Like most of us I’ve been watching a lot of Netflix. I recently rewatched Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Aviator, his story of billionaire industrialist and TWA owner Howard Hughes’ rise and fall. Hughes’ story of crippling anxiety to the point of madness is one all of us can relate to lately. Like the Spruce Goose, the large ungainly transport plane Hughes built for the military in the 1940s, each day we try to achieve enough airspeed to maintain our altitude above the preoccupations and anxieties surrounding us during the pandemic. These threaten to pull us back down to earth, trapping us in obsessive thoughts and worry that rob us of joy.
Many of my friends and colleagues are working ten hours, six days a week, fighting anxiety about their jobs, their families, their relationships, and their hopes for the future. I wake up usually after a bad nights’ sleep to face the prospects we all face, going through a litany of self-reassurance:
Money in the Bank (Enough for now)
Job (Some teaching gigs, recent interview)
Meaningful creative work (Both making and enjoying others’)
Meetings with friends (Virtually as necessary but craving facetime )
All those positive-thinking aphorisms have lost some of their shine. (Is it all good? Really?) We live in a world rife with uncertainty that pushes our fight-or-flight buttons. Yet our culture tends to place the responsibility solely on us as individuals for our mental health, pathologizing our struggles and human responses to the trials and tribulations of life merely as occasions for therapy and medication.
Hughes’ own struggles with OCD and anxiety drained him of happiness. In a tragic tale worth of Greek mythology his self-imposed quarantine alienated him from those he loved and who cared for him most. (The film’s account of Hughes’ relationship with Katharine Hepburn is heartbreaking.) His anxiety grew into a demon that devoured his life. Magazine accounts when I was younger described Hughes as a hermit afraid to go out, afraid of the touch of human warmth, who was reduced to shuffling about in Kleenex boxes. My horrified response then was ‘What a weirdo’. Now as we all struggle to counter our fear and isolation trying to maintain hope, I see him as a fellow traveler worthy of sympathy on the road we all face as human beings. — CDL