I grew up in a small world. Small town. No move to another house, much less another town. Same school system with same friends from 1st through 12th grades. I never met a Muslim, a Hindu, or even a Jew; I am not sure I knew they existed. A gay person? Certainly not. I knew the names of the few African American students at my high school but did not actually know any of them personally.
It was a very secure and predictable world, and it defined for me what was natural and normal. I am pretty sure that many of who read this have similar experiences.
My Sunday School class is studying world religions. It was in that study that I noted the small-world experience and contrasted that experience with the disorientation and stress of life in today’s very diverse world.
Even if we personally choose a limited encounter with diverse people and ideas, the media and experiences of our families and our peers drive home that our world is anything but small. A secure and predictable world is largely replaced with conflict and anxiety. The temptation is powerful to withdraw, build fences, and cling to the rosy fantasies of nostalgia and of authority so wise and good that it need never be questioned.
A second stream of musings draws me to this writing. I have become intrigued with the Enneagram, a spiritually-based way to think about the ways one reflexively lives in the world.
Obviously the Enneagram is far too complex to be summarized here, but one take-away for me is the claim that probably one half of the world’s population is motivated primarily by fear (a “6” for those who aware of Enneagram categories).
This combination of prevailing fear and small worlds stripped of their fragile security by today’s broken world seems to offer a degree of insight into the fear and the fearsomeness of our political and cultural wars.
Who wants to live in fear and uncertainty? Yet a yawning pitfall of a too-great need for security was identified by my friend Monica Sheppard (“Played Like a $2 Fiddle”). Monica noted that an exaggerated need to be right and the feeling of security that comes with it makes it too easy to fall prey to manipulation.
From my perspective, the use of fear and divisiveness by bully-boy authoritarian politicians (a world-wide phenomenon, by the way) is the prime example of this manipulation. To the demagogues, add the level of detached meanness on social media then mix in sensationalized news and a near perfect storm is created to fuel suspicion and mistrust rather than respect for one another and our differences.
There are obviously many reasons to be vigilant and cautious, to be wise, and to some times be afraid. Only a fool would claim otherwise. I don’t intend to belittle someone’s fears simply because I may not share them or because there actually is a lot of security in my current life situation. The destructive element comes into play with exaggeration.
When one lives in fear of “what might happen” there is always the possibility of something bad looming just ahead. Sadly but realistically, it is a pale fantasy that all risk and uncertainty can somehow be removed from life so that security can be absolute.
My thought about how to push back against the encroaching anxiety of a shrinking and uncertain world is to actually practice pushing back.
As a starter, I suggest that we redirect our suspicions. Rather than being suspicious of potential neighbors who may have different color skin or religion or nationality, maybe we should be suspicious of those who would play us against those potential neighbors. Then we might become suspicious of our own knee-jerk reactions to news media. A gruesome murder six states away is dramatically reported as if it happened down the block and we should be very scared. Really?
Maybe we should be more suspicious of those who resist new information that challenges their comfortable prejudices. Maybe we should be suspicious of the need to see only absolutes, only blacks and whites on any topic. Maturity demands that one recognizes complexity and ambiguity. Maybe somewhere along this pathway we would change suspicion into critical thinking and critical thinking into a willingness to learn, grow, and change.
Space and the fact that this column is not intended to be a devotional limit my ability to delve into the faith issues around excessive anxiety and excessive desire for certainty and security.
The evangelical faith of my personal history is filled with words of love, courage and faith. Yet I continue to be pained and bewildered at the ways that faith tradition has enthusiastically joined forces with those desperately trying to revive a small world. That small world would have little diversity and would fearfully shun new ideas and people. It would maintain itself by looking backward to the good old days-whatever they are imagined to be.
There is a better story with which to engage. That story is more hopeful and more searching, but it does presume some risk.
For me, a far better faith stance celebrates a God who delights in amazing diversity, who continues to breathe new life into those who would be curious and open, and who is far into the future beckoning us to practice living the courage and faith of which we so casually speak.