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Life Cycles

News & Features | December 10, 2012

In any given room, at any given moment, how many legs are shaking? How many fingers are nervously twirling through long locks of hair? How many nails are tapping, teeth are grinding, tongues are tripping, palms are dampening? Anxiety is pervasive and often unavoidable. Even thousands of years ago, before cognitive-behavioral therapy and Valium, Ovid declared that, “There is no such thing as pure pleasure; some anxiety always goes with it.” The term “anxiety” can refer to both acute incidents—the man feverishly shaking his leg while waiting to give a big presentation—and chronic conditions—the man feverishly shaking his leg out of existential discomfort. The latter type, chronic anxiety, may stem from two contradictory ways of imagining life’s trajectory: (1) Life is cyclical. (2) Life is linear.

Of course, these two beliefs are fundamentally at odds with each other. A thing cannot be both a circle and a line (unless that line curves around in such a way that Endpoint A and Endpoint B meet and form a circle, but for the sake of this argument, let’s assume that statement (2) conjures the image of a straight line segment.) However, to the anxiety-prone, both statements can rob sleep and increase blood pressure.

Let’s take statement (1): life is cyclical. Certainly, Mufasa, Simba, and the crooning voice of Elton John have glamorized this statement, but it can be entrapping if we flesh out its implications. Take, for instance, the simple act of washing the dishes. I eat breakfast in the morning, go to class, and then return to the dirty dishes. The act of washing them lasts only five minutes, but I also have dishes from lunch and dinner. Am I going to have to do this every day for the rest of my life? For what purpose? So that I can fuel my body to go to class (or work, or the gym, or wherever else), expend energy, and come back hungry and ready to dirty more dishes? Will this ever end? It won’t—I am, willingly or unwillingly, going to have to wash dishes every day if I plan on eating. To the well-adjusted among us, this does not seem terrifying—congratulations, for you will never feel impending doom from a full sink. To the rest of us, though, this is the stuff of nervous breakdowns. It is the mother staring in catatonia while scrubbing the same dish for the hundredth time. It is Sisyphus pushing the rock almost to the top of the mountain before it barrels down once again. It is a hamster running on a wheel going nowhere. Dishwashing is not the sole representative of this “life is a cycle”-based anxiety. How many times have I trudged to the library, snoozed the alarm, or taken a shower? How often have I burned through gas to get to work and then used my paycheck to fill up the tank? We work to accrue funds with hopes to increase our quality of life. But, in reality, we spend most of these funds to maintain our quality of life—buying food, heat, shelter. These staples keep us breathing and, ironically, working for more funds in this positive feedback cycle. If life is a cycle, where am I going? Eventually, as circles dictate, I will end up where I started—synecdochically, the gas station and the grocery store. Ultimately, though, I have transitioned from Shakespeare’s age of “infancy” (birth) to his acutely-named age of “second infancy” (morbidly old age).

Statement (2) is much simpler to deconstruct but equally as terrifying. If life is linear (or, more specifically, if life is a line segment), it must have a beginning and it must have an end. Once we become aware enough to realize this, the beginning has begun (i.e. we have been born). At this point, we are making our way down a line toward a looming, mysterious end. And this end has historically been the subject of much drama, speculation, and fright. Woody Allen’s entire career owes its existence to “end” anxiety. Allen, I paraphrase, claims to have been a happy person until the age of five, when he realized that “all of this” will eventually end. If life (my life) is linear, it must end. I must end. Many uncomfortably grapple with the grim implications of this last statement, and, for the majority of our lives, the idea of death remains merely an abstraction. We do not know what it is to die, we do not want to die, and these “unknowns” inform our behavior. The image of life as a line causes pessimistic worldviews—if all of this will end, what is the point of doing anything? Can I enjoy my life, knowing full well that everything I love must surely die? People who ponder in this way may fully resign themselves. Others may engage in risky, life-affirming activities to defy the line’s end. Older and middle-aged adults are probably more conscious of this—it’s no wonder they skydive and have sex with strangers and speed in slick, red convertibles. Teenagers, rather, engage in these same activities in a more subconscious way. They infamously subscribe to the “personal fable,” believing themselves invincible and, as such, protected from death. This irrational thought—this denial of death—spawns all the sorts of risky behaviors against which our health teachers preached. Behavioral responses such as resignation and defiance arise from the anxiety that a linear image of life, and its end, instill.

To the college student, anxiety (or stress or nervousness) is a close companion. The role statements (1) and (2) play in the etiology of this anxiety becomes apparent to only the most neurotic among us. To the rest, statements (1) and (2) are disguised by term papers, significant others, exams, and jobs. When we are anxious because of a paper’s close due date, statement (1) may determine that, at core, we are anxious because it seems as though the papers never cease. There will always be another due date, and the realization of this looming, persistent cycle is enough to make a student retreat from his work and hyperventilate (and how many of us have wanted to do just that after the seventh hour in Tisch?). A woman will lose her patience after asking her boyfriend for the thousandth time to please not roll his eyes at her. She’ll feel trapped in a cycle of unfulfilled requests and break off the relationship, vowing to never again ask anything of a man. Subscribers to statement (2) will be similarly afflicted. They may throw away their work, positing that, if death is certain, then their work is trifling. And they will certainly not want to spend a portion of their unknown duration on earth writing a paper. These types of thinkers may avoid romantic relationships, or sabotage them, for it will be too painful to grow close to someone made so vulnerable by death.

So how, then, can we alter our ways of viewing life in a way that diminishes anxiety and promotes peace? We can redraw the lines. I’d like to imagine a line that swirls, creating a series of conjoined Venn diagrams and looping until the necessary end. This line appears in any number of notebook-margin doodles. In this image, we feel the comfort of cycles that a straight line cannot bestow. Cycles give us a sense of tradition and meaning. We would be remiss, as humans, to overlook the connection between “infancy” and “second infancy.” It would be similarly tragic to ignore the reflection of a first kiss in a wedding kiss or to not re-feel the spirit of our youth when our parents play with our own children. But the looping circles in this new image also move forward in a determined direction—and because of this, we see progress and do not feel that moments will repeat themselves interminably. I may do the dishes countless times, but this new model reminds me that I only have one opportunity to do the dishes on November 29, 2012. I am only a student in undergraduate school at this moment. I must maximize each experience of each day. I will write the paper to the best of my ability. I will love unconditionally. Life has cycles, and its components can become banal. But the loops push forward—helping mom with the dishes at age six is a vastly different experience than washing plates with family after Thanksgiving dinner—and they do come to an end. (3) Life is a cycling line.