Panic attacks, by definition, are irrational. They tend to have a specific cause, at least at the beginning; but the element of panic becomes fully, painfully discernible when the merest mental movement in the direction of the “raw” area instantly elevates heart rate and sends up blood pressure. Veins pound in the head, ears ring, breathing becomes almost as difficult as if one were suffocating… and perhaps the worst is the fear that lingers after the event passes; for, since the attack appeared from nowhere, it might reappear at any moment without notice.
These observations are not simply the fruit of browsing the Internet: they describe my own experience of attacks. The odd thing is that I hadn’t suffered them for years… until the past couple of weeks. They used to be almost crippling when, as an academic, I held tenure-track jobs and would grow aware (as I inevitably did, it seemed) that I was doomed to be turned out of house and home for causes over which I had no control. (On two such occasions, for instance, I had rendered myself persona non grata unwittingly by publishing scholarly articles: small schools nourish large egos, and I had stolen a little sunlight from people who craved every beam.)
Why I should be revisiting this hellish terrain in retirement is somewhat mysterious to me. I suppose the closest thing to a specific cause was my reflecting that I might be invited to jury duty one fine day—and then I would have to enter into elaborate and humiliating explanation of my inability to sit still for hours on end, thanks to a shrunken bladder. (Yeah, I know: this is a natural part of aging—but I also tend to trace it to a period of overexposure to an ancient generation of computers that featured cathode ray tubes. Those months catalyzed other nagging problems, as well, at which “medical professionals” sneered and scoffed… part of the reason why I stay away from doctors and treat myself with homeopathy.)
I don’t like being under the power of other people, for the very real reason that my experience of such relationships has taught me that they veer to the abusive, sooner or later. I certainly see nothing in the world of politics that inclines me to reconsider my “problem with authority”. Very nearly being saddled with a socialist governor last fall just after moving to the state of Georgia did nothing to calm my nerves; watching the movement to enfranchise masses of people who have entered the country illegally hasn’t pacified me; and trying in my own paltry way to assist a man serving three life sentences for crimes he didn’t commit has opened up a whole new vista of abused authority to me.
Add to that my ongoing battles to have FedEx, UPS, and the USPS deliver packages all the way to the end of my half-mile driveway… then the ever-present knowledge that my son now lives a thousand miles away in a city that wants to fund the heroin habit of its drug addicts… and, well, retirement hasn’t exactly been a bed of roses. True, we can always find things to worry about; but when I was working, at least I had to ignore the horizon’s clouds for hours on end and address the tasks at hand.
I still have such tasks—and working on my garden or in my nascent orchard is, indeed, just what this doctor ordered. As I lowered my shovel from an innovative type of raised garden bed yesterday, attracted by what I had long supposed to be turkey calls, I discovered a V of cranes making straight north… and then another. The peace I felt at that moment utterly annihilated whatever serpentine shadows were coiling within me. And even indoors, I can write, as I am doing now.
What I cannot do is, in a moment of foolish confidence, revisit the origins of the panic with a view to unraveling them rationally. After every sequence of calm explanation and reasonable solution, a voice howls back, “But people are not reasonable! Your behavioral autopsies have no relevance, no bite—people will do whatever their black hearts urge them to do! Their hunger for power upon more power is insatiable, even to the point of self-destruction!” And then another tailspin and another nosedive… all thanks to the attempt to be rational.
I understand why some sufferers cling to crosses. I’ve tried that. It may work a little bit for a while. One really does have the sensation, you know, of fighting with the devil—with an assertive force of lunacy that wraps every effort at dispassionate analysis into an obscene adornment for his tail. The Cross: “See this! Stand back!” It works better for hearts not so dominated by the mind as is mine.
At some point, my mind asked, “What does it work at all, even for a little? What does the Cross represent that frightens this devil away?” My son counseled me to live in the present moment and not allow questions about the invisible future to torment me. He is all aglow with Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now (at least for now). I began reading the book and, I confess, found myself immediately challenged to overcome the man’s aura of millenarian charism, his ecstatic “my light would transform the world if only the world could rend the veil before it”… his egotism. At last, in a Tolle-like revelation, I toyed with the notion that living in the Now is precisely the wrong way to beat the devil—that the devil, in fact, enjoys the suffocating confines of Now and can cut the soul’s mooring very adroitly within them. Or to say it from another angle: the true Now is Always. The Cross is that Now, that Always within which a lifetime of struggles is but one moment. To continue in the struggle, to insist upon the struggle’s purpose and ultimate success, to understand its victory as already secure merely by virtue of a struggle’s being made…. We win when we refuse to slide easily downstream. We ride a rising tide that absorbs all streams into the great wide ocean.
Does Tolle reject that Now Is Always in his Always Now? I’ll have to read the book through. But the fact that my son has been able to allay his own devils with Mr. Tolle’s help advises me that young people in our aging and ailing society stand in grave need of a guru—a doctor who doesn’t simply laugh at their anguish and tell them that it’s imaginary. To be sure, many gurus are false prophets: perhaps most. Having such power over impressionable hearts is a heady drought, and few can resist its intoxicating effects. None of that neutralizes the evidence that we were not made to lead the highly artificial lives that progressive technology has imposed upon us. Though only two people in a hundred (according to Wikipedia) suffer panic attacks such as mine, I find it more than a little likely that our current political nuttiness is symptomatic of a collective panic. What is the unhinged, hysterical insistence upon the planet’s impending meltdown if not the distorted cry of a generation cut off from its natural roots?
I wish these children of the iPod and iPhone were not so trusting of the very types whose lust for power could indeed render our lives unlivable—therein lies a major component of my own disposition to panic. But I do understand the refrain of, “The sky is falling.” Individually, we must strive to live in that completed moment when the sky has already fallen rather than, collectively, trying to build artificial staircases to the zenith.