"Change and Anxiety"
by the Rev. Krista Taves
January 28, 2007
Anxiety was no uncommon thing in the life and experience of Howard Thurman. Born in 1900, the grandson of a slave, Thurman grew up in the segregated south, meaning that he grew up with the memory and experience of fear that was the bedrock of segregation. His grandmother, who had witnessed the end of slavery, did everything she could to ensure that her grandson used his freedom to its utmost advantage, and that meant sacrificing whatever needed to be sacrificed for his education. Thurman did not disappoint her. Not only did he pursue his education to the graduate level, but he used that education to further the next step of racial equality - the integration of black and white in American society. He had no illusions about what this would mean. It would mean a dramatic reshaping of people’s deeply held beliefs about race - the beliefs of whites raised to unquestioningly accept white superiority, and the beliefs of blacks, many of whom had internalized racism and found ways to survive within it. This kind of massive change, or even the possibility of this kind of change, was guaranteed to generate anxiety and resistance. And because the change would involve changes in belief, it was not something that could be accomplished only through rational argument, it also had to happen through the heart and the soul and the spirit.
Howard Thurman learned first hand what it was like to be the object of anxiety. When he graduated from an all-black college, he attempted to enter Andover-Newton Theological School, but they accepted no blacks. He then tried the Colgate-Rochester Theological Seminary, which had a quota system. They accepted him and gave him a scholarship. He was the only black man in his class. Upon graduation, he continued to study, and served as the dean of Howard College, which served African American students. But he was restless to further the cause of desegregation.
In the early forties he and his wife Sue made an unforgettable journey to met Ghandi. Inspired by his message and this method of non-violent resistance and unconditional love, Thurman came back hungry to make a difference. In 1944 he accepted an invitation to help build the first racially integrated church in the United States – The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, in San Francisco. Founded by Alfred Fisk, a professor, and funded by the Presbyterian Church, this small group of 30 committed souls – interracial and inter-denominational – were intent on creating a church that would usher the way into a new society. They decided to start desegregation by doing it. They planted their church in the Fillmore Post area. It had been forcibly emptied of its Japanese residents during World War II and repopulated by African Americans. The weight of its heavy history seemed to make this the opportune time and place.
When Thurman arrived, he told them something they didn’t want to hear. If they wanted to be a truly interracial church, they would have to move out of Fillmore Post. “If we don’t move,” he said, “We will become a Negro church, segregated in spite of ourselves.” Not unsurprisingly, the resistance was strong, the arguments against him were persuasive, and the anxiety level of the congregation rose dramatically. They had already overcome so much and done such groundbreaking work just to get to that point. Many feared that moving would be seen as a sign of abandonment to their people. But Thurman held firm, and over time, the first powerful reactions lessened, and the congregation agreed to move.
This morning, I want to explore what’s involved in that kind of movement, and I’m using the word “movement” in a very large sense. Thurman’s congregation had to move emotionally before they could move physically, and it’s that emotional movement that I’m most focused on, and how it is that an individual or a group, in the face of change and anxiety, moves from reactivity to proactivity. The reason I’m so interested in this is because each of us lives with anxiety and change is unavoidable. The anxiety experienced by the Fellowship is not particular to them. That kind of anxiety is an inescapable fact of life and it comes to us in our families, in our marriages and partnerships, our friendships, our work lives and in places like this church. Who among us has not felt that nervous fluttering of the heart, or the rush of thought, or that sense of dis-ease, or the flickering of fear? Who among us has not felt, at some time, the world closing in and taking from us the security we thought we could depend on. Who among us has not stood before some potential change in our lives and thought, “I can’t do this.” That is anxiety and it is a powerful and disorienting experience.
Family systems analyst Peter Steinke identifies anxiety as one of the most basic of human experiences and the normal reaction to change, because one facet of the human character is that we don’t like to change. Family systems analysts call that “homeostasis” and it refers to our innate preference to maintain the status quo. There is something deep in our human psyche that wants things to stay the same and will take the path of least resistance to avoid feeling anxiety. What this means on a practical level is that people like Howard Thurman have their work cut out for them because part of our basic nature is to protect the status quo. It’s what we know. It’s what we’re familiar with. It’s what we have come to associate with security and safety. Now there is a benefit to homeostasis. Homeostasis provides us with stability and certainty. It gives us a foundation to hold on to and it is a necessary part of life. But, Steinke and other family systems analysts will say that when there is an overemphasis on maintaining the status quo, our anxiety has gotten out of control.
Peter Steinke identifies three kinds of anxiety – repressive anxiety, infectious anxiety, and reactive anxiety. I’m going to present all three to you, with some examples of what they look like, and what I’m hoping is that each of you will look for examples in your own life when you have witnessed that kind of anxiety in others, but more importantly, when you have witnessed it in yourself.
Repressive anxiety shuts you down. It tightens or restrains your behavior. Repressive anxiety happens when you encounter something you fear, and your fear reaches such a level that it is very difficult to think clearly and to listen because your fear is getting in the way. All you want to do is retreat from the perceived source of your anxiety. When Thurman brought up his proposal, I’ll bet there were people who just didn’t want to talk about it because even talking about it opened up the possibility that it might happen. Repressive anxiety will transform any situation into an either/or yes/no situation, because when you are held in the grips of repressive anxiety you will become hardened to any other possibilities. That’s how repressive anxiety works. What are the costs of repressive anxiety? Not seeing people for who they really are, and simplifying complex situations and missing opportunities to learn and grow. That’s repressive anxiety.
Infectious anxiety works by spreading anxiety around. It’s like passing around a cold. All it takes is one anxious person and people who feed off of anxiety, and you’re on your way! For example, in my extended family, we have our drama queen who knows exactly how to push the right buttons. A drama queen is a chronically anxious person who has low self-esteem, a strong need for continuous admiration, a need to control and dominate, and a sense of purpose in the presence of heightened emotion. Most families have a drama queen or two! One move on our drama queen’s part and the emails start flying and the phones start ringing, the emotions begin to swirl, and we all band together against him to protect ourselves from him. And even though every new antic further isolates him from the family, I have come to believe that he gains something. At least when we’re mad at him he gets the attention he hungers for. And what makes it work is that we buy into it. I think our family gets something from his behavior. Infectious anxiety is addictive. You start to identity as a group by whatever it is you are anxious about. It can be highly satisfying, at least in the moment, to identify a clear enemy and to resist what you collectively understand as the threat. What is the cost of this kind of anxiety? An identity developed through negativity, the potential of divisive sides pitted against one another, it tends to result in scapegoating and allows a group to put off engaging real issues while you fall into the ongoing drama.
Reactive anxiety is what happens when you respond through unthinking emotion to whatever it is you have identified as the threat. Our 24-hour media has learned exactly how to promote reactive anxiety. Stories are given a certain edge to heighten our anxiety so that we won’t switch the channel. Instead, we will take the bait and wait, even if it means sitting through two commercial breaks and umpteen stories you aren’t interested in. The political conditions for generating public support for the War in Iraq were put in place by encouraging reactive anxiety. The fear resulting from 9/11 was nurtured and cultivated and we were then presented with a simple antidote to that fear – invading Iraq.
Actually, all three forms of anxiety worked together to propel us into this war. Repressive anxiety nurtured the fear and identified an enemy. Infectious anxiety spread the fear and provided a sense of identity and purpose. Reactive anxiety lessened the public’s likelihood to ask questions or to look for the complexities of the situation. The public was primed for a clear enemy and a simple answer.
But as we have seen, this simple answer was anything but, and we are seeing exactly what those who were able to stand outside that anxiety were telling us. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Al Qaeda had no links to Saddam Hussein. Invading Iraq would destabilize the entire Middle East and damage the relationship with our allies.
What does it take to keep from buying in to the anxiety? What we’re seeing in the Middle East on a macro scale is what happens inside each of us on a micro scale when we allow anxiety to get out of control – what happens is chaos. What does it take to resist the irresistible draw of anxiety?
Howard Thurman had an answer for that. No doubt he offered it to his anxious congregation in 1944, and he offered it to a larger audience in his 1953 reading, “Island of Peace Within One’s Soul.” The answer? …. “Know thyself.” Know that you are constantly being subjected to pressures about which you will need to make decisions. Know that you will be confronted with good and evil. Know your weaknesses. Know your strengths. And above all, establish an Island of Peace within your soul, a place where you access your authentic self. For Thurman, this was the most sacred place of all.
Thurman realized that when in the grips of anxiety, you lose yourself. You become someone who really does not reflect the beautiful person you are in that deep Island of Peace. Thurman called us each back to that beautiful person that we are, so that in the presence of our gods and our values we could pass like a gentle healing breeze over the ragged and jagged edges of life.
Peter Steinke would call that person a non-anxious presence. And believe it or not, we all have the potential to become a non-anxious presence. We all have the ability to learn to recognize when we are in the grips of anxiety so that we can put ourselves on alert, and not act on what we are feeling. We all have the ability to learn how to tolerate higher degrees of uncertainty, frustration and pain and so that we can stay calm and open to the process. When in the presence of anxiety, a non-anxious person does not focus on other’s anxiety, but rather on their own, and will strive to access that Island of Peace so as to be a force for good and a force for healing in the midst of anxiety.
Basically, a non-anxious person learns how to not waste their anxiety. We all experience anxiety, so why not use it to become better people. Why not look at anxiety as a gift, one that we receive every day of our lives, which means that every single day we wake up to the chance to become better people, people filled with more love, more compassion, more patience, more understanding, and more wisdom. Then we become a constantly renewing and transforming people who make a beautiful difference in our world.
This is what I wish for myself, and what I wish for each one of you.
*Much of the material for this sermon comes from Peter L. Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What , Alban Institute: 2006.
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Send Questions or Comments to Rev. Taves: Minister@EmersonUUChapel.org