Anxiety and the Myth of Security
January 15, 2018—I have observed manifestations of how anxiety can lead to reactivity in a search for security. This reactivity takes the form of people seeking certitude in a time of uncertainty. But the fact is that security, guarantees, and certitudes are myths. Helen Keller wrote,
“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold. Faith alone defends.”
The field in which I work, theological education, has not been immune to the challenges of the times. Seminaries are closing, donations are down, and downsizing, rightsizing, and selling off of assets are common responses across the landscape and denominations.
Young clergy today arguably experience more anxiety than those in recent generations past. Trained in theological schools with a heady classical curriculum—or some with more contemporary academic foci on post-you-name-it—post-graduation they find themselves in the “real world,” responsible for things which they are untrained and unprepared: underfunded budgets, raising money, meeting payroll for staff and employees, building maintenance on aging structures, and the challenge of providing meaningful pastoral care of the soul in the deep well of human suffering, apathy, and struggles. Not a few will find themselves closing the very congregations they were called to rescue—with little preparation for handling the emotional, legal, and administrative complexities that involves.
In the midst of these anxieties many seek the myth of security, mostly manifested in reactivity. People demand assurances, trustees demand accountability, denominations point fingers, and faculty herd by forming clubs or guilds or senates or unions. Some faculty move from one school to another, and pastors rotate congregations in short cycles of three to four years, all in search of security only to discover that the state of affairs is the same all over—there is no greener grass to be had.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote,
“It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things. What shall you gain by doing this? Time. There will be many happenings meanwhile which will serve to postpone, or end, or pass on to another person, the trials which are near or even in your very presence. . . . Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime it is not. So look forward to better things.”
The irony is that in anxious times what is needed is not a search for safety or certitude, but a boldness of adventure and imagination. As Einstein said, “The true sign on intelligence is not knowledge, but imagination.” And Rabbi Edwin Friedman, warning about the myth of imaginative gridlock, described systems suffering from imaginatively gridlocked as characterized by an unending treadmill of trying harder, looking for answers rather than reframing questions, and either/or thinking that creates false dichotomies. Friedman challenges leaders that breakthroughs are driven not by anxious search for adventure rather than certainty, willingness to encounter serendipity, and the will to overcome imaginative barriers—especially self-imposed perceptions of limits and anxieties over perceived or imagined threats.
While leaders must accept that some threats are real, the experience of anxiety is real, and some challenges can be overwhelming, the search for certitude, security, and guarantees is a shortcut to failure, for that posture is a pursuit of a myth. Here’s a contrast between the insecure leader and the imaginative leader:
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.
Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans.