Anxiety As Symptom: On moral failure and why zebras are losing their stripes

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

On my desk at home is a zebra with multi coloured stripes. I bought it at a fair trade shop at the Eumundi Markets in Queensland.  It’s a well travelled, clay fired zebra from an African village.  But I didn’t just buy it to support a third world community making hand made goods.

This zebra is a reminder of my own primal neural wiring. A reminder why zebras don’t get ulcers and why I shouldn’t either.  I was inspired in buying the zebra by the book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky an American neuroendocrinologist.  We humans share the zebra’s stress response mechanism, fight or flee, when confronted with extreme danger.

Danger, like a lion about to pounce on a zebra.  The immediate rush of epinephrine releases other hormones which supercharge the zebra to run for its life from the charging lion.  This is good.  Without this high stress response the zebra would be dead.  So why doesn’t the zebra get ulcers?

Unlike us humans, the zebra has no thought for the future. Her only concern is the present.  But we humans do worry about the future.  Tomorrow’s job interview, a tight deadline this week, a difficult meeting next week or an impending financial crisis like the prospect of losing your job.  (Notice I used job twice in these examples!) 

And extended periods of stress over long periods of time become quite damaging to our health causing ulcers, stroke and heart attacks as well as exacerbating other disease like cancer.  This is, of course, bad!  So the zebra on my desk is a reminder for me not to get stressed and to stay healthy.  

But not getting stressed is easier said than done.  Especially if you are predisposed to anxiety or you deal with other people who have a predisposition to creating turmoil and havoc!

It’s probably unfair to blame other people for your own stress levels unless they really are physically or psychologically threatening your well being in some way.  But it’s also unrealistic to assume that we can manage all such stress by mind over hormones.  For more reasons than you might think.

In the first chapter of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Sapolsky (who comes across as something of a hypochondriac) imagines how you might lie awake worrying about a critical meeting the next day losing sleep.  By two-thirty in the morning you have started to imagine an increasing number of ailments, to the extent that you end up thinking you have a brain tumour!

But you are far less likely to worry about having intestinal parasites as, thanks to revolutionary advances in medicine and public health, we no longer worry about infectious diseases. (The book was first published in 1994.)

“When is the last time you heard of scads of people dying of the flu?  Yet the flu, in 1918 alone, killed many times more people than throughout the course of that most barbaric of conflicts, World War 1”⁠1

Sapolsky’s point is, in a nut shell, don’t worry about things that can’t kill you now like unpleasant people and situations (if you do, they will kill you slowly).  After all, we don’t have the worry of pandemics like the Spanish flu like previous generations. Our health issues are more likely to be the slow accumulation of age and bad life style choices.

My point – 27 years after Sapolsky’s book was published – is that we have so much more to worry about now.  Let’s start with the rapidly mutating COVID-19 pandemic.  Or for some reprieve, the horror of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in the wake of the US troops recent withdrawal.  And all this against the backdrop of a warming planet that is heading for an apocalyptic meltdown unless we act fast.  

Sapolsky was saying don’t worry about what might not happen.  But what about things that could very well happen over which we have seemingly little control?  Part of successful stress management is realising that we worry about things that haven’t happened yet, and may not happen, but if they were to happen, well – it’s not the end of the world.  

But what if it is the end of the world (at least as we know it)?

I muddled the title of Sapolsky’s book when people asked about the zebra on my desk.  I told them it was a reminder that zebras don’t lose their stripes because they don’t get stressed unless a lion is chasing them.  Which is a reminder for me not to stress about things that don’t matter or won’t kill me – yet.  

As it turns out, however, zebras may well be losing their stripes in a manner of speaking.  A recent National Geographic article signals an ecological warning.  Spotted and oddly striped zebras living near Uganda’s Lake Mburo are appearing in larger numbers due to genetic mutations that alter the production of melanin. This is changing the stripes’ colours and in some cases causing zebras to lose their stripes for polka dots.  

Fences, roads and human development is fragmenting the zebra population and preventing cross breeding across larger populations.  The resulting increase in zebras inbreeding is playing havoc with their stripes.  Not only that, but more critically, effected zebras will have more reason to get stressed as they become more noticeable to predators as their natural stripes mutate, change colour and even disappear.2  

Arguably, everything that is catastrophic about the world at this point in time is bound up in humanity’s moral failure to act.  Zebras losing their stripes is not just a local aberration, but a symptom of global import. 

We humans are over colonising the earth at such a rate that we are not only stripping zebras of their stripes but we are creating a mass existential crisis of global proportions.

David Quammen, who wrote the book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic back in 2012, said in a recent New York Times interview, “We’ve created a world where it’s impossible to make choices that don’t impact the natural world. The more we disrupt wild, diverse ecosystems, the greater jeopardy we have of contacting all of the very diverse viruses that wild animals carry.”

When asked if COVID-19 was sending us a message, Dr Dasack, a pandemic expert who co-authored “Global Trends in Emerging Infectious Diseases” responded.  “Nature didn’t send us this message. We sent it to ourselves,  Our consumer habits have changed the planet so significantly that “we dominate every ecosystem on earth right now.”  

“And our response is: we blame one country, versus another. We blame people who eat one species over people who eat another. And we blame nature. Well, no, we need to point the finger directly at ourselves, understand what’s going on and change it.”3

No amount of epinephrine hormone rush to our stress response mechanism to fight or flee will save us from our moral failure.  Failure in neglecting our God given mandates to steward creation, to love our neighbour, to practice justice.

Such moral obligation is another difference between us and zebras – despite what the Four Horseman, the apostles of the New Atheism, claimed.4 We are more than just animal instinct. But if we’re not, the ‘selfish gene’ will annihilate us all.

Moral failure is at root a spiritual problem best aided by church not state.  It’s unfortunate, to say the least, that much of the church concern and activism is focused on political self interest and sexual identity instead of who is my neighbour and stewardship of the planet.  

If we don’t act, others will re-act.  (Who else is getting updates from reputable news media sources of the rise of neo Nazis in Australia?)  

And then there is another worry which might at first seem quite tame compared to the growing threat of climatic-pandemic apocalypse but is no less lethal – and as you start to think about it, directly related.  This is the peculiar angst of first world greed

Cramming more and more stuff into our lives and deluding ourselves that we have super human powers is the Promethean myth repackaged as science by the life hacking and well being movements.

Most of us don’t need too much persuading that we haven’t got our act together (or is that just me?) and life could be just that much better if we had a secret formula to success (or not so secret as it turns out because such secrets can be found for sale on Facebook).

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals is a new book published this month (August 2021) by Oliver Burkeman.  An advanced thesis of the book appears in the Wall Street Journal essay by Burkeman, “Escaping the Efficiency Trap and Finding Some Peace of Mind.”  I love Burkeman’s work having read The Antidote, so I’ll be queueing up for his new book when its released.

Burkeman, who admits to having been a productivity geek, had a revelation. “I remember sitting on a park bench near my home in Brooklyn one winter morning in 2014, feeling even more anxious than usual about the volume of undone tasks, and suddenly realizing that none of this was ever going to work.”  

“I would never succeed in marshalling enough efficiency, self-discipline and effort to force my way through to the feeling that I was on top of everything, that I was fulfilling all my obligations and had no need to worry about the future. Ironically, the realization that this had been a useless strategy for attaining peace of mind brought me some immediate peace of mind.”

This stressful, anxiety ridden dilemma, common to so many of us is what Burkeman calls “the efficiency trap.” 

The more we believe we can find peace by increasing our efficiency, the more we are gaslighted by life hack mavericks and well being gurus.  

What’s needed is a willingness to resist productivity hacks and other such strategies that promise increased efficiencies.  What we really need is “…to learn to stay with the anxiety of feeling overwhelmed, of not being on top of everything, without automatically responding by trying to fit more in.”

Why do we attempt such super human feats of productivity with machine driven efficiency?  We are obsessed with making work easier with high tech gadgetry so we can get more out of life.  But in the process we lose our life.  

Uber deliveries, bots and apps all deliver increasing convenience by eliminating the human element.  But…”when you render the process more convenient, you drain it of its meaning.”

“Smoothness, it turns out, is a dubious virtue, since it is often the unsmoothed textures of life that make it liveable, helping to nurture the relationships that are crucial for mental and physical health, and for the resilience of our communities.  Your loyalty to your local taxi firm is one of those delicate social threads, that multiplied thousands of times, bind a neighbourhood together.”5

Why do we attempt such super human feats of productivity with machine driven efficiency?  We are obsessed with making work easier with high tech gadgetry so we can get more out of life.  But in the process we lose our life.  

This too, then, is a moral failure of ourselves to each other for which we suffer the pains of anxiety as symptom.  The cure is to unplug, disconnect from our machines and re-connect with our neighbours.  Again, and unfortunately, this is easier said than done for many of us.

How might we follow Burkeman’s advice and learn to live with the anxiety of lose ends and unfinished business?  A Galilean rabbi once told his followers…

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow.  God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”6

So I went for a walk under the sun’s promise of spring on an August day in Melbourne with my wife. We were ‘interrupted’ by our neighbour about nothing in particular but about everything that was human. We talked about COVID, music, gardening and families. She invited us to her aerobics class on line (we’re in lock down).

At a local cafe, where we stopped for coffee, a young waiter followed me out the door to tell me the name of the song playing (I was holding up my Sound Hound app but it was too noisy to pick up the song.)  It was Still Young by The Cat Empire.

Why do all things end in pain?
I called the ghosts and asked their names
Is that love you're running from?
If you lead, then I will come

And while you're still young
Find your heart and find your soul
Now where have you go?

This was human friction.  Not very efficient.  Yes, often inconvenient.  Not productive at all, but… I felt better for it.  Less anxious, more connected and – well, more human. 

Re-connecting our souls to each other will not only relieve our stress but, in the end, will lead us not into the temptation of avarice but deliver us from the injustice of greed and bring God’s kingdom to earth.  As a Christian, I believe it is the only way we can save our planet.


1 Sapolsky, Robert M. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (p. 2). Henry Holt and Co. Kindle Edition.

2 “Spotted and oddly striped zebras may be a warning for species’ future” National Geographic – 22 January 202, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/spotted-oddly-striped-zebras-may-be-warning-for-future

3 “Who’s To Blame For The Pandemic,” New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/01/video/coronavirus-pandemics-causes.html

4 The Four Horseman review – whatever happened to ‘New Atheism’, The Guardian 31 January 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jan/31/four-horsemen-review-what-happened-to-new-atheism-dawkins-hitchens

5 “Escaping the Efficiency Trap and Finding Some Peace of Mind,” Wall Street Journal https://www.wsj.com/articles/escaping-the-efficiency-trapand-finding-some-peace-of-mind-11628262751

6 Matthew 6:34, The Message


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Categories: Culture

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3 replies

  1. Many modern authors examined grappling with life’s angst searching for a panacea to all our modernity with its new paradigm for social interaction which is so divorced from the simplicity of our past because the speed of modality and modus operandi in communication evolves and mutates as fast as a microbe. This overwhelms the older generation and excludes the younger generation from a connectivity to a real world and confines it to the screen of a plethora of devices. How can one navigate their way through this technological labyrinth in a state of flux that threatens to overwhelm the fainthearted? A host of well being gurus and modern aphorisms from those who have learnt to unplug from the proverbial Matrix? I like the story of the zebra – take no heed for tomorrow for it will take heed for itself were the words of Jesus – words not spoken lightly considering the prospect of future fiery persecution that awaited the Church. It is into this modern world permeated by the tempest of nature and sociological complexity and angst that perhaps just focusing on today is sufficient for our thoughts as if we dwell on tomorrow we will never savour today but be absorbed in a perpetual cycle of anxiety circulating a tomorrow that remains a reality of our own making.

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