Dealing with Chronic Anxiety: A Re-frame That Mattered

November 17, 2016

“There is more chronic anxiety to deal with,” was his answer to my question during a recent visit. John, let’s name him, is approaching the end of his pastoral ministry. In contrast, my ending has now been eighteen years. So my question: “How is it different?” His response: “There is more chronic anxiety to deal with now.”

I remember precisely when I first heard the phrase “chronic anxiety.” In a lecture on leadership Edwin Friedman, referencing his mentor Murray Bowen, said, “Our society is functioning like a chronically anxious family.” I perked up and took notice. What does that mean? Understanding this manifestation of anxiety changed my functioning as pastor. It became a re-frame that mattered.

During seminary days I learned about anxiety. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote about the angst of being human, the inherent anxiety of being finite, uncertain, not in control. Paul Tillich, in The Courage to Be, identified the recurrent human anxieties as fate and death, guilt and condemnation, and emptiness and meaninglessness. He believed that the form of anxiety dominant in our time is meaninglessness, the lack of a compelling purpose for living. Then there is acute anxiety. Much of my pastoral care training was learning skilled, compassionate responses to persons and families in acute crises, the kind of anxiety in loss of life, faith, jobs, health, and relationships.

But chronic anxiety is another matter. Here’s the difference. Acute anxiety is definable and pin-pointed; it results from a specific loss and has a beginning and ending. In acute anxiety the loss is keenly experienced, but over time the acuteness or intensity of the felt loss usually subsides. The loss of relationship, the loss of a job, the loss of faith — the familiar arena of every pastor — are examples of acute anxiety. Chronic anxiety, on the other hand, is systemic. It lives within and between us with no clear boundaries. It’s in the air we breathe, invisible and potentially explosive like gas fumes.

There are specific behaviors that signal chronic anxiety at work, whether in family or congregation or society.

Blaming: The fault is not mine; it is out there, someone or something else. Blame for difficulty is displaced, distancing us from painful acknowledgment.

Reactivity: the vicious cycle of intense reaction to events or persons that by-passes the cortex (thoughtful thinking), like billiard balls bouncing off of each other.

Herding: the polarizing instinct to retreat into camps in a posture of “us” against “them.”

Pushing for a quick fix: the urge to relieve the painful anxiety by finding quick solutions.

Do these behaviors look familiar? Of course they do. At every turn, whether in the public or private arena, we see and feel ample examples. In fact, this behavior is so prevalent that some just presume that’s the way life is.

The connection to pastoral leadership — the subject of our conversation — is striking. Leadership, let’s understand, calls for the opposite of each of these chronically anxious behaviors. When leading, in contrast to blaming, we call for taking responsibility for our participation in both the problem and its resolution. When leading, in contrast to automatically reacting, we call for thoughtful responses. When leading, in contrast to herding or polarizing, we call for collaboration across differences in the pursuit of shared goals. When leading, in contrast to quick fixes, we think long-term and call for the willingness to accept short-term pain for future gain.

No wonder — I want to shout — it’s so challenging to be a leader in our day! No wonder it feels like swimming against the tide! No wonder there is the current level of burn out, loneliness, and despair among many leaders! The atmosphere of chronic anxiety makes creative leadership almost impossible. My admiration goes to you and other leaders who dare to assume this role, placing yourselves intentionally in the midst of toxic anxiety and from that place attempt to lead with courage, wisdom, and vision.

Friedman goes on to speculate why there is such a high level of chronic anxiety in our day. The rapid rate of change is one. All of us feel, to some degree, overwhelmed by the amount and speed of change. In previous eras change came at an arithmetic pace — 2-4-6-8-10. Now the pace is exponential — 2-4-8-16-32. At the end of World War II, the complete knowledge of humankind doubled every 25 years. Today knowledge doubles every 13 months. Change at this pace keeps our heads spinning, generating the anxiety of never “catching up,” feeling “behind” much of the time.

A second source of chronic anxiety is the release of anxiety binders. Friedman notes that the anxiety around difference has traditionally been bound in tight, discriminating stereotypes such as racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and hetero-sexism. While we celebrate the cracking open of these binding prejudices, we are also left with the anxiety of uncertainty. In relationships of diversity we find ourselves in unfamiliar, uncharted territory, feeling the challenge of learning new ways of relating on multiple fronts across differences that are honest and mutually respectful.

How then do you deal with increasing chronic anxiety? How can we approximate being an open-hearted presence in the midst of chronically anxious situations? Here are a few of my practices that I hope will stimulate a review of your own.

First, notice without judgment expressions of chronic anxiety. Perk up when you experience either in relationships or in yourself the alarms, that is, reactivity in the form of blaming or polarizing or pushes for quick fixes. Notice. Notice these behaviors and remember that when they reign, creativity and reasonableness are sabotaged.

Second, if you notice these behaviors in relationships, with either one or more persons, consider ways to invite the lowering of anxiety. The most essential gift that lowers anxiety is your own non-anxious presence. This does not mean you are not anxious. It means you find ways to reduce your own anxiety so you can be non-anxious within your role as leader. We know from experience that leaders, like thermostats, by their presence and actions, will either fuel more heat or lower it.

Other lowering responses in a group might include these. When noting the “not listening” occurring, you might call for a few minutes of thoughtful, prayerful silence. Or, “triangling” in the mission/purpose of the meeting can sometimes return the attention to the larger, mutual reason for gathering. Offering or joining lightness and humor will also lower the tension, because we can’t be anxious and playful at the same time. Even simply slowing down the interactions by a careful, respectful summary of what is being said will reduce the pace and stress.

This leads to the third point, the most important and challenging one: working with your own anxiety. You have your own ways. Know them, use them, and expand your repertoire. Again, noticing is the first step. Notice when and how you are being triggered into reactive behavior — blaming (including yourself), polarizing (binary thinking), and over-identifying with quick, specific outcomes.

Fortunately we live in a time when there is a plethora of technologies being rediscovered and offered as resources for our chronically anxious time. These include contemplative prayer, other meditation traditions, stress relaxation techniques, chanting, yogi, and other body-work practices. All of them are practices that help you over time develop, like a muscle, the capacity to let go of anxious reactivity sometimes even in the midst of it.

Theologically I see these practices as surrender, a letting go, a dis-identifying of these anxious thoughts and feelings, then returning to my deepest identity as rooted and grounded in Love, in God. I am fond of Martin Laird’s metaphor: “I am the mountain, not the weather.” My identity — the grace of Being, being loved — if I allow it, is as solid as a mountain. All else, the array of thoughts and feelings, comes and goes like the weather.

Self-regulation is the widely understood word for this inner work. Whatever the particular practice you might employ, it’s a process of releasing our energies squandered through egoic re-activity and returning to a non-anxious center, sometimes even within chronically anxious settings. There’s no quick fix here. This is long-term inner work. More accurately, this is life-long inner work.

In summary, naming chronic anxiety gifted me in two ways. It unveiled the energy source of ruinous chronic behaviors ever so present in all our institutions, including congregations and family. Also this understanding framed the spiritual, inner work required for leadership, namely, how to be in chronic anxiety without being of it. It is a re-frame that has mattered.

A comprehensive description of this inner process of self-regulation as prayer can be found in the chapter “The Welcoming Prayer,” in Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening.

 


Power-Over to Power-With: A Re-Frame That Mattered

September 14, 2015

“I’ve been Pharaoh to every liberation movement,” once wrote William Sloan Coffin. “Me too,” I remember thinking when these words passed in front of my eyes over thirty years ago.

I’ve been “Pharaoh” in this sense: I was born into systems — family, church, nation, world — that work to my favor, my well-being and to the dis-favor, ill-being of others. Just being male, white, heterosexual, upper middle class, American — not my choice or achievement — gives me a privilege and power edge. “Born on third base” makes the point. At times this fact has been a source of guilt; at other healthier times, it’s been a resource of influence, an “alongside” resource to mercy and justice making.

During my life-time I have been engaged by the major freedom movements of our day:
women’s liberation; black liberation; gay liberation; class/economic liberation; and liberation from USA as empire. The surprise to me, or more accurately, the grace to me has been the taste of inner freedom these movements have brought to me as well. In my advantages, often disguised, I have found some liberation from the loneliness, constriction, and fear that comes with being in “Pharaoh’s” seat. Or to shift to a biblical metaphor, privileged positions are “logs in our eyes,” preventing clear vision. Every liberation movement is all about seeing clearly and acting from that awareness, from that awakening.

The re-frame that mattered is this: from relationships characterized by power-over to relationships embodying shared power, power-with. Unlike the other re-frames I have named, this change has been gradual and incremental, sometimes painfully so. The older I become, the deeper I see my complicity with domination systems that privilege me. But this re-frame has been clear for decades. It has provided a lens through which I have viewed power. This aspiration for just relationships, which I take to be God’s intention, has been a theme of inner work for all these years.

The rise of feminine power came first to my awareness. In my nuclear family, it was my education that received priority, since my sister would be “only” a wife and mother. There were no females in my seminary classes. At the time, there were no female pastors anywhere except among Pentecostals. And it was assumed that once married, Janice and I would move to where my vocation took us . . . with no questions raised.

But the question was raised soon after Betty Friedan in Feminine Mystique (1964) set fire to a revolution. Around 1968, my wife, Janice said to me, “No longer do I want to be the woman behind the man. I’m returning to graduate school to prepare for my own vocation.”

She did. And we entered therapy. The hard, long work of redefining our marriage began. We relinquished marriage as a one-vote system or one-vocation system while reaching for the capacity and skills to become partners, equal partners. We risked, both of us did, toward a fresh life in this new way of experiencing power. Janice and I were among the fortunate ones, making it through these rapids without capsizing. Beyond marriage, this shift opened me to the gift of women in church leadership, the gift of feminine scholarship, and friendships that have gifted my life and ministry ever since.

Next came the black liberation movement. “Black power” was the awareness finding voice in neighboring Washington, D.C. in 1967. Our suburban congregation, Ravensworth Baptist Church, formed a partnership with a black congregation, First Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church. On many Saturdays about twelve members from each congregation met with a trained facilitator to explore the possibilities of honest, interracial relationships. We keep meeting until they became tired of helping us see our racism. However, during the riots following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, our church partnership provided a bridge of support during those fearful, divisive days. It was the beginning, a very small beginning, of interracial friendships that allow for difficult, transformative conversations.

Let’s stop at this point, allowing me to name the theological shift that was under-girding this re-ordering of power-relationships. Walter Wink was my primary mentor, in particular his Engaging the Powers, the third book in his trilogy on Powers. Other theological framing, such as process theological thinking, has shaped me as well, but Wink addressed directly the theme of this essay. He notes the rise of systemic domination around 3000 B.C.E. with the city-states of Sumer and Babylon, each system being authoritarian and patriarchal. He steps back, noting the prevailing assumption of “domination systems” for these five thousand years — the fundamental right of some to have coercive power over others (power-over). There developed what Wink calls “the myth of redemptive violence,” the belief that power as violence can save, can solve problems. No wonder, with so many centuries of re-enforcement, this transformation of power in relationships is slow, arduous work, one step at a time.

Domination systems have largely prevailed as the norm during these centuries, but not without challenges and not without alternative options of relational power. The Old Testament prophets denounced the domination arrangements of their day, giving words to the longing for a more just order. In Jesus, God’s domination-free order of nonviolent love is clearly and profoundly unveiled. By word and action Jesus gave flesh to this re-frame of liberation by up-ending assumed power structures of his day. But the domination system proved too strong. Roman imperial forces joined with Jewish leadership to crush the Jesus non-violent movement of compassion and equality. Well . . . not fully or finally. Resurrection, among other things, means that this God movement could not be crushed. Indeed, and in every century since, within domination systems there have always been counter witnesses of Domination-Free relationships. Against this historical background, we can marvel and hail — and yes, join — the multiple liberation movements over time, and in particular our time.

Then came the gay liberation movement in the last decades in the 20th century, another challenge to “Pharaoh.” At that time, when I was a pastoral counselor, some persons came to me struggling with their sexual identity. A few became clear: their orientation was same-sex attraction, not opposite-sex attraction. I was close enough to feel their dilemma — costly to “come out of the closet,” costly not to. There it was again: I, a person of privilege, hearing stories of abusive power, including condemnation from the church. By 1984 I had returned to the church as pastor. Soon I began hearing from some clergy: “AIDS is God’s judgment on homosexuality.” I knew better, I thought. I was, in some sense, forced out of “my closet,” feeling called to offer another voice from the church. Once again, the paradox was at work. In joining a freedom movement I experienced a measure of new freedom and grace.

Economic injustice, another form of abusive power, remains even more entrenched in my life. My privilege of income, house, insurance, and automobile has set me apart, in spite of efforts here and there to come alongside the hungry, thirsty stranger, the naked, sick, and imprisoned — those relationships where Jesus said we could find him. I remain, certainly by global standards, an affluent Christian, just as I remain in systems that favor me and disfavor others.

Within these systems, I can and do attempt to dis-identify, dis-engage, and de-tach from the abuses of power, while at the same time I continue to enjoy the fruits of privilege. Rooted and grounded in mercy within this soil of ambivalence and ambiguity, I can find some laughter at my efforts, even a measure of joy in my half-heartedness.

In this reflection I am not advocating the effort to dismantle hierarchy, even if we could. A hierarchy of roles is necessary in families and other organizations. I am advocating a different understanding of power, one incarnated clearly in Jesus of Nazareth. We know the difference between power that is coercive, dominating, and abusive and power that aligns, comes alongside, empowers, and invites, valuing mutuality, offering partnership. We know that difference.

It’s the difference I saw in the re-frame: from power-over to power-with in all relationships.

This re-frame mattered. It still matters.