Humanist Performance Anxiety

Does this ever happen to you?

I have this set of humanist values, and chief among them is the notion that since I only have one life, I want to live it to the hilt. Back when I had religious beliefs (mine were of the New Age variety, including reincarnation), I was often lazy about taking advantage of life’s opportunities, since I thought I could always pick them up on the next go-around. Now that I know that I only have one life, I feel intensely motivated to make that life matter: to create meaning and purpose, to make things better for myself and others, to be fully present in moments both large and small. Humanism 101. You know the drill.

But lately I’ve been noticing that, in moments when I’m not richly experiencing my life or taking full advantage of its opportunities, I feel this sense of guilt, and even panic. I’ve taken to calling this feeling “humanist performance anxiety.” And ironically (although pretty predictably), this performance anxiety actually interferes with my ability to enjoy my life and imbue it with meaning.

Here’s an example. Throughout my life, and more so in recent months, I’ve been working on being more present: on fully experiencing my life and being conscious of it, letting it sink in, so to speak. But at times when I’m not being fully present—when I’m just spacing out, watching bad TV, messing around on Facebook, or simply staring out the window having little self-aggrandizing fantasies and letting my mind wander—I’ll often snap back into consciousness, almost in a panic. ACK! I’m not being present and mindful! I’m not living up to my humanist ideals! What am I doing? My very existence is a precious, fragile, wildly improbable flickering of a unique consciousness in the vastness of time and space! Why am I spending it watching Top Chef?

It’s not that I think every moment of my life has to be spent battling theocracy and helping the poor. But even in my small moments of pleasure and frivolity, shouldn’t I be fully present? If I’m going to spend an hour messing around on Facebook, shouldn’t I be richly conscious of that hour: savoring my deep sense of connection with friends and family and community, and marveling at the wondrous sprawling web that binds us with all of humanity?

I know that’s ridiculous. I know that my brain needs down time. I recently did a day-long secular meditation retreat, during which I worked to be as present and mindful as I could for as long as I could… and at the end of the day, I was exhausted. It was an extraordinary experience, but once it was over, my brain needed a break. I strongly suspect—although I’d have to ask the neuropsychologists about this—that semi-conscious spacing-out is essential for our brains to function, in much the same way that sleep and dreaming are essential. It’s pretty clear to me that some sort of back-burner processing is going on during that down time.

And it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that even the hamster-wheel in my head—the near-constant nattering of worry and regret, the harsh self-judgment and even harsher judgment of others, endless rounds of “if A then B, if C then D” strategizing about the minutest details of my life, rehearsed conversations, imagined triumphs, worst-case scenarios, and all the things that pull me away from experiencing the present moment—is psychologically necessary too. After all, if I lived with no worries or regrets, no plans for the future or lessons from the past, my life would be a hot mess. And if nothing else, I come up with some of my best writing ideas when the hamster wheel is spinning and trying to figure out the world.

But I still have performance anxiety about it. I get anxious that if I’m spending even a minute of my short, precious, fragile life fretting or spacing out, I’m not being a good humanist.

Here’s another example, a somewhat more serious one. In my humanist philosophy, mortality is something I accept. Of course I grieve when my loved ones die—I can’t imagine what it would even mean to care deeply for someone and not be pained by their death—but I accept the reality and inevitability of death. In fact, I have a whole assortment of humanist philosophies that console me and allow me to accept it with some degree of peace. I’m actually convinced that humanism is a better way of coping with death than religion, if for no other reason than it doesn’t demand cognitive dissonance and denial of reality.

But lately, I’ve been noticing myself experiencing something that can best be described as “proto-grief.” When I look at someone I love or care about, I sometimes get gripped with a horrible sense of how I’m going to feel when they die. When I look at my wife, my friends, my family, even my cats, and I think about how intensely I love them, my mind sometimes gets sucked into imagining the moment of their death, thinking about saying goodbye to them, picturing my life without them… and I get overwhelmed with a despair that, in the moment that I’m feeling it, feels inconsolable.

Again, totally understandable. As readers of this column may recall, I went through something of a personal Armageddon a little over a year ago—my father died, and less than two weeks later I was diagnosed with uterine cancer (fully treated, by the way)—and it’s not surprising that mortality and death would be in my face for a while. It’s not surprising that death, and fear of death, would be both more painful than usual and harder to set aside.

But I still get mad at myself about it. I still scold myself: “Are you going to despair over life just because it’s temporary? Are you going to let these rare, delightful moments be destroyed because you can’t deal with the fact that they’re going to pass? Shame on you! Bad humanist! Bad!”

And like I said, it’s truly ironic that this humanist performance anxiety interferes with my ability to live up to my humanist ideals. Getting sucked into perfectionist self-criticism isn’t exactly the way to deeply experience my life and instill it with meaning and value. When I can let myself just feel my proto-grief, instead of judging myself for it—when I let myself accept the horrible suckage of death as much as I accept the reality of it—the suckage passes more readily. When I can accept my need for back-burner processing and down time, I can slip out of it, and slip into focused consciousness and presence, more easily and naturally. My anxiety about not living my life to its fullest is one of the things that distracts me from it. It’s as if, in order to see myself as a good humanist, I can’t let myself be human.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. But I’m betting that I’m not the only one who does this. And recognizing this pattern is part of what’s helping me deal with it, and helping me let it go. So if anyone else is reading this and thinking, “Holy mackerel, I do that, too!” maybe that moment of absurdist, “What fools we mortals be” self-recognition will ease the anxiety. After all, being a humanist means accepting reality—and part of reality is our own imperfection, our weaknesses and quirks, and foibles. If we’re going to embrace humanism, we have to accept that we’re human.