Seventy years after it was written, The Wisdom of Insecurity still carries a message for our time—this age of anxiety where things often feel urgent, groundless, and unstable. As a result, we might often feel alone in our quest for meaning and purpose in this absurd, pain-filled, and beautiful experience called life.
The “age of anxiety” was coined by W.H. Auden in his 1947 poem of the same name and explored by Alan Watts in The Wisdom of Insecurity. It describes the disconnection and uncertainty we often experience in an increasingly connected world.
Rather than seeing anxiety as the problem of our age, it’s more helpful to see it as the solution. It’s a message. A response. The thing our body uses when things are not how they ought to be.
Our collective body is speaking. It’s trying to tell us something about a situation and environment in which it is not naturally suited.
We are using The Wisdom of Insecurity this season in The Haven. It is a great catalyst to explore our relationship with ourselves, one another, and the ever-changing world around us. I want to use it to clear through the noise, relieve life’s heavy baggage, and connect with the creative flow that runs through life.
Insecurity and The Age of Anxiety
Insecurity is felt through the inescapable impact of time and change on everything. So we must find a way to integrate these heavy truths and still operate in everyday life. Traditionally, we’ve used religion and rituals to provide this safety through their symbolic reminders that we belong to a transcendent story that reaches beyond ourselves.
The erosion of traditional belief systems in the Western world has diminished many of these social structures. And so the age of anxiety is the age of the individual, where we are condemned to freedom, as Sartre infamously stated.
But our innate need for belonging and acceptance hasn’t disappeared. We still need to feel safe in an uncertain world. Be that at the level of existence itself or the social structures we can’t afford to be cast out of. We are social beings; the success of our species depends on our ability to cooperate, collaborate, and create. Yet we’ve been fed a different narrative, and the age of anxiety is the product.
In his No Self, No Problem Workbook, Chris Niebauer writes about the evolutionary hangover of scarcity. We are often stuck on the hamster wheel of striving for more even when we already have enough to satisfy our needs (i.e. food, shelter, and companionship).
It would seem like hoarding abundance should logically alleviate anxiety. But in reality, this culture of accumulation increases our sense of internal and social disconnection. Instead of satiating our needs, it accelerates our drive for more.
Inner Worth in an Age of Anxiety
Niebauer suggests that modern marketing plays on the insidious scarcity of inner worth. This “secret sauce” starts by eroding social bonds to that of individual atoms. Then, it presents us with the problem (we are flawed and unworthy compared with others) before the reassurance that we can buy our worthiness, happiness, and belonging by building our identity in partnership with a particular brand, product, or service.
We often encounter and engage with it without realising. We measure human worth by the consumer choices we make. We’ve replaced individual character (an inside-out expression of messy contradictions and imperfect quirks) with personal identity (outside-in pressure to hide the contradictions and look “the part” we’re told to play to feel safe and accepted).
And so it is that our quest for belonging takes us away from ourselves and into definite forms. It turns to a drive to fit boxes and labels, which fuels anxiety and heightens the frenetic tail-chasing pursuit to solve problems created by the previous solution. Moreover, these forms shift from the individual to the collective as we surround ourselves with like-minded people and look suspiciously at those on the outside.
The Backwards Law of Reverse Effort
This is why we face such a strange paradox; as we become more aware that things aren’t as they should be, we deepen the divisions in our quest to fix them.
The ”backwards law” explains aspects of this.
“I have always been fascinated by the law of reversed effort. Sometimes I call it the ‘backwards law.’ When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float. When you hold your breath, you lose it — which immediately calls to mind an ancient and much neglected saying, ‘Whosoever would save his soul shall lose it.’”Alan Watts
This is well demonstrated by the idea of “cool”. It’s a beautiful word depicting a mystery that can never be truly grasped. The person who wants to be cool will never be so. Coolness requires completely letting go of the desire to have it and rejecting its possibility—a refusal to play the game.
Navigating The Age of Anxiety
The age of anxiety isn’t about anxiety as such. Anxiety is not a problem of our time. It’s the solution. A message from a body bent out of shape and unable to do what it needs to do. It’s a stress response to a world that doesn’t make sense.
The more we see anxiety as the problem, the further we slip from the truth. Unless we stop long enough to listen to what it’s saying, it will find new, more extreme ways to express itself. Anxiety is not a personal failing; it’s a message about our collective failure to create a world conducive to our natural modes of being.
Anxiety prompts a state of panic and speed. It stops us from thinking with long-term clarity. It shows us a picture of scarcity, to which we must act quickly to survive. As a result, everything takes on an extreme level of urgency, and we can’t slow down until the threat is gone.
So What Do We Do?
I have no solutions. I think that might be the point. All I have are my instincts and the backwards law. Awareness (understanding the noise and impulses of anxiety), meaningful communal connection (beyond closed tribes), and slowing down (listening and responding in thoughtful, creative, and long-term ways).
According to the logic of the backwards law, the quest to exit the age of anxiety will only prolong it. To get a better grip, sometimes you must let go of the desire to be in control.
Come and join me to explore this stuff in The Haven. We will use The Wisdom of Insecurity during the summer as a source of inspiration, creative experimentation, and communal connection. I can’t deliver lasting happiness and satisfaction, but I can guarantee a warm welcome, acceptance, and friendly faces.