Surely, one of the oldest and most pervasive ailments in the world is anxiety. It is so much a part of the tableau of human existence that it perhaps should be called a condition of humanity and not an ailment. W. H. A. won the 1948 P. Prize for his poem, “The Age of Anxiety”, about the modern era, and that term came to be bandied about in psychological, sociological, historical and political circles as an apt description of the post 1920s era.
But A. was a poet, not a social historian, and a left wing one at that, and the University trained left wing leaning sociologists and historians , who should have known the tr, emblazoned that term in neon letters over the heads of every person in the Western World until we were convinced, stupidly enough, that we were in an age that was somehow different than all others. It is doubtful that A. intended his aphorism to become some sort of battlecry or even a shield to hide behind, but it did. “Medieval Times”, historians prattled. “Were an age of faith, where people didn’t need to feel anxiety because they, insentient beasts, just rolled happily along. It is our openness, our intelligence, our superiority, our indulgence in the forbidden fruit of wisdom, that causes us to see the world for what it is and tremble.”
But was it correct? Of course not. In early 1980s, having been instructed fully and thoroughly that we were in an age of anxiety far worse than any other, I had an epiphany, which I modestly called, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.” Surely, I reasoned, the person who stood on the shores of western England in the V. age and saw the dragon prowed ships cruising along in the lovely morning sun, must have felt something akin to anxiety. The parent, holding her young one to her, must have rocked it to sleep at night terrified of what would happen if the ships returned. So I thought, “If it’s not an atomic bomb, it’s the V.” And if not the V., crop failure, and if not crop failure, malicious spirits. The world, in fact, far from being less anxiety producing, was considerably more anxiety producing. They didn’t have science to reassure them there weren’t ghosts and evil spirits. On the other hand, sometimes, neither do we. That is not to say that the medieval world didn’t have its share of highly rational and intelligent people who used their powers to try to dissuade the foolish. Read the transcript of the hearings of St. J. and one quickly becomes aware that contrary to what we are told about that incident, this was ultimately a contest between the rational men who obviously didn’t believe the hokum of a belligerent teenaged girl, and a belligerent teenaged girl. In the short run, the rationalists won. But ultimately, smoke and mirrors won out.
The predicament is that most of the people who suffered anxiety, up to and including hysterical anxiety, didn’t leave written records, nor did those who had to subsist near their antics. Yet, we find traces of it, and of the massive nature of it. Jesus, paraphrased, says, “Don’t be anxious about tomorrow, about what you would wear or eat or what your future holds.” Obviously it would not have been necessary for him to say that if people didn’t suffer anxiety. There are, in Roman and Greek writings references to anxiety. The paintings of H. B. are nightmarishly anxious, and anxiety producing, as is much medieval art. In an age where, without even the concept of germs, people could be swept away singly or by the thousands in the space of a very short time. The focus of the religious community was, of course, on acceptance, but that doesn’t mean that the people accepted graciously then any more than we do now. Every person, every being, sees itself as being special, and ultimately in great need of preservation. The fact that the inevitable comes to each being does not mean that each being even acknowledges it as a possibility.
Although anxiety disorders were only recognized in 1980 as a bonafide and independent disorder,, millions of people were being treated for in various ways since the beginning of time. It was just a given. Women got nervous. Women took pills and powders and preparations of all kinds or just suffered miserably in varying degrees of silence. Men drank themselves stupid.
Both of these trends are seen in our history. A worrisome nearly illegible and unmailed letter from C. K. to the folks back home was indicative of her emotional state. R.K. had just been b. and her f. had just died. She didn’t want to go back home. Home for her was just over a valley and up a hill from the house she was in. “Poor old pa will not be there for me” “and Irving speaks so mean to me”. She had wanted to come but her husband was plowing the field and couldn’t spare the horse.
One of C.’s sister’s never left the home and her m.a. and when the older woman died, the adult daughter went to reside at E. H. in halfway between F. O. and M., MO. It had been founded in 1892 when a theological seminary, now E.T.S. founded in 1850, moved to St. L..
Other letters from older women simply recounted one anxiety after another. “I was so nervous this morning, I couldn’t hold the pencil to write”, and other expressions of out and out complete anxiety.