Holy Anxiety, Batman!

Guest post by Mark Hinds, EdD

It was Wednesday! I couldn’t wait to watch my favorite show—Batman! The ABC Television network had been hyping and teasing the show for weeks. And what a show it was! Pow! Punch! Zowie! The best part? It was on twice a week! Part one aired on Wednesday with a terrifying, campy cliffhanger which would be resolved on Thursday night. It was a good time to be alive!

So, it was Wednesday. It was late winter 1966. I hurried home, ready to finish my homework before 7:00 p.m. My nose in a book, my mom came into my room to tell me that the family would be going to dinner with a neighbor family. “What time?” I asked. “6:30” was the unwelcome response.

My stomach was in knots. I had to see that show. After all, Batman was my second or third favorite superhero, who wasn’t “super” at all. How else would I know the set-up to the Thursday night episode? I was churning, hard to breathe, or at least that’s how I remember it. Thankfully, I survived. But I couldn’t face this loss alone. I had to tell my brothers! Mom said, “And don’t say anything about missing the show to your brothers!” Yikes!

Steve and Phil, fourteen months my junior and twins, could be oblivious to things at times. They enjoyed the show too, but they also liked to do other things, and weren’t obsessed like me. How to clue them in without telling them?

In the car, on the way to the restaurant, I looked at my watch, feigning that it had stopped. “Hey, Steve,” who was sitting in the front seat, “my watch stopped. What time is it?” And you know what happened. “It’s 6:30! Batman’s on in half-an-hour!” he exclaimed desperately. Mom, sitting next to me in the back seat, hit me in the shoulder and gave me that look!

Why was it so urgent to make sure my brothers knew what I knew? A dictum of systems theory is that anxiety travels. Something upsets the status quo leaving the anxious host’s stomach in knots, lungs unable to breathe. The most instinctual way to relieve some of the angst is by sharing or giving it away. Let someone else carry the burden for a while. This aspect of anxiety can be seen while watching a herd of cows from a distance. If a cow senses danger, you can see the anxiety ripple through the herd. Anxiety travels. Steve was a willing host for my anxiety. My 10-year-old self was expressing what is known as an undifferentiated self, which reacts to conflict or crisis at an instinctual level. My judgment was clouded by emotionality. And you know what? I did feel better, my mom’s punch aside.

Congregations experience this too. Anxiety can suffocate a church when its empty classrooms echo with the past glories of throngs of children; when the coins in the coffer don’t ring as often or as plentifully as they once did; when the church majors in minors. When a church leader even so much as thinks about leaving, church members can catch the scent that something has changed. Shared anxiety can mimic the balance the system once knew, yet it is an unhealthy state for any group.

If my mom were in charge, she would have undoubtedly advocated punching a few key congregation members, much like Cher in Moonlighting: “Snap out of it!” I, however, do not advocate punching. A winning strategy when anxiety has your congregation in its grips is take a step or two back, get a wide view of your people, the herd, and refuse to take on the congregation’s angst. As a leader, become a well-differentiated self.

A leader with a well-differentiated “self” responds to conflict and crisis at a reasoning level, thinking rooted in a careful assessment of facts. Such a self is less at the mercy of the feelings of the moment and can work from thoughtfully developed principles. She is less susceptible to “group think,” acting in the best interests of the group as a thoughtful choice. Confident in his thinking, he can understand and support others’ views without selling out his values and principles.

Peter Steinke imagines the intentionality of the well-differentiated self:

“Anxiety is there. Yet, now that it is where I can see it, I can keep an eye on it. I won’t let it slip- back into unconsciousness. With anxiety up front in awareness, I can tame and harness it. While I may feel like pouncing on someone, I choose not to submit to my instincts. I have good access to my thinking facilities. My emotional state is not in overdrive. I will survive this; I can take the sting out of anxiety and be a calming agent.” (Uproar, 51.)

What about Batman? It happened that the restaurant where we ate that Wednesday evening had a TV hoisted in the corner of the dining room. I didn’t say a word but looked at my brothers and my mother. “OK, let’s ask if they’ll turn the channel to Batman,” mom said. What I had fretted about, what led me to instinctually dump my worry on my brother, never happened. A moment of grace during an ordinary “crisis.” Perhaps there’s also a word of grace for pastoral leaders in conflictual settings.

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