Worry is a peculiarly modern condition. Its history can be traced through its etymology: from its Old English meaning of to strangle, to its Renaissance sense of physical harassment, to its current connotation of mild anxiety.
The word worry as it is understood today did not emerge until the 19th century, with the growth of major cities and modern industry. Since then, Francis O’Gorman explains in Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History (Bloomsbury Academic), worry has crept into the affairs of “busy, high-pressured nations” and those “who [use] their brains too much.” Anxiety took on a hint of glamour, as reflected in works by Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and others cited generously by O’Gorman, a professor of Victorian literature.
According to O’Gorman, worry develops when reason edges out faith as the privileged source of knowledge. “The birth of worry,” O’Gorman writes, is “the moment of a culture’s shift from unquestioning faith in omnipotent powers to thought or reasoning as the way of understanding human existence within the world.”
This emphasis on reason—and its array of seemingly infinite choices—promotes the idea that we must “use our own powers to discern” the one best choice. No wonder we worry so. Indeed, O’Gorman argues, “Worry is only possible in a world of choice. It’s even more possible when human beings think, in turn, that they have the capacity, let alone the right, to choose for themselves.”
Yet paradoxically, as O’Gorman shows, worry also demonstrates the limits of reason. “Worrying exposes what we really have faith in,” he says. Despite ...1
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