Forgetting to Remember Anxiety

Josephine Tey is an interesting writer whose detective stories take you to surprising places. Her creation, Inspector Grant, is a reflective man who leads readers on interesting psychological journeys.

In The Daughter of Time, Grant is in hospital, having broken a leg in pursuit of Benny, a criminal. He is frustrated and bored and in danger of developing depression. While lying in bed feeling helpless and useless he examines a picture of a portrait of Richard III and decides that the face does not fit the popular story of a man who murdered his nephews. As he researches documents brought to him by friends, he uncovers a very different man that stands Shakespeare’s character on his head. His stay in hospital becomes more bearable and he finds that through his research he can have different conversations with his friends that do not centre on his health.

We meet Inspector Grant again in The Singing Sands where he is once more recuperating, this time from a “nervous breakdown” – in other words, crippling panic attacks. He decides to travel by train to Scotland to visit and recover with friends. He travels by train because he is unable to tolerate the confined space of a car.

“That was the way it always happened. One moment a sane, free, self-possessed human being, the next a helpless creature in the grip of unreason. He pressed his hands together to keep himself from flinging the door open and tried to listen to what Tommy was saying. No rain for weeks. They had had no rain for weeks. Let him think about the lack of rain. It was important, the lack of rain. It spoiled the fishing.”

His panic is palpable. Just as it is at another time when he winds the window down to catch a breath of fresh air.

“ But the tide of his panic rose with a slow abominable menace. A black evil tide, scummy and revolting. Now it was around his chest, pressing and holding, so that he could hardly breathe.”

What saves him is his preoccupation with the death of a man on the train on which he was travelling to Scotland. That, and his cousin’s naming and accepting the panic when Grant is unable to remain in the car a moment longer. The naming and acceptance of the feelings helps Grant to name and accept them and in doing so, to step back from them, observe them and let them pass. It takes time, but he becomes better at it, surprising himself.

I never realised what a bundle of nerves Mahatma Gandhi was until I read his autobiography, The Story of my Experiments with Truth. Gandhi describes himself as an anxious, unconfident child: afraid of the dark, groups of people, public speaking. He trained as a lawyer in London but became so tongue-tied when he had to cross-examine that he had to hand over his case to someone else. In other words, he did what so many people do: he took flight. How does this picture stand up against the man who took governments to task and fought for India’s independence?

It was only when he became impassioned by a principle that was greater than him, that he was able to find the words he lacked as a lawyer. In short, he lost the crippling self-consciousness to his fight for truth and justice.

I draw your attention to these two men, one fictional the other real, because anxiety can be so isolating and it is tempting to think that no one else suffers in the same way. The reality is that anxious people are not alone even if it feels as if they are and they perceive others as bubbling over with confidence.

The key is to accept the feelings associated with anxiety as feelings and not as facts, not as truth. Gandhi learnt to sit with his discomfort because he learnt to focus beyond his fears. In his pursuit of truth and justice, his anxieties appear to have been swept away. In other words, he did not let them become the barrier to what he wanted to achieve. How could he if he was to pursue truth? Gandhi was an uncompromising man in the face of falsehood and injustice. And if he was to be true to truth, then there was no room for anxiety and self-consciousness because these are psychological states and not true, no matter how compelling they may be. He therefore could not act out of self-consciousness and anxiety; he had to act out of what was truly there, what truly existed: discrimination, racialism and injustice.When these became his drivers, then he could set goals and achieve.

And what of Inspector Grant? He too, in his mission to uncover the murder of an unknown man, forgets his anxiety and is surprised to find that he can sit within the confines of a car without the scummy darkness pressing down on his chest and the overwhelming need to escape.

Readings. M. K. Gandhi. 2009. The Story of my Experiments with Truth. K.R.J. Book International. Delhi.

Josephine Tey. 1951. The Daughter of Time. Mandarin.

Josephin Tey. 1952. The Singing Sands. Arrow.


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