With the birth of my daughter, time and I were wed; the might of her miniature yelps forced me into the present moment. My former absent minded introspection met its match in the demands of an infantile digestive tract. All preoccupations were quelled by the milky-scented sighs of my dreaming little one burrowing into my neck. The roaring goliath of my anxiety disorder met its match in this davidic antidote, the six pound, four ounce wonder: Molly Joan.
Clinical anxiety disorder has been my demon since childhood. Ebbing and flowing throughout the years, obsessive self-scrutiny, tics, and rapid heartbeat were my modus operandi. I manically evaluated the past and ruminated about the future. I struggled to focus on the present as I constantly juggled the all-consuming task of conquering groundless fears. Sometimes there were panic attacks. Always there were people trying to teach me how to “breathe, in 2, 3, 4, and out 2, 3, 4.”
I could handle most of it fine, but what I deeply mourned as I grew older was the considerable loss of memory. The minutes, hours, years spent in agitation. At night I would try to recount my day and often times I could scarcely remember what I had done because I hadn’t really been there. The conversations I had with friends that day would slip through my memory. The book I had finished could have as easily gone unread. I would look back on Facebook pictures and only remember the various fears I was ruminating about at the time the photo was taken, but not the moment I had lived.
I remember tearing up as I sat in a philosophy class in college reading Søren: Kierkegaard’s cultural diagnosis of the unhappy person in his The Concept of Anxiety: “The unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself. One can be absent, obviously, either in the past or in the future.”
I’m not alone. Anxiety is a pandemic affecting one in five adults, and it continues to grow. I’ve seen the theories: increased technology, social media, the 2007 great recession. But Kierkegaard’s focus on “time” has always resonated most with me. He attributes anxiety to our time-consciousness noting that humans are the only anxious beasts. Our most distinguishing feature from other species is our ability to “contemplate the future.” Anxiety is complicated, and I won’t pretend that philosophy is a cure for any chemical imbalance or PTSD, mine included. But I do appreciate any ammo in this fight.
The cure, Kierkegaard prescribes, is “action suffused with constant knowledge of a unified purpose so a sense of calm pervades the activity.” This cure, unfortunately, is anathema in our present times where escapism is our primary response to anxiety.
In the months leading up to my baby’s birth my anxiety reached proportions previously unmatched. I doubled-down on therapy. I threw myself into my work more than I had ever before in my life—and more than necessary. I spent my free hours in full avoidance mode, re-watching The Office for the fifth time or perusing Southwest flight deals.
Each baby kick against my uterine wall was like the tick of a metronome, a steady reminder that time was passing inexorably, bringing us steadily closer to D-Day: “I’m coming whether you’re ready or not.” My breath would catch and I’d try to telegraph to her through paralyzing fear, “Please don’t come until I’m healthy for you.” And I deeply feared that this most life-altering event would make my already deeply anxious self more unhealthy than ever before.
But quite the opposite happened. Molly forged a path for me into the present in a way that only vaginal tears can do. Mind and body married in the moment driven by the “unified purpose” Kierkegaard spoke of. My former morose introspection was sacrificed at the writhing feet of this six pound queen.
“I somehow mustered all the energy that had seemed to drain from my wounded body to keep the new love of my life alive.” My nights were sleepless with purpose-driven action. And any moment where anxiety tried to slither in was fiercely bludgeoned by the yelps of her hunger pains. Every minute had its own duty, imbued with deep purpose.
Kierkegaard says “the moment” is not “an atom of time but an atom of eternity. It is the first reflection of eternity in time, its first attempt at stopping time.” Having met “the moment,” in all its fierce suffering and beauty, I yearn more than ever to stop time.
Those charmed all-consuming days of raising a newborn have passed. My hormones have regulated and the daunting duties of early motherhood have diminished into a more rhythmic life. Molly turned one month, then six months, then a year; I started working again. We found something loosely resembling a routine, and anxiety, while greatly suppressed, occasionally comes to nip at my heels, but it doesn’t matter. I will doggedly pursue living in the moment. I have a “unified purpose” for doing so: a fierce, curly-headed sunbeam named Molly Joan.
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