Living in the Age of Anxiety

Volatile political rhetoric, violence, economic destabilization, disgruntled parents of a local cub scout troop and the local congregation – What do these things have in common?

As you all know, we live in an age of anxiety.  That anxiety is showing up in all of the above examples that I listed.  A friend of mine recently told me that in the last month or two, some of the parents in his cub scout troop have been acting in a more hostile manner than usual.  One of the parents has recently begun going around talking to other parents to complain about a change in the color coding of the leaders filing system.  From the outside, this sounds ridiculous, but the complaining parent has made it into a major issue.  This is disrupting what sounds like a pretty good scout troop.

What’s going on?

Whenever societies, tribes, families go through a time of change (which means everyone these days) it is always true that those who have the most difficulty taking responsibility for their own emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth will start to blame, accuse and sabotage.  We are in one of those times, and it’s clear we are not getting out of this any time soon.  What’s a cub scout leader to do?


I propose three quick and easy fixes that will solve all of your problems in less than 24 hours.  Yeah, right.  We live in an age of the quick fix, which of course we know, does not exist.  But, it does sell a lot of books and seminars.  I know of no quick fix, but here are some things I have learned, and continue to learn.

  1. 1.     My own temptation (and this is me, and may not be you) is to go toe to toe with the recalcitrant behavior.  One of the key learnings I’ve experienced is that is not only ineffective, it also does little to grow the capacity of the other parents of the scout troop.  It’s essential for me to gather other people, take them to lunch, seek their wisdom, share all the information, ask for help.  In other words, don’t go it alone.  You’ll be carrying the burden alone, absorbing all the anxiety.  Whenever, I find myself going it alone, I stop and call a friend, whose job it is to ask me the ghost busters question: “So, who ya gonna call?”
  2. 2.     Remember there is a difference between people who come to you with a complaint, and speak in a language that suggests reasoned thoughtfulness versus those that have gone overboard on a relatively small matter.  The first person often comes with “I” language, and even possible helpful suggestions.  The second person comes with accusatory and conspiratorial “you” language often siting chapter an d verse from constitutions, state criminal code and policy numbers from page 47 of the iTunes user agreement.  Obviously, engaging with person number one leads to solutions, engaging with person number two, is why you are continuing to read this post.
  3. 3.     In my experience, the parent in the cub scout troop who is threatening to file legal charges over the new color coding system of the six year olds, is most likely projecting some unresolved matter from their family of origin.  The reactivity, blame displacement, herding instinct are all symptomatic of “stuff” they have in their family.  How many times have I been on the receiving end of a viscious email, only later to discover the person has a major health crisis with themselves or another member of their family, a child going through a messy lawsuit, financial instability and 400,000 other possibilities.  My point here is that rarely is the issue the real issue.   Now, here is a cautionary note.  The reality is we can all become reactive and blaming.  Everyone one of us.  It’s part of protoplasm since the move out of Eden.  I point this out, because we all have the potential for thinking it’s all about the other person, and not about us.
  4. 4.     What’s particularly challenging is that I am more vulnerable when I’m more vulnerable.  Huh?  In other words, the cub scout parent seems to emerge around the same time that my daughter in Oregon suddenly needs extra attention, or my employer is changing the work schedule in such a way that messes up my ability to do my work/family life balance.  In other words, when %#(! Happens, more %$@! Happens.  Theologically speaking, Sin abounds.  It’s almost as if the forces of malfunction discover each other and sense an opportunistic infection. 
  5. 5.     I do two very concrete and specific things to maintain my own sanity.  First, I get deeper into my tradition.  For me that means, reading the Old Testament.  Those stories of prophets and kings.  The narratives of disruption and survival.  If all else fails, I go to the Psalms.  If nothing else, it reminds me that what I’m dealing with is not about the cub scout parents and color coded bands, it’s about a multi-thousand year old evolutionary process.  The other thing I try to do, is dream BIG.  Where do I want to be in 12 months, 24 months?  Where do I want the organization I’m leading to be?  I write it down. I rewrite it.  I try to get clearer and clearer on where I’m going, where we are going, where God is leading us.  Once I get super duper clear on that, I start talking about it.  Telling friends, then telling my enemies.  In a certain sense, I’m working on my own “I have a Dream" speech.  If appropriate, I’ll even stand up some day and give that speech.

And finally, if all else fails, just let the crazies take over the scout troop, walk away and go find something else to do on another planet - cause we all know there are seats available on the next rocketship.

We live in times that manifest anxiety, where the public discourse is giving permission for people to be mean and stupid.  The challenge for all of us is to dig deep into the inner resources that lead to maturity over data, stamina over technical solutions, and personal responsibility over niceness. This is stuff that’s true for presidents and parents, CEO’s, educators, coaches and pastors.

A resource that has helped me immensely is Ed Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.