What is Just?, Working With Painful Emotions

Existentialism, Cynicism, and World Anxiety

Lately, I have been thinking about existentialism, cynicism, and World Anxiety.

If you are anything like me, you probably often feel World Anxiety. World Anxiety feels  differently to different people, but mine is the feeling that the word is both a beautiful and terrifying place. And it is the feeling that politics and the state of the world present exciting opportunities and overwhelming challenges.

And if you are anything like me, your World Anxiety often makes you feel anxious merely about being alive. And sometimes, probably, you simply feel anxious about your anxiety. For instance, you might ask yourself, Do I care too much? Am I just making all this stuff up? Why do I think about all these things?

Recently, I have been rereading Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be for a summer class I am teaching on vocation.[1]

Photo by Shelly P. Johnson. You can find Tillich’s The Courage to Be here.

Tillich’s writing on anxiety is thought-provoking and helps us consider anxiety in a different light.

Tillich was a German philosopher and Christian theologian who experienced profound anxiety while living through both world wars. Tillich was a chaplain and solider in World War I. As such, he fought in the trenches and had to bury his friends. Later, living in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich, he was critical of Hitler’s regime and eventually had to flee with his family to the United States to escape deadly reprisals from the Nazi party.

Tillich experienced, with fearsome clarity, World Anxiety. Furthermore, he had a front row seat to the ways in which various groups responded to such World Anxiety in both effective and radically ineffective ways.

“War News”, courtesy of Library of Congress, Use and Reuse.

In The Courage to Be, Tillich argues that some anxiety, even profoundly deep anxiety about life, is an inescapable part of human existence. Tillich distinguishes between fear–which is about a specific object–and anxiety, which is about nothingness.

Tillich argues that we all face the threat of nothingness as we grapple with difficult concepts like death, fate[2], meaninglessness, emptiness, guilt, and condemnation. (See chapter 1.)  This nothingness is non-being, and Tillich writes that

Non-being opens up the mystery of being (61-62).

The nothingness we feel as we grapple with such concepts can feel dreadful and overwhelming. For instance, when I was nine, I remember lying in bed at night, thinking about eternity.

I have believed in an afterlife and heaven since I was little. And as a child, I understood that heaven was supposed to be a glorious place.

However, as I lay in bed contemplating eternity, it felt like a long stretch of incomprehensible nothingness which terrified me.

This was my first encounter with nothingness and anxiety. Tillich calls this specific type of anxiety ontic anxiety, which is a fear over the negation of our being.

Bust of Paul Tillich, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Later as I grew older, I noticed that people around me often seemed to view the world as an unenchanted place and were focused merely on getting by.[3]

This perplexed me. Surely the world was a beautiful, enchanted place, my young adult self thought. Surely there is more to life than just getting by? And I felt that same anxiety again.

In retrospect, I realize I was struggling with what Tillich calls spiritual anxiety—anxiety over issues of meaningless and emptiness.

Human beings especially deal with this problem because we interact with our world, through language and community, and make meaning of it. This is opposed to other species who live primarily according to biological dictates.

Thus, when the world seems meaningless to us, or when we feel reduced to mere biological necessity (just getting by), it can cause deep anxiety. We feel the loss of our unique humanity. (See chapters 2 and 3).

Tillich writes

Language . . . gives man the power to abstract from the concretely given and, after having abstracted from it, to return to it, to interpret and transform it. The most vital being is the being which has the world and it by the world liberated from bondage to the given (75).

Painting by Louis Max Eherler, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

These are just a few of the ways that people experience anxiety in their life, and Tillich argues that some such anxiety is a normal part of the structure of human personality. Such anxiety, he explains, comes from unresolved conflicts in our personality.

These are conflicts between concepts like being and non-being, meaning and meaninglessness, perfection and imperfection, guilt and innocence. (See chapters 2-3).

In other words, Tillich suggests that if you feel such anxieties, you are paying attention. You are, in fact, tuned into to the nature of human existence and its ambiguities. He writes that,

Anxiety turns us towards courage, because the other alternative is despair. Courage resists despair by taking anxiety into itself (61).

Tillich is writing in the existential philosophical tradition which is acutely concerned with the human condition, its freedom, and its suffering.

Apparently, I have been an existentialist-in-the-making since I was eight.

Tillich further argues that such anxiety over non-being can feel overwhelming. It makes us feel helpless because non-being and nothingness are an invisible specter which we don’t know how to battle.

We can fight objects of fear—like a looming deadline, a playground bully, or house intruders. But how do we battle the specter of nothingness which threatens to negate our being?

We receive very little training in such battle techniques. And, in fact, Tillich suggests that we often respond very badly to such anxiety.

For example, drawing on his observations during the world wars, Tillich argues that many people respond to such feelings of dread by joining groups that tell them exactly how to live so that they don’t have to face such anxieties.

Tillich argues that fascism, Nazism, and democratic conformism are group methodologies through which people try to escape their existential anxiety. (See chapter 4.)

“Powerloom”, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Nevertheless, Tillich argues, belonging to groups is, in fact, an important way that we affirm our being in the face of nothingness. Tillich calls such belonging the courage to be as a part, and it is essential. The problem arises when groups require the sacrifice of the individual.

Or problems arise when groups preclude people, often through slogans, dogmas, and cliches, from grappling with their own existential anxieties.

To function well, groups need fully articulated selves, grappling with inevitable anxiety, overcoming it, and cultivating accompanying vitality.

On the other hand, Tillich argues that many other people grapple with existential anxiety by over-focusing on the self and retreating into their own private castles.

Such private castles, Tillich suggests, might be the castle of cynicism, in which we reject any possible solutions to the problems of the world.

Or such private castles might be our retreat into our own private dogmas and ideologies, like conspiracies.

And such private castles can also be a radical individualism that promotes the freedom of the self, even though it leads to the destruction of other individuals.

Tillich argues that Stalinist Marxism in Russia was an example of such radical individualism.

I also think the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution is a good example of destructive and radical individualism.

Hegel describes this well in his chapter “Absolute Freedom and Terror” in his Phenomenology of Spirit.

Cardiff Castle, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Tillich argues that the courage to be an individual is also essential (like the courage to be as a part). However, cynicism, private dogmas, and radical individualism are ineffective paths to becoming a self.

That is because, he argues, the self always needs a world to give it contents. And cynicism, dogma, and radical individualism always shut us off from the world.

For the perpetually anxious, reading Tillich is empowering. He helps us understand that  grappling with anxieties of a certain sort is a necessary part of becoming a courageous and vital person.

The world needs courageous and vital selves; and such selves needs a world.

“Good News”, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Reading Tillich also illuminates many patterns we see in our world today. We still see people in contemporary society grappling with existential anxiety.

And unfortunately, they often do this through ineffective strategies like succumbing to group dogma or retreating into castles of cynicism, private ideologies, and radical individualism.

This feels discouraging.

But reading Tillich is also hopeful. Tillich argues that our authentic Courage to Be comes in a moment of Grace when we realize we have been accepted by the power of being and accept that acceptance.

He writes,

The faith which makes the courage of despair possible is the acceptance of the power of being, even in the grip of non-being (162).

This Grace unites and transcends the courage to be as a part and the courage to be as a self. Understanding what that means fully takes a lifetime. But it is a way forward.

I dedicate this post to all my students, especially the anxious ones.


I also wrote a post about teaching and education, inspired by Tillich’s idea of the Courage to Be. You can read about it here: Teaching My Students to Be Maladjusted.

You might also like this post: Letting Go of Perfectionism and Self-Hate

And you might also like this post: Leaving Our Self-Constructed Prisons


If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing on social media.


[1] Our calling as human beings.

[2] By fate, I mean those elements of life which we cannot control like aging, other people’s actions, and infirmity.

[3] And to be honest, I have sometimes lived my life like this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *