18 July 2013

some nerve

What do you get with a retelling of the Columbus story, the evolution of life on planet Earth, and a vision of how data and empathy are detrimental to leadership?  One thing would be the book A Failure of Nerve, written by the late Edwin Friedman.  I finished reading the book this morning, and my brain will be unpacking and re-sorting the ideas presented in it for a while.

One of his recurring themes is that we suffer from chronic anxiety.  It affects all aspects of life:  family, education, government, places of worship.  Chronic anxiety is not the same thing as being anxious about certain individual things, like losing a job or having to go to the hospital.  It is systemic.  As the word “chronic” implies, it’s an ongoing thing.

This is one of his diagnoses:

“I believe there exists throughout America today, a rampant sabotaging of leaders who try to stand tall amid the raging anxiety-storms of our time.  It is a highly reactive atmosphere pervading all the institutions of our society—a regressive mood that contaminates the decision-making processes of government and corporations… and…seeps down into the deliberations of neighborhood church, synagogue, hospital, library, and school boards.  It is ‘something in the air’ that affects the most ordinary family no matter what its ethnic background.  And its frustrating effect on leaders is the same no matter what their gender, race, or age.”

When he talks about a “failure of nerve,” he’s talking about the reluctance to stand against the anxiety and cynicism that would wash over us.  Those “with nerve” are the ones who practice at self-differentiation.  People who do that respect the boundaries of others.  They work at raising the threshold of pain and uncertainty that they can tolerate.  They learn how to value risk-taking and adventure, rather than always retreating to their comfort zone.  (I still have much to learn about self-differentiation!)

Those who work at self-differentiation realize that it is futile to attempt changing others.  It is quite enough to pay attention to our own functioning, as well as learning how to be, if not a non-anxious presence, at least a lesser-anxious presence.

And that takes some nerve!

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