Institutions Absorb Anxiety

Church by Robin SpielmannChurch by Robin Spielmann

I’m not sure what to think of this piece from Mere Orthodoxy on panic over the direction of Western civilization and its implications for Christians. For one thing, it sides mostly with Rod Dreher, someone with whom I am not usually in agreement. Dreher tends toward the Chicken Little end of the Christian spectrum, and his hand wringing often seems counterproductive. Things can surely get more difficult for Christians as societal mores shift, but the sky will not fall as long as God’s creation stands, and we are part of that creation. Perhaps, despite the references used, the piece brings up important points about the protective effect of institutions for our emotional well-being.

Jake Meador, the author of the piece, and someone whom I do frequently enjoy reading, might consider me an orthodox Christian or maybe somewhat heterodox in my beliefs. I tend to think he would come to the conclusion that I’m the latter. Wherever you place me on the continuum of belief, I am increasingly coming to the realization it is difficult to maintain a Christian position when taking sides in the culture wars. We are called as Christians not to be divided, and yet, with the diminishing role of faith institutions in society, we are just that. Divided in ways we have never been. I can’t remember the last statistic I read about how many people think this country will be in a civil war in a few years, but the numbers who think that is a very real and imminent possibility are quite frightening.

The existential anxiety that seems to plague many Americans is both a cause and an effect of the breakdown of institutions and the rise of networks that exacerbate division. From the Meador piece:

(Edwin) Friedman discovered that one of the social functions that institutions play is to absorb anxiety. Humans create institutions to pass on wisdom, to collectively conquer challenges, to centralize critical knowledge. It is an accepted fact among political scientists that well-functioning and healthy institutions are the bedrock of peaceful and prosperous societies. Just think of the way that a well-functioning medical system can allay our fears over a health concern. However, with the devaluing and disappearance of institutions, individuals were left to absorb the culture’s anxiety. Anxiety then becomes a systemic phenomenon.

Meador then goes on to say, This next part is critical.”

By classifying anxiety as a personal issue rather than a systemic issue, we place an enormous burden on the individual, who then must modify their personal lives to alleviate the suffering that anxiety brings. Instead, Friedman taught leaders that they must understand that anxiety resides in networks of human relationships.

Is the rise in mental health problems commensurate with the fall of institutions? There is certainly correlation, but is there causation? Increasing distrust in institutions — sometimes, as we have seen with recent denominational and megachurch scandals, with good reason — is certainly a plausible explanation. When we withdraw from institutions, we can experience the loneliness and isolation that comes from the lack of a good support system. It makes sense, as Meador emphasizes, that shifting the cause of anxiety to the individual, rather than recognize the broader context, is ultimately detrimental to the effort to alleviate the issue. The rules and rituals that accompany membership in an institution — whether it is a church, a temple, a synagogue, a mosque or a Freemason lodge — serve to add stability to our lives. It may be time to look harder at the extrinsic societal factors that play a role in pervasive uncertainty.

I won’t go too in depth analyzing the opposite side of the coin — the networks that create or strengthen divisions. I’ve done a lot of that in the past, and will most likely continue to look at those networks from a technical and sociological perspective. It strikes me as fascinating that we are potentially leaving the institutions that have protective effects against emotional health issues to rot as we pour more of our time and energy into the networks that are detrimental to our mental well-being.

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