politics of the hap

February 20, 2011, 11:01 pm
Filed under: Mental health | Tags: , , ,

I have recently become obsessed with the idea of ‘pantophobia’.

Pantophobia (sometimes called panophobia) is the fear of everything. ‘Panto’ is from the Greek to mean ‘all’.

In a recent post I included this picture.

This picture was originally featured in a book called ‘The physiognomy of mental diseases’ (1840) compiled by Alexander Morison. The picture was labelled with the following description:

“Portrait of a female in whom delusive fear of every object and person, pan[t]aphobia, keeps her in a state of perpetual distress.”

A ‘delusive’ fear of every object and person. The idea intrigued me. How is it possible to fear everything? A fear so total – a fear that includes objects, persons, animals, vegetation, earth. How can a phobia be sustained to all these elements all at the same time?

Pantophobia is not a term used nowadays, now we have generalised anxiety disorder. NHS direct describes generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) as thus:

GAD is a long-term condition which causes you to feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues, rather than one specific event.
People with GAD feel anxious most days and often struggle to remember the last time they felt relaxed. GAD can cause both psychological (menta
l) and physical symptoms. These vary from person to person, but can include feeling irritable or worried and having trouble concentrating or sleeping.

GAD, like pantophobia, is a non-specific fear. What characterises pantophobia and GAD as pathological is their constant, never-ending nature. Pantophobia “keeps her in a state of perpetual distress”. GAD is diagnosed “when your worrying is uncontrollable”, and – because modern medicine requires time limits for determing the line between normality and abnormality – when “you have felt worried nearly every day for at least six months”.

This is a phobia that is not directed toward anything in particular but which may attach itself to any and numerous objects or elements haphazardly and inconsistently. This fear has no cause, no origin and no end.

Listening to a lecture by John Gray on the modern desire for immortality (again at the wondrous LSE) added a new dimension on the treatment and understanding of death and dying in modern society. Many scholars have written on the ‘sequestration‘ of death from modern life and the way mourning has becoming increasingly privatized. What was interesting in Gray’s analysis was his exploration of the rise and predominance of the theory of evolution in scientific thought and the role it played in repressing a more contingent and haphazard understanding of the universe. Evolution became associated with progress and improvement.

In an increasingly secular society, science acted in similar ways as religion by providing a narrative that endowed human lives with a larger meaning with laws and explanations that once again protected against disruptive notions such as no afterlife – eventhough this may have not been the original intention of Darwin et. al.

Meaning can be disrupted by the occurrence of events that appear illogical – bereavement or illness are commonplace examples. It is normal we are told to experience anxiety or fear following these events. But only as long as it is transitory. If we recover from illness, stop mourning and resolve our fears and anxieties – meaning is preserved. This is important because if we do not recover we remain in fear. We remain in meaninglessness, in a contingent universe where we have no control. If we return to what we were before, meaning is once again reinstated, it may even have been reinforced by the experience of meaninglessness.

It is possible to recover when the individual maintains that nothing is lost. If we believe that when others die we do not lose ourselves, we do not lose the other person either. Therefore, despite the fact humans die, WE, that is to say humankind, lives on.

But what if this disruption was not a transitory state but it was a perpetual and permanent condition of existence. Pantophobia is the perfect illustration of the meaninglessness that we try to escape from. Without meaning there is everything to fear. Without meaning everything is lost continually and without reason. There is no cause to pantophobia because it is not directed at anything. It cannot be redirected because it has no aim, it is at once all-encompassing and intangible – existing everywhere and nowhere.

Similiarly for GAD the NHS Direct website admits:

As with most conditions that affect mental health, the exact cause of generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is not fully understood. Some people develop the condition for no apparent reason.

There is no cause but there are descriptions and definitions, and portraits that reveal a physiognomy, and CBT, and a plentitude of medications. There is a persistent striving to both define and remedy a phenomenon by means that are incapable of comprehending its dimensions. Like the picture above, these illustrations reflect only a poor fragment of what pantophobia is.

In 1840 diagnosis was conducted on the basis of physiognomy, on facial characteristics. Now we have lists of ambiguous symptoms and CBT that rearranges thoughts. The ultimate aim however has remained the same. Identification, categorization and treatment of an unknown and socially constructed problem that requires silencing in order for normal life to continue (that is to say, evolve).

What do we lose by striving to resolve these conditions with superficial remedies? What do we lose by attempting to define the intangible and ambiguous in definite (medical, scientific, Western, etc, etc) narratives? In this narrative of progress, of self-improvement, of the continual desire for better; whose voices are being pathologised?; what are we labelling with medical diagnosis?

We do not have to continue the search for a better definition. We do not have to seek causes or identify symptoms. The alternative does not have to be a choice between pantophobia or happiness.

It is an alternative in which uncomfortable feelings, anxieties are embraced as valid and real alongside the spectrum of human emotions. It is an alternative which accepts the resistance of fears and anxieties to language, that accepts their intangibility. It is an alternative in which meaninglessness exists. An alternative which is not always full of aims or possesses a direction. It is an alternative in which we give up the idea we as humans have ultimate control of our own lives, and the lives of others.

The alternative may not be a comfortable one, it is not always a happy one. It does not promise a happy ending.

But if we live within our fears rather than attack them what other ways of being can we discover?

Perhaps something resembling freedom?


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