Last night I had two separate anxiety dreams, and had another one Friday night. What is their origin?

The likely culprits are:

1) Reading Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the tone of which consistently separates the intelligent (aware, savvy, astute) from the unintelligent (oblivious, naive, blinkered). The result of reading it is to be forced to identify oneself as being isolated from the rest of society by your intelligence or by your lack of intelligence. What a zero sum game. Bah!

2) Busyness and positive feedback. I am currently directing three choruses and have recently received lots of positive feedback. The time required to prepare the music for three groups is significant but not overwhelming, and is not the cause of my anxiety.

The effect on me of receiving lots of positive (complimentary) feedback is, however, like drinking five cups of coffee be: it makes me   r  e  a  l  l  y   jittery. According to Donella Meadows, writing in Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, “Positive feedback loops are sources of growth, explosion, erosion, and collapse in systems. A system with an unchecked positive loop ultimately will destroy itself. That’s why there are so few of them. Usually a negative loop will kick in sooner or later.”

To take an image from Antifragile, the positive feedback I’ve been receiving is like the proverbial sword of Damocles. From the Wikipedia article, “According to the story, pandering to his king, Dionysius, Damocles exclaimed that, as a great man of power and authority surrounded by magnificence, Dionysius was truly extremely fortunate. Dionysius then offered to switch places with Damocles, so that Damocles could taste that very fortune firsthand. Damocles quickly and eagerly accepted the king’s proposal. Damocles sat down in the king’s throne surrounded by every luxury, but Dionysius arranged that a huge sword should hang above the throne, held at the pommel only by a single hair of a horse’s tail. Damocles finally begged the king that he be allowed to depart because he no longer wanted to be so fortunate, realizing that with great fortune and power come also great peril and anxiety.”

In other words, the complimentary feedback sets up a sword of Damocles, an unstable positive feedback loop that “sooner or later’ will be replaced by a negative loop. I can hardly wait. The other thing that is unpleasant about being in a time of positive feedback is that it can make one obsessively self-referential. This is profoundly unhealthy as it tends to encourage measurement of oneself against one’s peers.

If there weren’t many, many good reasons to be deeply engaged in the preparation of Handel’s Solomon on the merits of the music, the fact that the libretto depicts a great king ultimately corrupted by his power, riches, and inability to resist striving for ever more sensuous gratification is a humbling reminder that none of us are immune from a fall from grace. It might seem presumptuous for me to compare myself to Solomon, but with a name like Richard, which comes from the German, French, and English “ric” (ruler, leader, king) and “hard” (strong, brave), you can understand why I might be a little sensitive to life as a king – and to the prospect of a fall.

I don’t want to fall. (In fact, I don’t want to climb.) I don’t want to feel as if I am defined by someone else’s measurement of who I am compared to another person. I DO want to be engaged in what I do at the highest level of which I am capable.

I’ll close by passing along a compliment that I (indirectly) received from a member of the Burlington Choral Society that pleases me immensely – showing, I suppose, that I will forever be susceptible both to a kind word, and to the danger of being caught in a positive feedback loop.

It was reported to me that someone said, in describing my relationship with the chorus, that “We love him and he loves us.”

I can live with that. Love is big enough to hold all kinds of loops.