Friday, November 9, 2007

Anxiety and the Present Progressive

One of my favorite book titles is Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." It perfectly sums up for me the sense of talking about a difficult, messy, complicated, and enormous subject while avoiding words that could signify the difficulty, messiness, complexity and enormity of what's being discussed.

I think anxiety falls into that category of difficult subjects to discuss. In trying to understand the role anxiety plays in one's life, I try to think about what is the person's relationship to anxiety. How does one experience the effects of this anxiety? What vision does one hold for their life, and what is anxiety's place in it?

In addressing this relationship, I find it useful (albeit, on the surface a bit strange) to ask questions using the present progressive tense. The implication of the present progressive is that there are actions, intents, beliefs and values already present that can help move toward a desired way of being or move away from anxiety's undesired effects. Some questions I might ask to understand the space between a person and her anxiety could include: When you are experiencing anxiety, what is that experience like? How is it different when you are not experiencing it? How do you see your life moving away from anxiety? If you saw anxiety moving out of your life, what could you see taking its place? What might you see yourself moving toward? From what sources is anxiety drawing strength? From what sources is it drawing opposition? When you are trying to live a life less affected by anxiety, what is involved in the trying? Do you know of others who are engaged in the trying? What strategies are they using in the trying?

I know these questions sound a bit odd, but if you can get beyond their strange constructions, their implied action can help uncover values by which we seek to live, and suggest a strategy through which they may be lived out.

My thoughts on using the present progressive to talk about difficult subjects have been greatly influenced by Johnella Bird. I must acknowledge the tremendous influence her work has had on my thinking, and I encourage anyone who is interested in the use of language to influence how we conceive of difficult problems to read her books "Talk That Sings" or "The Heart's Narrative".

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