliency and truly getting rid of anxiety. Think about this as a process of immunization: you do need to directly confront the virus in order to get immunity. As it happens, I see my work with people with anxiety similar to a vaccination process.
Boris Cyrulnik is a French neuropsychiatrist and ethnologist, worldwide renowned for his research and writings on resilience. He defines it as the ability to not only survive, but actually thrive when faced with visible and invisible adversity.
“Anguish, sorrow and suffering can never completely take over us, or at least not more than happiness does it. A single word allows us to create a different way of understanding the mystery of those who manage to successfully go through grief and anxiety: resilience. Resilience designates our ability to succeed, to live, to grow, despite any adversity […] The paradox of human condition is that we can become our individual selves only under the influence of others.”
But resiliency is crucial not only in managing our personal life and social relationships. In the era of artificial intelligence and automation, we need to keep in mind that the machines we develop are as resilient as those who program them. Moshe Vardi is Computational Engineering Professor at Rice University. In his recent article Efficiency vs. Resiliency: What COVID-19 Teaches Computing, Prof. Vardi writes:
We must recognize the trade-off between efficiency and resilience. It is time to develop the discipline of resilient algorithms.
It is relevant to note that Boris Cyrulnik and Prof. Vardi have something very important in common, yes, they both talk about resilience, in humans and algorithms, and they both are survivor and, respectively, son of survivors, of one of the most atrocious acts done by humans to fellow humans: the Holocaust.
A few days ago, I read what I consider to be one of the most complete, balanced and effective assessment of the current global crisis. Marc Andreessen’s It’s Time to Build is, from my point of view, a kind, yet merciless invitation to not glaze over our anxiety and then collapse when the proverbial thing hits the fan. It is, overall, a courageous invitation to build:
If the work you’re doing isn’t either leading to something being built or taking care of people directly, we’ve failed you, and we need to get you into a position, an occupation, a career where you can contribute to building.
I feel honored to be in the position to be “taking care of people directly”. Similarly to building a resilient nation, building your internal resiliency has to be a thoughtful, meaningful process. It takes time and it is done best and fastest under the guidance of an experienced, skilled and knowledgeable professional.
The presence of anxiety indicates vitality. Like fever, it testifies that a struggle is going on.