“Anxiety and Ennui Are the Scylla and Charybdis on Which the Bark of Human Happiness Is Most Often Wrecked.”

“Anxiety and Ennui are the Scylla and Charybdis on which the bark of human happiness is most often wrecked.”

— William Edward Hartpole Lecky, The Map of Life

According to myth, “Scylla and Charybdis” are two sea hazards that blocked the Strait of Messina — a rock shoal with a monster on one side , and a sea monster/whirlpool on the other.

Using this phrase is the same as saying “between a rock and a hard place” or “out of frying pan into the fire.” So Lecky’s point is that to be happy, we must steer between anxiety and ennui, and not allow ourselves to be wrecked by either.

Agree, disagree?

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  • Penelope Schmitt

    I have certainly experienced this myself. I remember bad times in the 1980s, sitting idle on the sofa in the middle of a messy room, smoking one cigarette after another and crying about the past, while fretting about an unknown future. I didn’t know then that taking a walk could help, never mind the cigarettes.

    I see this issue writ large with my Mom, who, does not see well and is having difficulty with mobility and memory. She is can’t ‘keep busy’ , nor is she able easily to redirect her mind from sad or anxious trains of thought. Reading is still possible for her, but television is difficult, and she does not like to listen to music for long. She is restless, caught up in negative thought loops and memories that sadden her.

    Observing this, I am spending some time memorizing the Daily Office (Morning & Evening prayer or Matins & Vespers) as an aid to having something memorized very strongly that I might keep me positive if days should come when I cannot keep myself from ennui with an occupation. I also feel that being here and now with one’s mind bent on being grateful, deeply observant, and positive, is real ‘worship’ in life, and I hope to maintain that attitude going forward.

    I know that TODAY I maintain my happiness by being like that ship–in forward motion with my eye firmly fixed on my forward path in the ever moving sea. For me, that is the next seam, the next project, the next circuit of my neighborhood, the newest flower blooming, and so forth. I start to get in trouble when I focus too much on the negatives.

    • FrancesH

      This is so helpful and wise. Thank you.

    • Gillian

      You are so wise to foresee the potential problems of old-age and to take some steps now to prepare for these eventualities. Definitely food for thought!

  • Mimi Gregor

    I don’t know about the ennui part of the quotation. It seems to me that people today seldom slow down long enough to experience boredom. They multi-task, over-extend themselves, and busily check their iPhones the whole time lest they are missing something else that is going on. I think that part of the problem is that people are too stimulated with too much input.

    I think that anxiety about the future and guilt about the past are the more likely combo of Scylla and Charybdis here.

    • Sill Wondering

      Perhaps the need to keep super busy is a way of trying desperately to avoid the dreaded boredom. Been there; done that.

      • Penelope Schmitt

        Agree that it is tempting to just wallpaper everything over with activity. “Just sitting” is a challenge, as is keeping a quiet day or hour. As a sister at the convent where I used to go on retreats said to us busy working ladies and moms: “it is impossible to climb a lake!” You have to learn to just be present in the now. I still find that hard to do.

  • I feel both when I don’t have a plan. Having a plan helps me stay the right amount of busy. By right amount, I mean avoiding burn out from either too much or too little.

  • Lisa

    What a thought-provoking way to start the day. I’ve never thought about it before, but I believe I agree. I had not considered that boredom might be a barrier to happiness, but as I think about it, I realize that sometimes I feel bored, but don’t want to do something “useful”. I recognize this now as discontent. Definitely risking a wreck.

  • Gillian

    I think anxiety probably does sit on one side of the strait but, rather than ennui, I think perhaps the real culprit on other side is emptiness (which causes ennui and boredom). I agree with Mimi & Still Wondering. People often keep themselves busy with their social media, tech gadgets, pop culture and a host of often-needless activity to avoid the sense of emptiness. It all becomes a self-reinforcing loop: you fill the emptiness with all the activity so you don’t have the space to create anything meaningful in its stead. And it is all so terribly addictive that it is extremely difficult to leave that treadmill and it is so much easier than actually thinking about how you want to spend your time and live your life.

    I read somewhere (I think in “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert) that Americans like to be entertained but they don’t know how to experience pleasure. (I would include Canadians in that.) It seems that most people need to be up on all pop-culture and the tech world have to offer or they feel left out. I speak from observation, not experience. I have a 12-year-old cell phone that I bought in 2002 (it was a refurbished one). People have laughed at it. But it serves the 2 purposes for which I need it: it is a security device in case I get stranded somewhere and it allows me to keep in touch with my husband when I’m out. It costs $10/month. When I want to phone someone, I do it from my home phone; rarely from the cell. I e-mail from my desk-top computer. What could be so critical that you need to be yakking on the phone or checking apps and e-mail every 5 minutes as you go about your daily business? I am not on FaceBook or Twitter or any of those other services and, unless it is shown on the TV news, I seldom see the latest cat video. Am I missing out? I don’t think so. Am I bored? Certainly not. These gadgets and services do have something to offer but, in most cases, human nature doesn’t seem to be capable of restricting their use to the benefits and many people become obsessed full-time. Being a moderator with this stuff would be extremely difficult, which is one reason I abstain.

    We should fight boredom not with busyness but with thoughtful activity, meaningful work and relationships, savouring life’s small beauties, downtime in which to contemplate what is important. People don’t seem to know how to do the latter or they learn how to do it only when faced with a crisis. Our society seems to have a great fear of silence and stillness but silence can be one of our greatest gifts. Deepak Chopra says that the soul resides in the spaces between our thoughts. If there are never any spaces between the noise, activity and thoughts, what happens to our souls?

    I am not in any way a religious person but I do believe very strongly in the importance of a Sabbath – one day a week away from the hustle and noise. A day for quiet, contemplative activities. This can be a day where we create space between our thoughts. I would not decree it as a day of no activity but one of well-chosen activity – a walk in nature, quiet and meaningful conversation with family or friends, reading, writing a real letter (electronic or on paper) listening to music, thinking, de-stressing. People of faith can use some of it for worship. This is not a day for shopping or using noisy machines. The chores can wait. So can the technology. Only by taking this kind of time can we fill the empty space that so frightens people. We can stave off boredom and ennui by filling the emptiness with meaningless busyness or with meaningful activity. This might also address some of the anxiety on the other side of the strait.

    I am aware that this is all very easy to say but very difficult to do, especially for people with children. But all this busyness is gradually destroying our society and turning us all into busy, consuming, entertained automatons. We have to slow down, listen to the silence and think.

    Sorry to be so long-winded!

    • Mimi Gregor

      Long, yes, but I found myself nodding in agreement repeatedly. I think one of the reasons I stay away from malls and certain restaurants is the noise level — a level that I find uncomfortable, but seems to be the new norm. My husband and I once checked out a restaurant where we had to sit at one of those tiny bar tables, and even though we were very close to each other, we had to literally shout to hear each other. It wasn’t the people making the noise — it was the music. I guess they turn it up so high to make people feel that they are full of energy and having a good time. Needless to say, we didn’t go back. Are people so afraid of their own thoughts that they must fill every moment with noise?

      Because of my husband’s work schedule, Monday and Tuesday are our weekends, so Tuesday is our “sabbath”. I make sure that all work is done the day before. Lunch is something simple, and we eat dinner out. He spends the day riding his bike (which he considers meditative as much as exercise) and I take some time to either visit the consignment shops or go hiking, or to a museum, or whatever I feel like doing. It is very restorative and gives me something to look forward to all week. It is my “day off”, and I try to keep it filled with things that are relaxing and fun for me (the first rule being “be Mimi”).

  • Trisha Tagle

    I definitely agree that to be happy we need to stay clear of both of these. I myself am in the exact situation where I am stuck between the two being thrown from one to the other and it not only prevents me from being happy but pushes me towards unhappiness and frustration over life in general.

    I am currently in school pursuing a PharmD degree and the whole purpose I began the program was because I wanted to learn and to be able to help people with my knowledge to better their lives. This is an intensive six year program straight out of high school and after five years, I’ve been hurled into the depths of both anxiety and ennui. Any health field can leave a student feeling overly anxious, especially with a midterm then final exam every two weeks. I literally had a midterm and final bi-weekly for 12 months straight!

    Aside from being overwhelmed with anxiety over exams, grades, and just completing the program, I later on experienced something I never really experienced before. Ennui. I pursued this degree with one major goal, although when I first began I didn’t realize what it was at the time. I want to help people. That is all I ever really want to do in life. However, when you find yourself sitting, studying, and memorizing day in and day out, it all becomes almost meaningless. It left me feeling like I was not and would not ever be actually doing anything to help anyone like I wanted to. It felt stagnant and made me grow severely dissatisfied with life, my program, and my studies because I wasn’t DOING anything. I wasn’t growing or expanding or helping.

    During that one intensive year of studies, I was almost void of all happiness. It wasn’t until I decided to take time off from school that I realized these two things were my weakness, though until I read this post, I didn’t have a word for the latter feeling. That first week I was completely free from the binds of academia, I went out to see friends I hadn’t seen in months; and as I sat next to one of them, I realized that was experiencing something I forgot existed. Happiness. I had forgotten what it felt like to not be anxious or feel so dissatisfied with everything. I had forgotten what it really felt like to feel happy. That is, until that moment.

    Over the past five years I have been in my program, I had struggled with anxiety and I know for a fact that it had overflown from academics into general life. And it lead to discouragement and dissatisfaction that I didn’t even know existed. I know I will continue to struggle with these things, but thanks to the decision to step away from it all for a while, I am able to realize that to be happy and to continue with a healthy and strong mentality, I must, as you said, not allow myself to be wrecked by either of these. It is a life lesson that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

  • Max_Freedom

    Agreed. They are both killing me.