If there’s one word to describe the times in which we’re living, I’d say that word is “anxious.” The kind of anxious that has moved beyond a background feeling, like a low-grade fever, to full-blown anxiety.
Intense and persistent worry and fear that permeate every day. Resultant sleeplessness. Irritability. Depression. Fear. Immobilization.
When anxiety threatens, the best antidote is leadership that Rabbi Ed Friedman calls the “nonanxious presence.” Anxiety is contagious, like a virus. It takes very little for it to spread rapidly through any system or community — weakening its heart, intention, ideals and behaviors.
Unfortunately, leadership at all levels of government in this country is anything but “nonanxious.” While the non-anxious leader is aware of emotions in the system but stays above the struggle as a symbol of all the people and a maintainer of calm, stability and reason.
Too many local, state and federal leaders are not only in the middle of the emotions, they are directing and exacerbating them, leading to dangerous acts of violence on the part of followers who feel they have permission to threaten members of the media or a daughter grieving at her father’s casket or level personal insults on anyone whose opinions are different from their own.
When the president of the United States threatens violence if his party does not win midterm elections, it is a dangerous 70-year-old reflection of Robert Penn Warren’s Willie Stark in “All the King’s Men.” He was following the advice of his operative: “Sweet Jesus, Willie! Don’t try to improve their minds. Go for the gut.”
Mob mentality. Stir ‘em up. Divide and conquer. Anxiety goes up a notch.
When our governor criticizes teachers, casually stating that somewhere children are being raped because they are at the Capitol protesting unfair treatment, it is not leadership but deliberate baiting of people for the sake of political agenda.
When a local government rushes to unpopular decisions in secrecy and without citizen voices being heard, the lack of facts raises fears, assumptions ... and anxiety.
Qualities of true leadership in any system are neither liberal or conservative, but related to basic survival at one end of the continuum of life in a social structure, and the decency and civility that differentiate life in a democracy from other forms of common life.
While there are examples aplenty of other cultures where the creation of anxiety is the forerunner of some of the worst autocratic abuses of power in history, the 1954 novel by William Folding, “Lord of the Flies,” — a story about British schoolboys stranded on a deserted island — offers a fictitious but all-too real warning of the disasters.
Anxiety-producing behaviors used as a strategy by elected adults has nothing to do with leadership, and everything to do with promoting self above the common good. Anxiety and it’s byproducts — fear and separation — weaken a city, a county, a state, a nation; immobilizing at a time when coming together to break negative patterns is most needed. We are facing such a time today.
Who is going to step up, name the virus and refuse to allow it to defeat democracy? It is the responsibility of every citizen who refuses to allow democracy die to become a part of the non-anxious presence. In collective calm and reasoned passion and strength, they should fight for the ideals of democracy over autocracy, in order that we not simply survive, but thrive.
Kay Collier McLaughlin, an author and leadership consultant, lives in Nicholas County. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.