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An essay donated by contributing editor Susan Humphreys:

All About Angst:

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In Stephen Asma’s book "Why We Need Religion," 1 in the section on Cosmic Joy, he mentions Martin Heidegger’s magnum opus, "Sein und Zeit, Being and Time." 2

Heidegger, he tells us, talked about angst. He explained that the difference between fear and angst is that "fear is a response to a definite identifiable threat."  Angst however, is a response to a danger that is perceived to be "nowhere in particular and yet everywhere."

According to other definitions, the difference between angst and anxiety is that angst has an element of hope that whatever is wrong will be overcome. If there is no element of hope than you are just suffering from anxiety.

I think this definition is backward. Angst has the loss of hope that things will get better.

I have experienced both, and angst isn’t exactly like anxiety. It is a bit more than the everyday worries and problems. These worries and problems are identifiable and we feel incapable of or unsure about our capabilities in dealing with them. Anxiety is more related to self-doubt.

Angst is an uncomfortable uncertainty and uneasiness that something is going to -- or has to -- happen. You just don’t know where or when or even what it is that threatens you. So our visceral response is angst.

And it is a visceral response. The fight or flight hormones get released into our bodies causing us the jitters. We jump at every strange sound. We look at everyone we meet suspiciously.  When something does happen, no matter how minor we breathe a sigh of relief, for now we know what was threatening us. Until, that is, the angst returns!

The feeling is similar to the uneasy feeling I get here in central Illinois when bad weather is moving in BUT it isn’t here yet! But I know something is coming. The air can get absolutely still at ground level, the sky can develop a sort of sickly grayish yellow color or deep dark black. The air pressure starts to drop. (I think I and others are susceptible to the change in air pressure, though scientists might scoff at this.) When the first rumbles of thunder are heard in the distance, you say to yourself: hear that, it is coming. Then when the storm breaks upon you it is a relief when it is just thunder and lightning and heavy rain -- NOT a tornado.

I think angst also occurs when the reality one experiences isn’t what one expected. When we are told and taught to believe one thing but life interferes and we realize there is a disconnect here. Something doesn’t add up. Today a modern psychologist might call this cognitive dissonance. When cognitive dissonance turns to extreme discomfort  because a person is unable to connect the dots (so to speak) I think that they are suffering from angst.

Another way angst occurs is when subconsciously we know we have done something wrong or bad, but consciously refuse to admit it. Our sense of guilt eats away at us. We know something isn’t right with the world, but can’t accept or acknowledge that we are the source of the problem.

Years ago, Alvin Toffler wrote a book titled "Future Shock." 3 The premise was that things were changing so rapidly that some people who have lived in self-imposed isolation suddenly realize that the world is changing under their feet and they feel they are left on shaky ground. They don’t understand what is happening, or why, or who is to blame. Things just aren’t the same anymore.

Some blamed the problems on the removal of the Bible from public schools. This actually happened about the time these changes got started. Though the removal of the Bible from public schools is the effect, not the cause, of the changes occurring in society.

Some have blamed lessening of sexual mores. Some have blamed immigrants. Some blamed Science. They certainly never blamed themselves for not keeping up with the world! Some responses were the creation of Creation Science and Creation Museums. Some responses have been attempts to place signs and monuments about the Ten Commandments in public spaces. Today there is a move to put signs in every classroom declaring "In God We Trust". All of this I think are responses to angst.

I feel sorry for these folks, they are afraid of what they don’t understand. Also, they are afraid to learn about what they don’t understand, which would ease their fears.

Good horror movies and horror fiction writers understand angst and so do many preachers and politicians.

How do people live with angst? The constant tension and unease can lead to health problems -- nausea, heartburn, indigestion, upset stomach, diarrhea, as well as insomnia, nervous ticks, etc.

One way is to find a scapegoat. And this, I think, has led to some of the social problems we are facing today—fear and demeaning and demonizing of the "other"... the one who is different, the one who isn’t like us.

In Leviticus 16 the whole Bible passage is about the actions the priest is to take on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The scapegoat is ritually burdened with the sins of others then driven away to carry away the sins of the community, leaving the community cleansed and purified.

The Wikipedia article mentions that other cultures, Syria and Greece had similar practices.

Perhaps instead of turning the homosexual, transgender person, or the immigrant, or the Muslim or Jew or Atheist, or women, or liberals, or conservatives into a modern day scapegoat and blaming them for our nation's problems, we as a society would be better off instituting a similar practice of the Day of Atonement, and place all of our angst on some Thing rather than on someone or a group of people that can be harmed by our unspecified and ungrounded fears, by our angst.

I have a suggestion: Perhaps one day a year people across the country could gather in a public space, write down all their sins and worries on a slip of paper and cast it into a bonfire. Let our worries and uneasiness go up in smoke and drift away with the winds.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. book cover Stephen T. Asma, "Why We Need Religion," Oxford University Press (2018). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

  2. book cover Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, Harper, (2008). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

  3. book cover Alvin Toffler. Future Shock, Bantam, (1984). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

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How you may have arrived here:

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Donated by Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys
Originally posted on: 2018-OCT-20-

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