Anxiety is the serial killer of human maturity.
I’m not talking about the kind of intense stress you experience when your house catches fire or you receive a fearsome diagnosis or the world is consumed by pandemic. That’s genuine, that’s present-tense, and it will produce a variety of responses ranging from denial (with toxic consequences), to heroic decision-making. This anxiety is something else.
And I’m not talking about clinical anxiety, the kind that includes trauma or grief, a genetic predisposition, or an imbalance of hormones and chemical messengers in certain areas of the brain. That’s real suffering, and it tends to respond to psychiatric treatment. And though clinical anxiety may bleed profusely into what follows, this is something else.
I am talking about our social inclination to adopt anxiety into the circumstance of everyday living, and the consequential erosion of human maturity. The ongoing decline in maturity among adults in this century may be traced to the corresponding adoption of chronic fear around some version of what ‘might occur’. “What if” is a monster, always lurking about, licking its lips, ready to pounce – and in modern culture, we love weaponizing the monster. Adopted anxiety devours maturity bite by bite, feasting within every human arena, from the colossally significant to the mostly mundane. Characterized by lack of authenticity and/or substance, this kind of anxiety decomposes the fundamental characteristics of human maturity – including humility, gratitude, and empathy.
Donald Trump employs this kind of anxiety like an assassin, seeking to poison mature thinking with emotional venom that worries the adult out of us. “No one is safe. You can’t trust anyone. You’re being treated unfairly. I’m the only one who can save you.” Acting like a steroid in the adult brain, such negative emotional frameworks are far weightier than positive messaging because they are more immediately correlated to survival. Thus they provide immense energy to both individual and communal thinking, and like the over-prescribed steroid, inevitably develop toxic side effects.
Adopted anxiety is always a proxy for genuine suffering.
In the hands of a master like POTUS, followers readily adopt illusory apprehensions around lost status, lost freedom, lost security, lost greatness and even lost Christmas; but ignore the unfeigned plight of people living in genuine, real-time persecution, pandemic, famine and war. The consistent stamping of opponents (especially women, especially women of color) as “monster, communist, nasty, socialist, ugly, crazy, ditzy, dumb” and more, has found its way to normal for the adopter of his anxious delusions. No one else could broadcast continual racist, misogynist, hateful, projection, twisted logic, dual messaging, alternative truth and anti-science, while retaining wide influence.
Surprisingly (or not), my beloved evangelicals frequently provide the easiest targets for adopting anxiety that does not belong to us – we are among the first to surrender our values, and the last to recover our wits. The perception of an American war on Christianity gains ground despite a lack of real persecution. On October 7 Eric Trump declared that the President “literally saved Christianity.” Jesus will be interested to hear that. Steeped in Biblical teaching where ‘being great’ is found in service, ‘being first’ looks like being last, and ‘power is made perfect in weakness;’ conservative and especially evangelical Christians appear keen to adopt a persecution complex while leaning in to heretical principles and studied obliviousness of human evil in the White House. Skilled practitioners of disinformation like President Trump, know how to find a ready audience among the evangelical faithful*.
The cascading adoption of artificial anxiety offers growing permission for the parallel adoption and practice of public malevolence. Trump’s coded yet clear calls to fear immigrants, Black people and the takeover of the suburbs provides needed horsepower for White attitudes already entrenched in tribal racism and misogyny. Side-stepping invitations to condemn White nationalism, he rather coaches the worst among us; “Proud Boys – stand back and stand by.” If you’re surprised or tempted to deny the connection when like-minded domestic terrorists take up his call, check your adult brain. As President Trump calls for the arrest of his political opponents, we can only imagine how much more counterfeit anxiety will be presented to Americans in the next 3 months. It’s an opportunity to guard our most mature minds, hearts and behaviors.
Most people live unaware of the phenomenon wherein we substitute adopted fears for real-world suffering and sacrifice our maturity. We conclude wearing a mask will erode personal freedom, and remain content to put others at risk. We’re addicted to private safety while we protest personal burden and brush off communal pain. Inside various competing messages, vaccine anxiety consumes what ought to be an easy call for most people. We value our vote but judge the vote of others fraudulent. We’re anxious about an everyday weather report while responding to climate change in science-informed ways gains no traction. We deny personal racism, yet embrace discrimination embedded in our social systems that puts our country at risk. We fear the erosion of principled government, yet choose partisan loyalty over principles in overwhelming measure.
Adopted anxiety is always a proxy for genuine suffering. It’s a monster. Dominant in life, media and politics, its murderous power handicaps the extraordinary and erodes the usual. Under its influence, we can’t remain unified and we won’t aspire to it. This kind of anxiety is well-disguised. We get used to it. We even miss it when absent for too long.
Feed the monster and you get ratings – preach the monster and you get fans – wield the monster and you might just get elected.
It’s a monster. And it’s coming for your mature self.
*For evangelicals desiring support in navigating current political waters…here are two groups for your consideration, led by women and men you know and trust.