January 6th, as congress gathered to count the electoral college votes, a gathered crowd erupted into violence at the capitol building. The crowd gathered in an attempt to “save America” that appears to have been encouraged by President Trump. The rioting eventually broke into the capitol building, resulting in the clash disrupting the congressional session. As of this writing, it has been reported that 4 rioters and 1 police officer were killed, at least 5 rioters hospitalized, 56 injured officers, and more than 80 arrests. (For more information, I will refer you to the Wikipedia page and this timeline by the Boston Globe).
In response to these events, many of us have found ourselves shocked, confused, disappointed, fearful, saddened, and more. Regardless of where you stand on the political left or right, this behavior is not the America that almost anyone wants. Riots that disrupt Congress? The democratic process interrupted and then held in place by violence? Whether you disagree or agree that there has been electron fraud and Donald Trump has been mistreated, this present moment probably gives us all pause and stirs grief.
How Do We Process This?
In response to these events, Christian leaders have responded in numerous ways: many calling for prayer for our country, some condemning the violence, some maintaining there has been election fraud and to continue to seek for that to be exposed. Regardless of which angle has been taken, it’s been surprising to me how much response there has been to the content of the events, and how little attention to the emotional process of our nation at the present. Whether leaders are saying, “See, I told you the left/right was correct?” or they’re saying, “It’s hard to know who is correct.”, almost everyone is talking about whether the events of the moment are justified (or not), and I don’t see a lot of conversation about why they’re happening.
A number of years ago, I asked our then-senior pastor Happy Leman what the best leadership book he knew of was. He said that Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve was the best leadership book he knew, and that led me to reading the book once a year for many years. It’s a dense and difficult book to understand (I don’t think I really got it until the third time through), but I have long felt it the most profound and powerful perspective on leadership because it is based on a systems perspective. Systems thinking is a radical shift for most of us because it runs counter to many of the assumptions we take into solving problems. For example, if we think in cause-and-effect categories, that’s a sign we aren’t thinking in systems (which cause much of their own behavior).
The key idea to take away is the idea that every system has a degree of anxiety that it is working to manage and deal with. This anxiety flows back and forth through the system and when it finds a place in the system where the level of anxiety transcends the degree of differentiation, that part of the system regresses; it begins to become reactive and is driven by the anxiety of the system.
Now a brief note here: when we think of anxiety, many of us think of feeling concerned or fearful. While that can be how systemic anxiety manifests, we are talking about something more abstract than being fearful here. We are talking about the degree of being at your best/worst, which actually lives in relational systems and passes between us, not just in our own personal state.
We’re probably all used to experiencing this on a personal level; we have times when our anxiety overwhelms us and the worst comes out. That mental mode that we find ourselves in at that time – the mode where we are reactive, we can’t think clearly, we’re locked in fight-or-flight and we respond out of fear or anger that is driving us, that is what I mean when I say regression. Edwin Friedman’s key insight is that systems have anxiety and systems regress as well. And that includes the system of our nation.
The Systemic Anxiety in Our Country
So let’s consider the last nine months. Since March, there has possibly not been a single person in our country who has not been forced into a massive life change. The degree of loss many have faced should probably rank as high as most of us have experienced. Many have experienced loss of jobs, some loss of friends or family members, and nearly everyone has lost whatever “normal” means in their life. We have all been placed in a situation where we feel helpless to effect change towards our lives as we formerly knew them returning, and no one has any idea when the situation will begin to resolve itself, or what that resolution will look like.
We’ve been forced into an unusually stressful situation, and simultaneously many of the ways that we use to cope with stress or anxiety have been cut off. Gone are the days of going to the movies with friends or grabbing a bite to eat at a new restaurant just for the fun of it. Many hobbies have been interrupted, most social functions cut off, at this point for nine months.
So we find ourselves in a situation with much higher stress and many fewer ways to channel that stress away from us. What does that mean? It means that the systemic anxiety in our country (and to differing degrees, this is happening in every country) is incredibly high and continues to escalate. It seems more than likely to me that for as long as we’re in this situation, it will continue to do so.
Here are five symptoms that Friedman points out are signals of high (and growing) anxiety in a relational system. See if they sound familiar:
- Reactivity: The vicious cycle of intense reactions of each member to events and to one another. Everything is taken personally. People diagnose and label others. The disappearance of playfulness. Efforts to establish reasonable discussion of the issues are a waste, and efforts to mold a working consensus are impossible. Leaders become less imaginative, and eventually, resign or just “go through the motions.”
- Herding: a process through which the forces for togetherness triumph over the forces for individuality and move everyone to adapt to the least mature members. Feelings are more important than ideas. Peace is valued over progress. Comfort is valued over adventure. Problems are formulated in rigid either/or, black-and-white, all-or-nothing categories. It hinders the capacity to be decisive. Polarization occurs. Leaders lose the ability to stand alone after they make a decision. Leaders become indecisive because, tyrannized by sensibilities, they function to soothe rather than challenge and to seek peace rather than progress
- Blame displacement: an emotional state in which family members focus on forces that have victimized them rather than taking responsibility for their own being and destiny. We blame others rather than “owning” our own stuff. The capacity to take responsibility for one’s own being and destiny requires integrity, which in this context means not only honesty but being “put together well.” Litigiousness may have become a middle-class form of violence. Safety can never be allowed to become more important than adventure. The least mature are selected as leaders while those with the greatest integrity, precisely those who have the best capacity to pull a society out of regression, do not even seek office
- A quick-fix mentality: a low threshold for pain that constantly seeks symptom relief rather than fundamental change. The chronically anxious family/person is impatient. The quick-fix attitude, therefore, will affect a person’s choice of physicians, therapists, ministers, and politicians, as he or she is drawn to the snake oil of quick-fix elixirs that masquerade as technical Five Characteristics of a Regressive Society solutions. People want certainty and easy answers. They try to avoid the struggles that go into growth. People are unwilling to accept the short-term acute pain that is necessary for long-term health. Leaders aren’t challenged to grow. Raising our own threshold for the pain another is experiencing can often motivate the other to take more responsibility for his or her life.
- Lack of well-differentiated leadership: a failure of nerve that both stems from and contributes to the first four. A good leader is someone who doesn’t need the approval of others. Maturity is the willingness to take responsibility for one’s own emotional being and destiny. If you are a leader, expect sabotage. If you want your child, spouse, client, boss, or elected officials to shape up, stay connected while changing yourself rather than trying to fix them. Leaders tend to rely more on expertise than on their own capacity to be decisive. A well-differentiated leader is someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity amidst the automatic reactivity of others and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing. It is not as though some leaders can do this and some cannot.No one does this easily, but most leaders can improve their capacity.
(This list is drawn from A Failure of Nerve). From my perspective, it very much looks like as this situation progresses, these qualities are climbing in our nation. It is these dynamics that triggered the events we are presently mourning. Viewed this way, the rioting at the capitol building are a symptom; they are an indicator of our nation’s current level of systemic anxiety.
Now I’m sure that many would disagree with this point of view; the rioting wasn’t caused by an emotional process, it was caused by conflicting political viewpoints! To this objection, I would disagree, and I would observe that the most common regressive mistake is to confuse content for the process. Regressive thinking can’t recognize the emotional process, it always insists that the content is the problem, thus locking itself in a regressive spiral as it never faces the actual problem.
All of this means this: the way I would suggest processing our current moment is not the failure of democracy in our country or that of a political party (or the other) is heading down a specific path. That is all interpreting these events as driven by the content. Viewed from an emotional process point of view, I would suggest that we are hitting the limits of what we can handle as a nation without displaying moments of significant regression. This regression doesn’t belong to the republicans or the democrats. Yes, it happened to kind of “slosh over the side” through pro-Trump representation at this point, but that was just what happened this time. The anxiety is in the system and will almost certainly manifest in regression somewhere else next time (once this particular episode is fully concluded, which is hard to tell if it is or not). As we are all part of the same system, anxiety can poke its head up nearly anywhere if the conditions are right.
What This Means for Us
What do we do with all of this? Okay, so there is a lot of systemic anxiety in our nation right now, are we just resigned to wait it out? Well, there is a degree to which we probably cannot change the environment of our country, but we can improve our own functioning, and through that contribute to the solution.
Here are some realities we have to face and learn how to navigate:
(1) The average systemic anxiety load for everyone is HIGHER than usual
The fact is, this chronic systemic anxiety is difficult to deal with. There is a constant pressure that would push us towards the worst of ourselves, not the best of ourselves. It’s actually not just our own issues pushing us towards regression. Society itself, as it is grappling for what to do with acute levels of systemic anxiety is constantly looking to offload what it can on any receptor possible.
Practically this means that in this season, we should expect to have to work really hard to keep ourselves bringing the best version of ourselves to the world. In typical situations, perhaps we spend 20% of our energy on maintaining our self-state and 80% of our energy on moving towards our goals in the world around us. I suspect it would be realistic to expect that balance to flip-flop in this season.
(2) As anxiety sloshes around the system, there will be times it acutely lands on us
I’ve been noticing increasing frequency lately of times when I’ve felt acute anxiety landing on me. All of a sudden for no particular reason I can discern I find a pit in my stomach and my heart racing. My breathing becomes shallow and I feel myself overwhelmed with that fight-or-flight tendency. The thing that’s crazy is that this hasn’t been happening because of any specific trigger. Sure if I started looking for some reason, I’m sure I could find something I could project it onto and blame for the anxiety (confusing content for emotional process), but the fact is, it actually mostly feels like it comes out of nowhere at all. That’s because anxiety is bouncing around in the system of our nation and at that particular moment, it’s more acutely landing on me.
Those moments are hard. It takes everything in me to stop, to breathe, to pray, and to calm myself. To not try and project it onto some issue to be solved and try and solve it away. To slow my heart rate and to dialogue with the Father – centering myself in his love and “casting all my cares” (anxiety) on Him. Sometimes I’m able to work through it and move on without too much difficulty, other times it feels like it sits on me for quite a while.
In these moments I think of myself as a lightning rod for our systemic anxiety. When the system’s anxiety winds up landing more squarely on us, we can either carry it for a while and then pass it back to the system, or we can regulate ourselves and drain the level of the anxiety for the entire system. It may not feel like it, but this is the moment where we can be part of the solution. We can “ground” the anxiety; letting it flow through us not back into the system, but by regulating ourselves and letting God take the anxiety instead. In this way, we function as priests to our nation; ministering to the whole system the blessings that we have through our relationship with God.
(3) Sometimes waves of systemic anxiety will reveal themselves in the system
As the anxiety in our nation continues to rise and bounce around through our country, there will be times it overwhelms that particular part of the system and manifests through severe regressive behavior. Maybe it will be violence, maybe something else. I don’t know any of the specifics, but from what I can see, it seems mostly an inevitable consequence of where we are.
As we witness these events, how we handle them becomes a critical issue. Regression can act through a kind of domino effect (herding), and another’s regression has the capacity to push us into regression as well. The manifestation of anxiety through rioting kicks us up a level of anxiety just in witnessing what is happening. I know I’ve witnessed that in myself and in the conversations I’ve had with others as well.
In these times, if we turn our focus to the events (this is a problem to be solved!), we probably only become caught up in the regression. Our focus needs to be on ourselves. Will we remain calm, clearheaded, stable? Will we keep our focus on ourselves and our own responsibilities, or will we be swept up in things and begin to take responsibility for the actions of others? (Whether to join them, resist them, or even to manage how others respond to them?) When anxiety is flowing around the system, we each need to look at our own feet and make sure we’re firmly planted. Regardless of what is happening in the rest of the system, our job is to make sure we are part of the solution.
But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.
— Jude 1:20-21 ESV