Seek First the Kingdom of God: Emotional Regression and America’s Election

Contemplative Prayer and America's Election

Seek First the Kingdom of God: Emotional Regression and America’s Election


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Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or … ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.

Matthew 5:31-33

… precisely because our technologically advanced society constantly keeps us in often-simultaneous touch with one another it may be more difficult today not to become caught up in the surrounding systemic anxiety. Ironically, the very advances in technology that mark our era tend to intensify the “herding instinct” characteristic of an anxious society. This kind of enmeshment inhibits further the kind of individuation that is the essential precondition for bold leadership and imaginative thinking.[1]

Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix

Many are trying to make sense of our recent election. Edward Friedman, author of a book entitled A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, offers some sound insight that may help us to better apprehend the climate of our times.

Leadership and Anxiety

Friedman locates the essence of leadership and organizational difficulties in the emotional realm rather than in the realm of data and technique. We may have all of the data possible and try all of the right techniques, but if a systemic anxiety is at work in the familial, organizational or national body, technique and data will do very little to effect change. Indeed, these will instead be used to mask or avoid the prevailing climate of anxiety and so serve only for further regression.

Effective leadership, says Friedman, is not a matter of having information and employing the right techniques. Rather, leadership is dependent on the leader’s ability to take full responsibility for his or her own emotional landscape, and so to stand apart from the systemic anxieties that inspire reactivity, herding, blame and the fretful desire to find a quick fix solution. A leader’s ability to lead somewhat paradoxically flourishes according to his or her own ability to stand apart from those who must be led. Not, of course, in an aloof or arrogant way, but in a self-differentiated way; a way that maintains the personal integrity of the leader and keeps him or her from getting caught up in the frenzy of the times. One can only have vision if one can remain on the mountaintop, not getting lost in the forests below.

Characteristics of the Chronically Anxious

Friedman emphasizes five characteristics of chronically anxious families/organizations/societies. These are:

  1. Reactivity: the vicious cycle of intense reactions of each member to events and to one another.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. A quick-fix mentality: a low threshold for pain that constantly seeks symptom relief rather than fundamental change.

  5. Lack of well-differentiated leadership: a failure of nerve that both stems from and contributes to the first four.[2]

It is easy to recognize all of these factors strongly at work in America today. These characteristics are rampant among conservatives and liberals alike: prone to reactivity, unable to see one’s own errors for blame of others, stifled by party fundamentalism. A college chaplain’s remark about the climate of his campus says much: “Never before have I encountered a generation of people so completely conformist and yet so convinced that they are free thinkers.”

Anxiety and the American Election

Friedman’s insights make the election that we have just endured understandable, if not acceptable. According to Friedman, however, the solution is not in furthering our anxiety through an emphasis on data, solutions, and techniques, nor even in emphasizing empathy. The “answer” is not in ramping-up activism and propaganda campaigns, social networking and attempts to propitiate or inflame those who feel hurt or marginalized. Rather, the solution might actually be in unplugging from the fray. We must first learn to stand apart from the anxiety of our times. We must, as Jesus commands us to do, first seek our own integrity, God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and only then can we be effective leaders in the world, and this precisely because we are not of the world.[3]

Enter contemplative prayer.

Contemplative Prayer and Effective Leadership

In contemplative prayer we learn to remain still even in the midst of our anxiety and suffering. We do this without trying to change, correct or placate these. In contemplative prayer we learn to come away from the crowd, to enter a lonely place, there to find our ground.[4] Contemplative prayer, when genuinely practiced, is a great risk. It requires of us a renouncement of the madness and restlessness of the world, a madness of which we come to realize we are fond. Our very identities are founded in it.

The kind of forbearance learned in contemplative prayer is essential to effective leadership. Not as a technique for better management, but because it helps us to become less vulnerable to being whisked away by the tides of anxiety. We learn to go the extra mile, and to refrain from quick fixes that make us comfortable now but will fail us later. Contemplative prayer prepares us to go to the cross, not for the sake of being known as a “nice” person, but for the sake of raising the bar and revealing the higher way.

When a leader is resolute in overcoming his or her own failings, committed to his or her own growth in virtue, then the people are also encouraged to grow. In order to do this one must put aside self-indulgence, and so challenge others by virtue of their own presence to do the same. In this way, the people are led forward and raised up rather than humored.

When there are well-differentiated leaders who are willing to take these risks for the sake of the people, then there is less anxiety in the body. This holds true for marriages, families, organizations, nations and for the world at large.

Donald Trump: Leader or Regressive Reactionary?

Though the President Elect puts on airs of decisiveness and strength with his bold speech, and in many ways seems to stand apart because of this, his emotional stability and maturity are questionable. He seems not to be a man committed to taking personal responsibility for his own virtue and inner-growth. We may have voted for the sake of our further regression into childishness and anxiety; God have mercy on us. Unfortunately, regressive emotional situations that require strong, differentiated leadership in order to heal also create the conditions where few have the courage to lead in such a way, and those who try are often opposed.

Our Calling to Lead

As Christians we are. however, still called and called again by the Gospel to be true leaders for this world. In the service of this leadership we are challenged to rise above the emotional regression of our times, peering beyond the party lines and the blinders of the age, even if darkly, into the peace and largesse of the divine eternity. We can only be great insofar as we keep before us the greatness of God.

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  1. [1]Edward H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. (New York: Seabury, 2007), 52-53.
  2. [2](Friedman, Failure), 53-54.
  3. [3]Matt. 5:31-33, 16:26; John 17:14-19; Rom. 12:2; Jas. 1:27, etc.
  4. [4]Mark 1:12, 35; Matt. 4:1, 14:23; Luke 4:1, 5:16, 6:12, etc.


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