Published On: February 7, 2012

Anxiety and Hope

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By B. Michael Rubin

I am an American, which means by definition I am anxious. Twenty percent of Americans suffer from chronic anxiety. There have been thousands of books written about anxiety and its causes and cures over the past few decades. W.H. Auden, a famous English poet once wrote a poem entitled “The Age of Anxiety.” The poem was 138 pages long! The most common prescription drug for treating anxiety in the US is marketed under the brand name Xanax, and in 2011 it was the most highly prescribed drug in America. Amazingly, it wasn’t until Freud and the dawn of the 20th century that anxiety was even considered a psychological condition. The diagnosis of anxiety exploded in the 1970s with such American psychologists as Rollo May.

As the Irish author, James Joyce, wrote in his first book, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, which was first published in 1916 and considered groundbreaking at the time: History is a nightmare from which we are trying to awaken. With life viewed in this way, there’s certainly plenty to be anxious about. In a novel published this month in the US called “Hope: A Tragedy” comes this quote: “It’s a tough place to get some sleep,” Kugel says. “Earth, that is.” Later in the novel is this: “The greatest source of misery in the world . . . was neither disease nor race nor religion. It was hope.”

 Anxiety and stress have become such an integral part of the American way of life that Americans no longer hide their dependence on chemical relief, like Xanax. Twenty years ago, if an American suffered from depression or panic attacks and wisely chose to seek help from a psychologist or psychiatrist, he would keep this information hidden from his family and friends. People who sought the help of a therapist were in danger of being considered crazy and ostracized from society. This stigma of seeking therapy for emotional problems still exists in Brazil and for good reason. All societies take a dim view of people who are not “normal.” That judgment of normality is based strictly on numbers, on what the majority of people are accustomed to doing or thinking. Twenty years ago in Brazil, for example, it was unusual to meet someone who wasn’t Catholic, but not anymore. Today it’s unusual to meet someone who attends therapy regularly and is willing to admit it. It is normal for a woman to discuss her liposuction treatment with other women at the hair salon, but she would never discuss her therapy treatments.

All societies have strict rules of behavior, and anyone who lives within a certain culture, like a Brazilian, knows what those rules are, even though they are never written anywhere. The “codes of conduct” in Brazil are as clear and strict as the laws in the Brazilian Constitution, and the penalty for violating those codes is as severe as the penalty for breaking the law: banishment from society. If you are convicted in a court of law of being a thief, you are banished to prison and kept segregated from society. If you are convicted, by popular opinion, of breaking the code of conduct in society, you are banished to the realm of “nonpersonhood.” In other words, people will think you are strange and your family and friends will question your sanity. If you violate the rules of normal behavior in your workplace, you will not be able to find a job. For example, in Brazil, when two men greet each other, they shake hands. When two women meet, they kiss. However, if a man were to regularly refuse to shake hands with other men or refuse to kiss women to say hello, he would immediately be considered strange, foreign, and even dangerous. In the ancient world, such as that inhabited by the tribes living in the Amazon, the ultimate form of punishment for a crime was not death (as in the US death penalty), and there were no prisons. The ultimate punishment was banishment – to be driven out of one’s own tribe is the worst possible penalty that could happen to a native Indian because the tribe is the source of all life, the emotional center of existence.

However, when modern people are faced with overwhelming stress or they are victims of great tragedy, it is common for their behavior to change. The everyday presence of depression or sadness in one’s life can have an immediate affect on oneself, not to mention one’s family, friends, and job. Therefore, it makes sense to seek professional help from a therapist to cure or alleviate the anxiety and return to a “normal” life. Today, psychologists in Brazil are beginning to see the need for therapy, as stress and anxiety are taking their toll on some individuals.

In twenty years, will people in Brazil be seeking therapy and medication for their emotional problems in huge numbers the way they are now in the US? I certainly hope not. Just because Brazilians envy the quality of American products, like Apple computers and Calvin Klein jeans, doesn’t mean Brazilians should envy the American way of life. Americans are suffering with anxiety on a huge scale. When 20 percent of an entire country suffers from chronic anxiety, that affects the whole country. Anxiety takes its toll – people make poor decisions when anxious, and it also affects the body. People with chronic anxiety suffer more heart attacks and get sicker in general because stress comprises the immune system.

What makes anxiety so much more prevalent in the US than in Brazil? Unlike the tragedy of hope described in that American novel, I see hope in Brazil. Brazilians face many of the same challenges that Americans do, yet they seem happier. There is a stable foundation critical to the Brazilian way of life that provides for a greater satisfaction with everyday existence. Brazilians have an easier time accepting life’s disappointments and forgetting the harsh times that have passed. Suicide, for example, the ultimate expression of unhappiness, is far more common in the US than in Brazil. Thus, I believe, at the core, Brazilians are different from Americans.

An integral part of the foundation of Brazilian life that is different from the US is the strength family and religion provide for the average Brazilian. Families live geographically closer to each other in Brazil, providing a constant level of support. No matter how awful one’s life becomes, a Brazilian can always count on his family to help him. In the US, families have grown apart, and often see each other only during the holidays. Today, more than 50 percent of American adults are not married. In Manhattan, half of all the apartments are occupied by only one person.

I went to a party in Curitiba recently to celebrate the birthday of woman who was turning 90 years old. All of her family in Curitiba were invited to join in the celebration at a restaurant in Santa Felicidade. Of course, there were some family members who have moved away, to São Paulo for example, and didn’t attend. However there were at least 150 people who came to the dinner. The aniversariante had only four children, not twelve, so I was amazed that so many people were in attendance. Naturally, the familial connections to the aniversariante were not all blood relations. For example, I was invited because my wife’s grandfather and the aniversariante’s mother-in-law were brother and sister. It’s a distant connection by marriage, especially as both the grandfather and mother-in-law are no longer living. The contrast with American families was clear to me – I honestly couldn’t tell you who my grandfather’s sister was. Not only do I not know her name, I’m not even sure if my grandfather had a sister. In the US, to find 150 people who are all related to the same aniversariante would require invitations being sent all over the country. Thus, it’s rare to see such a large gathering in the US for a birthday.

Large family gatherings do still exist in the US for weddings and funerals. However, to assemble 150 family members in the US requires people flying in from a dozen different cities all over the US. This joyful celebration in Santa Felicidade took place with just one family living in or near Curitiba. For this reason, hope is still alive in Brazil.

Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.

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