Temporal Agoraphobia

This is a phrase I just made up. It uses technical jargon, so it sounds Significant, but really it is just a label I’m assigning to something I’ve observed again and again, in myself, my friends and people I work with. I’m using this term to discuss an experience, I am not using it to create a label for any particular condition.

To begin with, agoraphobia is a psychiatric term that refers to a particular type of anxiety that is characterized by intense fear of certain environments that are experienced as unsafe or unpredictable. These environments include crowded places or wide open spaces. In this context, I am using the aspect that involves wide open spaces. Temporal means “pertaining to time”.

So, in short, the phrase here, “temporal agoraphobia” refers to roughly: “fear of wide open spaces of time”.

Another label you might use is “Modernus Americitis”, but I don’t like that one as well.

This exercise in semantic creativity is really just a fun way of saying that I think modern life can be pretty damn hectic. Cadillac Guy provides a good case in point:

This ad generated a good amount of discussion and controversy when it aired a couple of months ago, but I don’t want to get into all of that. I just want to note how fast this guy is moving. This dude is going places- literally. He doesn’t sit still the entire time, including as he passes his family, who are little more than props.

On the one hand, you can celebrate this as industriousness and hard work. I certainly don’t want to be on the wrong side of those virtues. But I think we need to examine the context of this commercial as well.

Currently, 15.7 million Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder. Professional burnout, characterized by emotional exhaustion, de-personalization, and decreased sense of personal accomplishment is commonplace in many workplaces. Families are stretched thin, as can be seen by the epidemic of business described nicely in this article.

So, I’m not trying to bash Captain Cadillac, but I’m just trying to note the downside of a lifestyle exclusively dedicated to moving forward.

Why are we so enamored with lifestyle velocity? Perhaps we are really excited about where we are going and can’t wait to get there. The future is incredible, and we want to create it NOW.

Perhaps there is another dynamic at work, though. This may be where Temporal Agoraphobia comes in. What if a part of this drive, this speed, this unremitting business comes not from the pursuit of a desired vision, but a deep discomfort of sitting still? The future, by definition, has yet to happen. It is uncertain. It is as if many of us believe that if we are forceful enough, we can will the future to happen our way. Our obsession with creating a future that is consistent with our own desires may be less about affection for the future than about fear of the future.

We don’t allow time to unfold, we make it unfold. We don’t accept time as a gift, we earn it by borrowing from the present.

What if our drive and hard work aren’t as noble as we’d like to think? What if we’re being driven less by vision and care than by fear- of the unknown, of uncertainty?

I don’t generally trust actions that are chosen exclusively under the influence of fear. They tend to be short-sighted, self-interested and a terrible bore. Worse, they are completely ineffective. There is nothing less achievable than trying to eliminate uncertainty and the unknown.  Life is inherently unpredictable.

Of course, we must live with the future in mind. It is a daily act of faith that most of us take to build a life that is congruent with a prosperous future for ourselves and our descendants. But we mustn’t confuse living with the future in mind with living for the future or living in the future. Life happens right now, but if we aren’t careful, we’ll fill our time so full that we won’t have time to notice.

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