A recent study found that 16.6% global population suffered from some form of anxiety or another. At first sight, the statistic seems enormous. Still, I'm here to argue that it's definitely much bigger. Indeed, there is a great fallacy in ascribing a certain portion of the population with a label that is, in its essence, human; verses from the Quran highlight how truly intimate man’s relationship is with anxiety (e.g. 70:19). Thus, this article serves as a discussion of anxiety and its counterpart, guilt, as fundamentally human features, in stark opposition to the common belief that they’re simply pathologies to be overcome. However, as theoretical reflections often appear overly intellectualizing, my reflections will be accompanied by a deeply personal testament of existential anxiety and guilt, as there is rarely a clearer method to appreciate an idea than to relate to oneself.
Anxiety and guilt: a personal reflection
What are the fundaments of existential anxiety? According to Rollo May, one of the most intrinsic elements of being human is self-consciousness. Thus, as a function of self-consciousness, one can deduce the following two propositions. First of all, if humans carry the potential of recognizing their own existence, then they are responsible for its fulfilment. Second of all, besides one’s potential for existence, humans also recognize in every single moment their potential for death. Death is an inseparable part of life - you cannot appreciate life without it. Thus, to truly grasp what it means to exist and appreciate life’s potential, one must encounter in every moment the possibility of death. Rollo May says that by “confronting nonbeing, existence takes on vitality and immediacy, and individual experiences heightened consciousness of himself, his world, and others around him.” In other words, the awareness of death highlights the burden to fulfil one's potential and development, and it is precisely the neglect of this potential which causes anxiety. Here, I underline that the discovery of life’s potential - in light of death - is a Quranic prescription (Quran, al-Mulk:2).
Over the years, I have come to appreciate the potential that each individual must develop by observing the great men and women who've fulfilled theirs and achieved greatness – beginning first and foremost with the Prophet (sa). Although this potential is present in all wakes of life, it has been especially salient for me in my education (especially throughout the course of my PhD). However, in university, I experienced a profound dilemma; on the one hand, my graduate program hinted at immense opportunity for self-development, whereas on the other, I felt utterly incompetent interacting with it since it is in a foregin language I only began to learn upon my admission. Weary of how others would see me if I stumble and trip over my words, I took a vow of silence very early on. Thus, despite my studious attitude (I easily justified my lack of academic interaction by over-compensating in personal research), I hardly took any oppurtunity to share my viewpoints and develop my ideas by means of others. It was not long until I started experiencing a profound suffocation – anxiety. I denied it for as long as possible but, then, questions appeared: how could I possibly develop if I never challenge myself through others? Indeed, how can I develop if I place others' opinion of me above my own? Naturally, the anxiety was related to an unfulfilled potential; had I consulted an existential therapist at that point, he/she would have intervened immediately with “Well, maybe your anxiety serves a purpose. Have you thought of that? Indeed, maybe by denying your anxiety, you’re conforming to the presumed judgements of others. Rather than attending to your own potential - your own existence - you’re giving in to their expectations. Who are you living for? For them? Or for yourself?”
When a person denies his potential or fails to fulfil it as a function of their anxiety, then the result is existential guilt. Guilt then, like anxiety, is also an ontological experience that is intimately related to our existence. In other words, guilt is the result of having denied one’s potential and the anxiety that comes with it by means of the millions of things we do to neglect our existential reality, for example: scramble our minds with non-stop entertainment, continuously hang out with others to avoid being alone, focus incessantly on material gain – anything to help us escape our anxiety and guilt. Indeed, according to Rollo May, anxiety is also one of the most painful and powerful threats one can experience, since its essentially ontological (related to our being/existence) in nature, unlike other emotions. However, to foolishly attempt to run from our anxiety leads to an empty life for, without anxiety, your potential for existence is never reached. Thus the natural state for man implies a form of anxiety, which perpetually hurdles us out of the atmosphere of our everyday distractions into the very cosmos of existential awareness.
In conclusion, anxiety may reflect Allah's effectuation of an innate, potential-associated feedback system within humans; when we're reminded of life's potential – spiritually, above all - anxiety serves as an existential reminder lest we forget.