I watched the other night a not very well well known film by Italian Giuseppe Tornatore called ”The Legend of1900” in English. Starring Tim Roth, it tells the story of a person born on board a cross Atlantic steamer ship on January 1, 1900, abandoned at birth by his unknown mother who most likely got out at New York City, greeting her new life in the so-called new world unencumbered by the challenges of an infant.

What gives this story its main theme is that this infant was taken care of by a workman on the ship, and raised to never leave the boat. Without a passport, identity or name, he was kept in the hull of the ship and tended by the many workers there. We see him as a young boy, learning to read; we see him as an adolescent, first beginning to play the piano; and then he is an adult man, and one of the greatest piano players ever. Beautiful scenes in the film of him sitting at a grand piano, making music and entertaining the passengers as they jitterbug around.

His whole world is the ship. He knows nothing else. He sees people walk off the gangplank and onto solid land at the ports, but he has no desire to know more than the ship. He tells his good friend, a trumpet player, that his music is inspired by seeing the people on the ship and imagining their stories, their lives, their worlds. He says the land is a harsh place, it seems, unending, never satisfied, and that land people always seem to be searching for more, never content with what they have.

I have been thinking a lot about so-called anxiety. Yes, I know, we all sometimes feel anxious about things, which is only normal, especially in the craziness of our current lifestyle. But I am talking about something more than this passing anxiety – I am talking about the kind of anxiety that can seem to take over people and make them feel so fearful, unsettled and – well –anxious about something, anything, that it can almost be immobilizing at times.

I guess I have been thinking about it a lot because I have been dealing with various people in the last few years who clearly have an “anxious” tendency, and trying to find ways both to understand this (as it is not my natural predilection) and also to support and help them. I will be honest, it can make me anxious to deal with people I care about who are anxious.

Yes, I have learned some strategies. And I have also learned a lot from them. Oftentimes, it seems. They want a clear and specific explanation and response. They are reassured by regularity, repetition, and definition. Expansion and open-endedness seem scary, anxiety provoking, fear generating.

Back to this movie. 1900, the young man sees a beautiful woman on the ship and begins to fall in love with her. He plays her his best music ever; and wants to offer to her the one record ever made of his piano work. When she heads off down the gangplank to New York City, she shouts out her address on Mont Street and invites him to visit her.

He tries. Next cross Atlantic voyage he packs up all his things, says good bye to the only home and people he has ever known, and setoff down the gangplank to pursue the woman of his dreams. One step; another. He is halfway down the gangplank when he hesitates. Then he stops. Pregnant silence. We all await his decision.

He turns back to his beloved ship and home, vowing never ever to leave it again. He explains later that the city appeared to him so unending, so limitless, that he knew he would never be satisfied there, he would always want more, always be searching for something he could never find. While on his ship, he knew everything, everyone, and that was world enough for him.

Many of the people who seem to have anxious tendencies that I know appear to me to be sensitive souls, kind hearted people, compassionate and empathetic. Open hearts. Nurturing, creative, beauty loving. Several have told me that they wish they never had to work, and that they could tend to their houses, their gardens, their loved ones. Here I am talking about people as close to me as my mother, my daughter, and others.
They remind me, in a manner of speaking, of 1900.

It used to be, not so long ago in human history and still true in many places in the world, that most of humanity was born and died within a small area of land; they many not venture more than twenty or thirty miles in the course of their lifetime. And their lives were very regular, following the rhythms of the seasons and plantings. Year after year, one knew what to expect and anticipate. Family and friends were key, both for survival and for support.

When I think about the nature of most of our lives these days, and of most workplaces in particular, I shudder. What a complex, and sometimes convoluted society. So many choices, so many options, so much information. It can be overwhelming. It can provoke anxiety in all of us.

Unfortunately, many of these sensitive souls with anxious tendencies can’t retreat back up the gangplank to their safe haven, as 1900 could. So maybe what we need to strive for is to find a balance – a healing balance – between apparent structure and safety and the unknown and seemingly unending expansiveness of many aspects of our life.

And interestingly, it may just be in finding this balance that we are also helping to create kinder, gentler and more nurturing society for all of us. There are so many gifts and teachings that these sensitive souls give to the rest of us – as we strive to understand our differing ways of interpreting the environment in which we live and work. After all, 1900 was considered in the movie the greatest pianist ever. Emily Dickinson one of the greatest poets our country has produced so far. And maybe, just maybe, someone you know who has anxious tendencies may be one of the greatest people you have ever met.

Published May 2015 in the “Monadnock Shopper.”  by Skye Stephenson.

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