When I was little, I’d sometimes lay in bed, staring at the dark, looking at nothing but seeing everything, as I stumbled upon anxiety over anxiety.
Tick tock. The clock pulled me to dreamland’s escape. My gaze shifted, meeting the faint green dot of light from a smoke alarm. If the constancy of the clock’s rhythm or smoke alarm’s watchful green eye did not beckon me to shut-eye, I looked to the last trustful resort: my parents. I exhaled as I prepared myself for the daunting question “can I sleep with you guys?” I opened my door and quietly drifted to my parents’ room, searching for an embrace of certainty.
Even though I no longer go through this specific cycle, anxiety-riddled nights in the darkness remain. These nights reverberate anxieties similar to those I had when little: of loss, tragedy, things that are, well, uncertain.
During these uncertain times, it’s easy to feel more overwhelmed by anxieties than before. Nevertheless, we continue reserving anxieties for the shadows, maintaining whatever veneers of normalcy we can to keep those anxieties at bay.
I wonder if we could do more than just fend off these fears. After all, the potency of these anxieties is often a result of larger shortfalls around us. Consider the number of healthcare workers now forced to personally grapple with the visceral toll of a government unprepared for a pandemic. The mental strain, let alone the devastation of the virus itself, is unfathomable.
This biting example is a microcosm of what many of our collective anxieties stem from: institutional failures, cultural mis-prioritization, and an overall failure to foster a society that cares for everyone. In particular, it illustrates our inability to practice “harm reduction” for life’s uncertainties. Harm reduction refers to the mitigation of negative impacts associated with drug use, but its underlying philosophy can be applied to how we collectively ought to address anxiety and uncertainty.
This philosophy doesn’t just involve a “reduction” of our anxiety-inducing uncertainties, but an amplification of our comforting certainties. When I was little, my parents would rescue me from winding internal thought patterns of “what if.” As a student, new uncertainties festered, especially during my first year. At times I felt alienated and uncertain—incompatible with this unfamiliar, demanding environment. Luckily, I’ve found people that amplify life’s certainties, all the lovely good things. They keep me from being lost in the shadows of uncertainty.
But this isn’t enough.
It’s this individualized anchoring that we search for while having no universal, reliable foundation to buoy on. We’re a bunch of small, aimless vessels searching for protection from the inevitable swells that may come, instead of just coming together to build a bigger, safer boat.
I think about the little boy, tossing and turning in bed, becoming muddled in anxieties that were fairly hypothetical at the time. After experiencing the fruition of some of these anxieties, and learning how others bear the brunt of them more often, and more deeply, I began to see some through-lines.
Surely, on an individual basis, therapists or loved ones may advise us on how to address personal anxieties, but as a society we lack a collective will to minimize the harm of not simply the existence of our anxieties, but also the possibility of them coming to fruition. Anxiety and uncertainty will always be present, but we could imagine a world in which their impacts are not so constantly felt.
I hold privileges that others don’t have, and thus my day-to-day anxieties are either less likely to occur, or they don’t immediately demand attention. For me, mitigating collective anxieties means to wholeheartedly put others first. This vision should inform nearly every choice that we individually make, as well as what we collectively tolerate and aspire toward. We should confront societal ills that we take for granted, rather than absent-mindedly contributing to them. We should look up to those who push against the social framework that has maintained many of these ills, trying to mitigate others’ anxieties in whatever ways they can. We should take any individual succumbing to the fear or fruition of our uncertainties as our collective fault.
The uncertainty you feel living in a country where each state addresses a global pandemic differently fosters a deep sense of disunity. How could you hope to take on a universal struggle when your modes of protection are all out of reach?
Our conventional individualized response to uncertainty creates the illusion that we cannot do anything about collective anxieties and that we have to prioritize our own. But, if we address these anxieties themselves, rather than just our own version of them, I feel we actually can do something about them. And when we do that, we put others’ well-being alongside our own. We finally build the bigger, safer boat—an embrace of certainty for all.
Of that, I am certain.
Prem Thakker is a junior at Columbia College studying History. He sincerely hopes you resonated with his columns this semester, and genuinely would love it if you reached out if you did connect with any of them. He sends peace and love to you. You can talk to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Colon, Closed Parentheses runs alternate Mondays.
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