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Humanist Performance Anxiety

Does this ever happen to you?

I have this set of humanist values, and chief among them is the notion that since I only have one life, I want to live it to the hilt. Back when I had religious beliefs (mine were of the New Age variety, including reincarnation), I was often lazy about taking advantage of life’s opportunities, since I thought I could always pick them up on the next go-around. Now that I know that I only have one life, I feel intensely motivated to make that life matter: to create meaning and purpose, to make things better for myself and others, to be fully present in moments both large and small. Humanism 101. You know the drill.

But lately I’ve been noticing that, in moments when I’m not richly experiencing my life or taking full advantage of its opportunities, I feel this sense of guilt, and even panic. I’ve taken to calling this feeling “humanist performance anxiety.” And ironically (although pretty predictably), this performance anxiety actually interferes with my ability to enjoy my life and imbue it with meaning.

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Thus begins my latest “Fierce Humanism” column for The Humanist magazine, Humanist Performance Anxiety. To read more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Comments

  1. diatryma says

    Oooh. Yes. Don’t I ever. But then I think that those moments you feel aware and conscious and whatnot are just this: moments. It’s like doing yoga or any other kind of exercise, you are simply never done. Each day you need to try again, giving what you can, forgiving yourself when you fail. Same with happiness: you never get more than a fleeting glimpse. The rest is indeed being human.

    About proto-grief… I am SO glad hearing /reading this from someone else. I used to sometimes work myself into quite a state over this; “hamster wheel” is just the word for it. It almost feels like I’m practising, so I won’t be overwhelmed when the real thing comes along, but depending on my state of mind this can turn out like the proverbial train wreck you can’t look away from.

    Your article is wonderful and to the point. I am not a writer (also, English is not my first language), I just wanted to chip in my 2 cents…

    Happy Birthday, Greta, and a happy New Year. :)

  2. says

    Hello Greta,

    I always get a lot out of your writing, and this article is no exception. You always write on a very personal level, and always find something interesting to say. I can *totally* relate to the “hamster wheel” of worry and regret that you sometimes find yourself on. I just wanted to call into question something you seem to be saying in your article: that you’d be a “hot mess” if you didn’t have worry and regret. I’m not sure I agree — but perhaps I’ve misunderstood you. I don’t believe that worry helps us in any way, and it certainly does us a lot of harm. Do we really need to spend so much time on the hamster wheel in order to avoid mistakes in life? Do people who learn (through therapy, or meditation or what have you) to worry less suddenly become hot messes, stumbling from one unreflected mistake to the next? The rest of your article seems to endorse the view that we live richer lives if we learn to worry less, but there is one point where you seem to express some ambivalence. I agree that a full life (whatever that is) requires reflection and thinking and concern — and down time — but I don’t believe that worrying, self-accusation and “shoulds” — even “I should be living a full life” — need form a part of the picture. Getting rid of them, of course, is another matter altogether, but it helps in that endeavour to be fully convinced that they serve no useful purpose in our lives. There are good and bad hamster wheels.

    Anyway. Thanks again for a moving and interesting piece, and best wishes for the post winter solstice period…

  3. says

    My very existence is a precious, fragile, wildly improbable flickering of a unique consciousness in the vastness of time and space! Why am I spending it watching Top Chef?

    Made me laugh.

    I’m so glad you wrote this. I’ve been thinking about the relationship between religion and neurosis as described by Karen Horney. I believe religion is particularly dangerous in that it tends to reinforce and feed the pride system. But Horney was wise to recognize that any area of our lives is vulnerable to the pride system, with all of its counterproductive effects (interesting that Jeremy Clark mentions the problem of the “worrying, self-accusation and ‘shoulds'” above).

  4. Greta Christina says

    I just wanted to call into question something you seem to be saying in your article: that you’d be a “hot mess” if you didn’t have worry and regret. I’m not sure I agree — but perhaps I’ve misunderstood you. I don’t believe that worry helps us in any way, and it certainly does us a lot of harm. Do we really need to spend so much time on the hamster wheel in order to avoid mistakes in life? Do people who learn (through therapy, or meditation or what have you) to worry less suddenly become hot messes, stumbling from one unreflected mistake to the next? The rest of your article seems to endorse the view that we live richer lives if we learn to worry less, but there is one point where you seem to express some ambivalence. I agree that a full life (whatever that is) requires reflection and thinking and concern — and down time — but I don’t believe that worrying, self-accusation and “shoulds” — even “I should be living a full life” — need form a part of the picture.

    Jeremy Clark @ #2: If I didn’t worry about what would happen if I didn’t pay my mortgage, I’d spend all my money on shoes, and I’d be out on the street in a matter of months. If I didn’t worry about the cat throwing up, I wouldn’t take the cat to the vet. Some degree of worry is healthy. “Worry” basically just means “being concerned about negative things that might happen in the future.” If the negative things that might happen in the future are actually likely, and if my actions can make them not happen or make them less likely to happen, then worrying about them is healthy and makes my life better.

    As for regret: Regret over missed opportunities in the past is part of what drives me to not miss opportunities in the present. Regret over having hurt people in the past is part of what drives me to not hurt people now. “Regret” basically just means “being conscious of mistakes from the past” — and learning from mistakes is healthy and makes my life better.

    Worry and regret can certainly be irrational, excessive, and take over one’s life. But an awareness of mistakes made in the past, and a desire to avoid mistakes in the future, is reasonable and healthy. Without them, my life would be a hot mess.

    I wrote more about this in my earlier piece, Two Different Ways to Be a Good Person. The tl;dr: People who never worry about whether they’re good people tend not to be very good people.

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