This Age of Insecurity


Nearly every day we hear politicians talk about fighting. They tell us they will “fight for” some pet issue or for some favorite group of people. Our televisions entice us with claims of “powerful dramas,” and the news reports are full of powerful leaders, powerful military, powerful ideas. So much of our media is focused on a narrative of fights and power. It’s no wonder we have so many cop shows on television, and that most of their story lines revolve around situations guided by their guns.

We tend to characterize a leader as someone who fights for a cause, but I think the best leaders are actually calm and assertive, not angry and aggressive. Such a leader is secure, able to manage existential anxiety and systemic anxiety with courage and calmness, responsive to that of God within. It begins with a pause that gives one the space to listen to the Inward Voice that can speak with nerve and peacefulness.

Life challenges us to seek the courage to live peacefully with anxiety, to risk vulnerability, and to work up the nerve to speak out when we find a new and brighter path for our communities to take.


We don’t see much calm, secure leadership today. Instead we are bombarded by what appears to be a collective obsession with fights and power—symptoms of serious insecurity. In this essay I hope to make some sense of this age of insecurity and call for a different kind of leadership.

The last century was replete with world wars, a medical revolution, liberation movements, and threat of a nuclear holocaust, and cultural analysts recognized that people were highly anxious. We were living in an age of transformation that was marked by anxiety. Of the great thinkers who would illuminate the meaning of this anxiety, the late theologian Paul Tillich gave me the most insight into anxiety in his book The Courage to Be. He taught that existential anxiety is natural to human life and is experienced in three ways:

There is anxiety of guilt and condemnation. No matter how we affirm ourselves, we will still wonder if we’ve truly been good enough, and worry about punishment in this life or an afterlife.

There is anxiety of death and finitude. No matter how unafraid of death we imagine ourselves to be, we will still be troubled about the end of things.

There is anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness. No matter how good we feel vocationally, at times we feel empty inside and wonder if life truly has meaning and purpose.

Additionally, I think there is one more fundamental anxiety:

There is anxiety of helplessness and powerlessness. I believe this is the initial anxiety of the child, and it feeds a lifelong quest for power, whether that is power over others, the power of wisdom, or the power of transcendent spirituality. And like the other existential anxieties, we cannot rid ourselves of it, no matter what kind of power we think we possess.

Tillich suggested that there is no way around existential anxiety. We either go through it, or we create pseudo-solutions to anxiety’s sting: domination of others via dictatorial leadership and forms of rape; perfectionism and obsessive-compulsiveness; addictions to selfish pleasure like eating, drinking, drugging, or sex; rigid beliefs (fundamentalism) that deny doubt and anxiety’s questions.

These pseudo-solutions are meant to rid us of anxiety, but, instead, they make anxiety chronic, partly by replacing anxiety with fears.


As a pastoral psychotherapist, I have an instinct to look at the micro expressions of fighting and power struggles. I see this phenomenon most often in couple counseling, manifested in the loss of composure. Conflicts in marriages usually happen when one or both partners choose to respond out of their own anxiety rather than confidence and composure. Anger pushing anger normally means both get paralyzed, and they raise the volume to try to overwhelm the other and “win” the argument. As counselor and teacher Hal Runkel says, they don’t hold onto themselves. Instead of leading with peaceful strength, they anxiously jump into a power struggle that is rife with insecurity. This whole scenario is built on anxiety, and when it calcifies into a predictable and uncontrollable pattern of behavior, it creates a high level of insecurity, almost guaranteeing it will be repeated.


We use the words “worry,” “nervous,” “butterflies,” as well as “stress” interchangeably with “anxiety.” The root of the word means “to choke.” We all know anxiety well, experiencing variations of it daily. Defined most simply, anxiety is fear without an object. We face fear when we see a threat coming, so that fear can be met with action. I see a mad dog bearing down on me, and I stand perfectly still, reach for a rock, or run. I do something. Anxiety, though, has no object. I look for the object of my fear, but it does not appear. I don’t know what to do. Anxiety is, therefore, much more difficult to cope with than fear. When it turns into panic or compulsiveness, anxiety causes social problems, emotional paralysis, and, in a spiritual way, creates doubts and questions about where God is. About anxiety we ask, “Is this God’s way of punishing me?” We find it easier to cope with fear, which is how these pseudo-solutions are created. They hide anxiety from us and give us something to do, except that existential anxiety transforms itself into chronic anxiety.

Chronic anxiety is a disorder, often labeled generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Unchecked chronic anxiety leads to a profound sense of insecurity. Chronic anxiety creates such a feeling of powerlessness (“I can’t do anything about it!”), that power becomes a central focus in one’s life.

Any issue can grow into an expression of insecurity: genetically modified foods are bad; eating meat is bad; eating carbohydrates is bad; gluten is bad; watching television is bad; technology is bad; believing in climate change is bad; not believing in climate change is bad; Islam is bad, etc.

We live in a chronically anxious culture, and that anxiety has calcified into an age of insecurity.


In his great work on the history of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon wrote, “Everything that is fortified will be attacked; and whatever is attacked may be destroyed.” The insecurity prevalent in the late Roman Empire was expressed as defensiveness, right vs. wrong—fortification. When a culture is run by its anxiety-driven insecurity, issues that are fundamental to peace and justice, like shared wealth and government are ignored. Fortification becomes the goal. This is what is behind the arming of America. Power has become the pseudo-solution to doubt, guilt, helplessness, and death itself. Insecurity drives this contemporary obsession with power.

Neither liberals nor conservatives are immune to this insecurity. Liberals tend to be hesitant to deal with power (they tend to prefer consensus or diplomacy). Conservatives tend to treat power as the only answer (preferring overwhelming force). Both have overtones of this very insecurity. Half of us are scared of guns; the other half are scared to not have a gun. Half of us think military service is the highest expression of courage; the other half think that the military is a false idol. Insecurity is aligned with the hubris of superiority, which appears to be the foundation of bullying, but it’s really a cover-up for an inferiority complex.

Psychologist Alfred Adler used to say to young bullies, “Don’t act so tall; you’re not so small.” Cultural insecurity is evident in assertions of redemptive violence, which is meant to replace the anxiety of powerlessness. But the only thing that effectively overcomes violence is befriending one’s enemy. Friends argue; they rarely fight. Friendly arguments actually make one more secure, for a friendly argument is evidence of how the strength of friendship transcends disagreement.


Quakers, like every religious group that values honesty and openness, embody values that both contribute to the problems we face and offer a way out. One of our strengths is the quest for consensus (or unity), ensuring that when a decision is finally made, there is full community support behind it. A truly united position can be very powerful, peaceful, and comforting. It can create security. Yet consensus building can also create a dampening effect on the leadership development our world desperately needs. Consensus building sometimes sacrifices individual voices in favor of the whole body, effectively squelching highly articulate people who might become major leaders. In our zeal to find community, we can suppress the very self-assertion that strong, visionary leadership requires.

Yet the process of consensus building also includes an almost unnoticed use of power: the quiet pause that helps us keep our composure and gives us room to find our voice. In that pause we encounter what Judaism calls the Shekinah, often translated as “the indwelling glory of God.” The Shekinah is found in the moments of silence inherent in transitions. It is the indwelling spiritual moment when we rise above the personal sting of anxiety and are able to tap into the strength of God that will help us not succumb to insecurity. It is a contagious, quiet strength, and it is the key to unity. As my friend Sylvia Landau says, “Calmness is just as contagious as anxiety.”


In the 1950s and 1960s, when I grew up, liberation movements proliferated and gave our society a needed shot in the arm. I was deeply influenced by James Cone’s writings on the “black theology of liberation.” He railed against our “white” tendency to psychologize instead of politicize. We prefer to deal with individuation and repression instead of wrestling with institutional oppression. Liberation theology challenges us to do as Martin Luther King Jr. used to say: be maladaptive to dysfunctional culture and oppression. This requires a level of self-security that is not being given to us today. We are being taught to be insecure during this age of insecurity.


In Genesis, Jacob, a man who was a dishonest swindler and manipulator, decides to return home despite being clearly unwelcome. As he travels, word comes to him that his brother Esau has gathered a mob to meet and kill him. So Jacob spends a night separated from his fellow travelers wrestling with “a man.” When the man tells Jacob to let him go “for the day is approaching,” it becomes clear that this man was an angel of the Lord. Jacob is wrestling with the dark side of himself. Encountering his own shadow, Jacob refuses to let go of the angel until, as he says, “you bless me first.” At first the angel refuses, but Jacob, despite his pain, doesn’t yield until the angel blesses him with a new name: Israel, or “he who wrestles with God.” Strengthened with this insight and humility—and a limp—Jacob finds a way to befriend his angry brother and live out his days as the good father of the people Israel.

Like Jacob, if we are to be leaders, we must wrestle with ourselves and the angels of our dark side. We must embrace our own personal suffering, and come out on the side of insight and wisdom. Our psychological health is not complete until we are maladaptive to what is wrong. A leader with nerve must find the balance between inner calmness and maladaptive vision. We must see ourselves as we are and see our cultural institutions as they are: expressions of our insecurity, focused on illusory power.

We have an amazing capacity to rise above the anxiety and insecurity that is part of life itself and our lives together. Human transcendence is found in the Shekinah pause that separates anxious reactivity and constant insecurity from calm strength. It is part of the genius of the Quaker way, and it is part of the call to every human being who strives to be fully alive.


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Ron McDonald

Ron McDonald is a member of Memphis (Tenn.) Meeting, frequent writer for Friends Journal, pastoral counselor, musician, and storyteller.

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