Our Chronic Anxiety

The events of recent weeks have prompted me to do some major reflection. The targeting of LGBT individuals in Orlando, the ensuing anti-Muslim aftermath, the state of our country’s presidential election, the deadlocked Supreme Court decision on DAPA/DACA, and yesterday’s referendum on BREXIT have been one disappointment after another, yet they seem to be a natural progression of the fever-pitched, heightened unease that’s characterized our world of late. Rather than anomalies, they are the latest wave of emotional and irrational responses that have polarized and mobilized everyone with internet access and a smartphone. We seem to be in a state of chronic anxiety.

What’s causing this chronic, debilitating anxiety? Is social transformation, caused by global political mismanagement, economic instability, violence, and migration moving at rapid-fire, breakneck speeds, coming at the expense of masses? Is this Teilhard’s evolution of consciousness gone amok? The rise of populist extremism, whether right or left, reveals a wholesale dissatisfaction with the establishment government and our political leaders’ ineffective, lackluster responses to these issues. The polarization of our political discourse is all too evident on both sides of the Atlantic, where the rise of figures like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump has encouraged previously untapped demographics to adopt a rejection of establishment government and a violent distrust of political talking heads. I am not saying that their views are all bad – they are certainly valid and genuine, since they tap into the needs and emotions of so many people (and I certainly agree with and support what at least one of these candidates have to say). However, this polarization has lead to a period of division, unproductive stagnation and political uncertainty, as can be seen in our country’s inability to pass sensible gun control legislation and the deadlocked DAPA/DACA decision.

The billboard of a Tennessee restaurant owner running for Congress reading "Make America White Again" has drawn criticism from Polk County residents. (Rick Tyler)
The billboard of a Tennessee restaurant owner running for Congress reading “Make America White Again” has drawn criticism from Polk County residents. (Rick Tyler)

Additionally, this has been accompanied by the rise of an aggressive and overt racism that is perhaps a result of our mistaken assumption that America has moved beyond its racist past. In an effort to slow down the rapid transformation of our society, certain people with a preservationist bent are compelled to seek a recovery of the past, to desire familiarity and nostalgia. These people who seek to “make American great again” have become “retromovement activists” (Scharmer, Theory U). They yearn for a Norman Rockwell past that they themselves did not experience, a past that is congruent with their romanticized, whitewashed, and white-privileged memories. Perhaps it is a sense of energy or tension I feel in the zeitgeist, but I have found myself growing increasingly impatient with the types of people who insist on a retrograde grasp at this non-existent past, as well those who bury their heads in the sand under the pretense that all is fine as it is or, even better, as it used to be. As a Christian, I have come to believe more and more that the way things are is not the fullness of justice and that the kingdom, though at hand (Mark 1:15), must be moved towards or uncovered in a forward-facing movement of faith. And yet I also know that my own anger and frustration at them is part of the problem.

For me, the recent events around the world have gone against the goal of “collective transformational change” that aspires to “break the patterns of the past and tune into our highest future possibility” (Scharmer). I believe that Christianity and all faith traditions are at their core fundamentally collective movements in which those who are disparate and dispossessed are unified and made whole in the reclamation of their status as beloved children of the Divine. For us Christians, this idea of universal kinship is paradoxical in nature, because although this status has already been won for us through the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22), its fulfillment lies in our collective, solicitous march towards and with the other.

The Supreme Court decision on DAPA/DACA, the British exit from the collective European project, and the individualistic ethos of suspicion that seems to pervade American and international contemporary existence is an affront to this collective in-folding of the people of God. Although our political leaders on both sides of the divide need to be held accountable, we also need to reflect on our role amidst all of this anxiety. The feverish politics in the United States and the rise of Trumpism – the aggressive brand of white anger targeted towards people of color, gun control advocates, immigrants, Muslims, gays, the poor, and other minorities – reveal deep seated, unexamined embedded beliefs and prejudices that so many of us have towards those who are different.

Do we possess any of these views against our brothers and sisters?
What are we doing to fan the flames of chronic anxiety and extremism?
Are we unwittingly part of it by returning violence with violence?

The British referendum after all was a case in point of a democratic process in which the slim majority of people, comprised of both far left and far right ideologies, canalized their rage against the machine and cast their ballots. Perhaps not realizing the full extent of their actions, many quickly experienced buyer’s remorse over a seemingly permanent, non-refundable purchase. What did they purchase but a false sense of self-reliance and security? The transaction was “us versus them”. All sales are final. No refunds. No exchanges. No re-votes.

In the context of the chronic anxiety of our time, what is the Christian response to such economic, political, and social polarization? “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others” (Philippians 2:1-4). Perhaps the response to our uneasiness, the contemporary dis-ease, is not to withdraw from being in relationship with our neighbors (BREXIT) or to build walls between nations (Trump), but rather to insist on a self-giving, mutual solicitude.

This understanding of Pauline kenosis is based on love as our primary motivating factor. It is an aspect of kenosis that is beyond the physical and emotional self-denial or asceticism that comes from a pietistic, simplistic reading of Scripture. It is an aspect of kenosis that calls for transcendence, not for the sake of self-focused self-abasement, but for the sake of an external encounter. It is a kenosis of letting go, of abandoning the defense mechanisms we’ve adopted in the anxiety of our political childhood, and which calls us to simultaneously traverse the unknown and step forward. Always forward.

A kenotic approach to leadership would necessitate a relinquishing of the certitude and control of the retromovement activist, the self-interested preservationist, and the defender of the status quo. All of these individuals’ visions are predicated on a comforting sense of the known, which invariable is solely based on a simplistic understanding of one’s own experience. They seek that which they already know and can grasp, which can foster a sense of power, control, and certitude. With this in mind, I am envisioning true leaders as one who does not regard power, control, and certitude as something to be grasped at (Philippians 2:6). In crossing the threshold, we forgo the safe certainty of the past and move towards an unknown, as yet undetermined future. It is an instance of letting go of all and of moving towards God, who is the ultimate other.

This imagery has conjured up for me the “nada, nada, nada, y aún en el monte nada” (“nothing, nothing, nothing, and even on the mountain nothing”) of John of the Cross. Though perhaps a stretch, I imagine that the soul’s journey towards union with God detailed in John’s Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul could be an apt analogy for the for collective desperation and disquietude that we are experiencing. The fear, the suspicion, the anger that pervades our day to day is akin to the period of darkness, doubt, and dryness that characterizes John’s crisis of faith and is perhaps a necessary if not welcome step in the journey of our collective self-realization. In John’s mystical and spiritual terms, a painful purgation leads to the perfection of the soul and to a divine union with the Creator. In this way, we discover our true, authentic self, free of the weight, layers, and baggage of our prejudices, fears, and defense mechanisms.

I realize the pitfalls of creating an overly simplified assemblage of our spiritual traditions in response to very complex and nuanced contemporary economic, political, and social issues, which have very real repercussions in people’s lives. Nonetheless, I am intrigued by the implications a reexamined spirituality can have in our roles as agents of social change. I feel drawn to further investigate the possibility of a kenotic, transformational approach to leadership and civic involvement. At the end of the day, I recognize that my lack of expertise in any of these subjects ought to be reason enough for anyone who disagrees with me to feel free to discard this post as rubbish (as can be seen I am not an economist, politician, social analyst, anthropologist, or even a theologian).

And yet, I take consolation that perhaps this ambiguity is perhaps part of the shedding. It is a shedding that is at the service of relationship for it operates on the assumption that the person across the divide is not evil, but fundamentally good. As Christians, we are called to shed suspicion of the other, to shed hatred of those whom we disagree with, and to shed the temptation to be safe and certain in our little corner of the world.

The Christian journey then becomes an act of faith, for the future, unpleasant in its lack of certainty, becomes an act of utter reliance on God’s Love.

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