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Torchlusspanik: The Fear of the Gate Closing

A Personal Perspective: How we can let go of the fear.

Key points

  • Panic as a self-administered cattle prod may be effective for productivity. But there may be kinder ways.
  • We use anxiety as fuel for our ambition. But there may be alternate, cleaner sources of emotional energy.
  • Gates may be closing all around us. That doesn't necessarily mean we need to panic.

“I’m not going to make it.”

“Time is running out.”

“All is almost lost.”

This is what I feel not when I’m drowning in the ocean, swimming toward a departing rescue plane, not when I’m running a miracle antidote to a dying friend, but when I sit down in front of my computer each morning and assess my email inbox.

“I can’t do it.”

“It’s too much. I’ll never make it.”

“All is almost lost.”

Not enough time for what? I don’t have a job where I’m required to volley emails back and forth on an exacting schedule. I do not have children with teachers who must be responded to right away for the sake of young, developing minds. I am not a political consigliere, offering last-minute counsel to leaders on the world stage poised to change the course of history. In fact, there are seldom any clear external deadlines requiring a mandated response from me whatsoever.

And yet…

A low-grade but ever-present thrumming panic rises each morning to the sound of my computer powering up.

How will I ever do it all?

How? How? How?

My inbox, as I see it, is a list of competing opportunities, opportunities to connect with close friends, distant friends, career contacts, distant friends who may one day be career contacts, and career contacts who may one day be close friends. And then there are the ever-present opportunities to submit, to apply, to showcase, to perform, to network, to jockey, and above all else, to promote. There are endless opportunities for self-promotion, which all careers seem to require these days, and endless opportunities to learn various programs to help with that required promotion.

But I can’t do it all and I know it. I know the gates of opportunity are closing all around me. I know because I can hear the clanging. I know because I wake up and go to sleep to the sound of the terrible silent racket of lost chances and dropped emails and unwatched Youtube tutorials on how to better manage every aspect of my life because time is running out.

The proclamation is everywhere

Last week, I learned the German word torchlusspanik from a German guest on a podcast I cohost called "50 Words for Snow." The word literally means “gate closing panic” and it comes from the Middle Ages when city gates would shut at nightfall, leaving unfortunates out in the cold, vulnerable to the brutal, natural elements and the savage appetites of marauding wild animals.

I know that feeling, I thought, as my German guest, Merle Emrich, explained the origin of torschlusspanik. I know it because I experience it every morning. Certainly, there are no city gates closing before me. I am protected from frost and storms and no packs of wolves or wildebeests are charging me.

And yet…

Somehow, I feel as if they are.

How ridiculous. Why would I feel this way?

Well, partly, I suppose, I am apprehending a fundamental truth of existence. Windows of opportunity are constantly closing, including the big glorious opportunity of my life itself. The gates of my existence began closing the moment I was born and eventually will banish me from this world altogether. That’s true, of course. But it’s more than that.

Maggie Rowe
Learning to ride a unicycle
Source: Maggie Rowe

A sense of the transience of life does not necessarily lead to panic. An awareness of life’s brevity could be a call to attention. It could create a feeling of “torchluss-presence” in which the present moment is invigorated and enlivened by knowledge of its eventual passing. Perceiving the fragility of life could make the entire enterprise sparkle.

Why the panic?

Here’s my theory: I think it’s because I’ve grown accustomed to harnessing anxiety as a motivator, to using fear as the fuel of my aspirational engine. It is a technique which has worked for me for many years. Probably since around the time I obsessively practiced skipping rope in order not to be left out of the rope-skipping-girls gang at the daily cut-throat kindergarten recess.

But here’s the thing: I’m now starting to wonder if I can use another sort of fuel.

Panic works. Sure. Just like gas works in our cars. But just as we are now exploring alternative sources of energy in order to save the planet, I want to look to alternative forms of motivational energy in order to save my peace of mind.

Are there alternate motivators for productivity are our we stuck with the self-administered cattle prod of anxiety?

My goddaughter recently learned how to ride a unicycle. I saw her push herself each day trying to figure out how to balance on that one small seat perched atop that one unsupported wheel. I watched her fall off, topple over, then pop back on again and again and again, finding and losing her balance, rising to her feet and to the occasion over and over. Would it be possible, I wonder, to greet the challenge of my inbox and daily opportunities with that spirit?

My goddaughter had not been panicked that she would miss out on the opportunity of riding a unicycle. She was, I believe, both lured by the possibility of an experience that mastery of the skill would afford her and interested in the effort itself. Could I approach my daily tasks like her, with a sense of playful determination? Curious grit? Creative gusto?

I am not sure but I’m going to try. Maybe I can begin to hear the sound of all the many gates opening and closing like I would hear waves, coming and going ceaselessly on a murmuring sea and cry, “All is almost lost!” — as I dive in.

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