Isolation, Sublimation, Distraction, Anchoring

I have a favourite philosopher, a Norwegian whose name was Peter Wessel Zapffe. He was one of the only philosophers, even among the existentialists, who seems to have felt (and explicitly written about) what I’ve felt. He does not merely talk about meaninglessness, anxiety, anomie, and so forth–he talks about “cosmic panic.” This is precisely the correct word: panic. Sheer and unadulterated panic.

I cannot recall how much I’ve written about what I experienced over the past year, especially in the winter, but it is a severe understatement to call it “existential dread, anxiety, nausea, etc.” I cannot even describe the moments that it was at its worst.

It was suddenly as if I realize that, for my entire life–every second of it–I had been asleep, and had awoken in a locked and burning room. Every strange detail of my life up until then–the chance appearance of smoke and fire in my dreams–was explained. You can never go back to sleep: even if you do, you will dream of the fire, and awake again. You can never escape the room, because it is locked tight.

As you read these words (and you probably ask yourself, occasionally, why you come back here to read these things that I write), you may think of this as something that happened, and is happening, to me. But in fact, this is about what is happening to you right now.

Zapffe outlined four methods that he believed human beings use to remedy panic.

Isolation is the complete and arbitrary dismissal of thoughts from one’s mind (“one should not think, it is just confusing”)

Distraction is the focusing of all one’s thoughts and energy on an idea to prevent the mind from turning in on itself.

Anchoring is the prime method that Zapffe believed most humans use to avoid panic. It is picking a fixed point in the “liquid fray of consciousness” in order to focus one’s attentions in a consistent manner. It may be becoming “successful.” It may be spreading the gospel. It may be getting a doctorate. In many cases, it is simply “the next thing.” In the fall I will attend university. Next year I will become licensed. One day I will have my own practice. He notes, as a good psychoanalyst, that the purpose of making a fortune is not the fortune itself, but the enormous opportunities for anchoring. This is why people do not give up seeking fortune when they have made millions of dollars.

Sublimation is a direct effort to convert the very problem into the purpose, perhaps by discussing it or writing about it. He writes, in his essay, “the present essay is a typical example of sublimation. The author does not suffer. He is filling pages, and is going to be published in a journal.”

I believe that Zapffe was right about this. I have inadvertently stumbled across the anchoring points–and the private religions–of countless friends and acquaintances. I do not claim exemption.

Zapffe warned that perhaps one of the most dangerous things to do is to pick an anchoring point, and discover that it is “false.” For this reason, I believe, our individual justifications for living are often a central feature of our lives, fiercely defended, or they are held high above the heads of others, unfalsifiable by argument and evidence, and perhaps never revealed at all.


6 Responses to “Isolation, Sublimation, Distraction, Anchoring”

  1. wabasso Says:

    Those are some solids ideas. I think I’m an anchorer.

  2. And I’m pretty sure that I know what your anchoring point is. I promise to handle all relevant discussions responsibly.

  3. I hope that I have done the same in discussions involving your anchoring point(s).

    Anchoring point? I have only one? Now I’m curious…

  4. Oh of course, but I’ve been having trouble finding a new one lately, which is why I’m in such bad shape.

    Well you have a predominant one, I think.

    I don’t know if I believe in multiple ones… most things usually trace all the way back.

  5. I fear you switched Isolation and Distraction.

  6. So I did. Fixed.

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