It was a dark and stormy night. (I’ve always wanted to start an essay in the style of Snoopy the dog.) The rain was coming down in buckets. The wind was howling. Lightning was flashing in the sky with the frequency of what I imagine a Justin Timberlake concert to be. Thunder followed quickly in loud and powerful claps that shook the windows in our house.
My wife and I were going through the usual routine of getting the kids to bed. One by one, we made our way into each child’s room to say goodnight. Each child expressed concern about the weather outside. “It’s just a little storm,” we would say. “Nothing to be afraid of.” We turned off their lights and made our way to our own room.
The first cry happened before we were even downstairs. “Mom!” the youngest child exclaimed. “Mom! I’m scared.” My wife called back, “It’s ok. Just close your eyes and go to sleep.” Not surprisingly, that response was insufficient. The cries continued, combined with the sound of little feet making their way down the stairs.
He ended up in our room. “I’m scared. Can I sleep in your bed?” It was my turn to respond. “Son. There’s nothing to be scared of. It’s just a thunderstorm.” I might as well have asked this six-year-old to read a master’s thesis in meteorology and write a two-page summary to prove his understanding of barometric pressure, heat caps, jet streams, atmospheric energy, and other ingredients that make for exciting weather events. No amount of knowledge or assurance was going to settle him down.
After a few more minutes of fruitless negotiating, my wife and I finally relented. He crawled into the bed and made himself comfortable under the covers. No sooner than he was settled heard my wife call out in the darkness. “You guys can come in, too.” And before she finished speaking, our daughter and older son, who had been waiting just outside our door, also found a place in the bed.
My wife and I did not know it at the time, but apparently, this decision and ones like it ultimately broke our children, making them fragile and overwhelmed when faced with situations that are scary. Despite our assurances of having nothing to fear, we unwittingly contributed to society’s development of a culture of fear, as sociologist Frank Furedi describes.
In his book, “How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the 21st Century,” Furedi articulates the root causes of a culture of fear and our inability to manage fear and uncertainty. In this and other works, Furedi criticizes trends and actions that have produced in the unintended consequence of actually making people more fearful and less equipped to deal with the unknown.
“How Fear Works” is a solid analysis of the problem. Furedi suggests that society needs to reclaim “the values- such as courage, judgement, reasoning, responsibility- that are necessary for the management of fear.” However, Furedi sounds detached from the problem. Like he has taken a look behind the curtain and cares just enough to say something, but stops short of offering any possible solutions. In fact, he says as much. “Those concerned with the corrosive effects of the politicization of fear need to dig deeper.” In other words, “I’ve shown you the problem. Goodnight and good luck.” The problem is, fear is not usually something we merely rationalize our way through.
In his work in family systems and organizational behavior, rabbi and family therapist Edwin Friedman studied the emotional aspects of leadership and relationships. He emphasizes the importance of differentiation in a leader. Differentiation is the ability for one to self-define and self-regulate, to maintain an objectivity, in uncertainty, tension, or times of distress. The difference between detachment and differentiation is engagement. A differentiated leader can stand in the midst of an emotionally charged situation, maintain a sense of self, objectivity, and reason, and still be emotionally present and available to those who are struggling to cope. A detached leader merely analyzes from a distance, describes the problem, and hopes people will figure things out.
In today’s raging storms of global pandemic, economic uncertainty, political division, and racial tensions, it is not helpful to merely expect people to be big boys and girls and ignore their fears or criticize their inability to adequately face them. Leadership is about standing in the gaps of division, fear, and anxiety, offering a calm assuredness that comes from a deeper place of hope and trust.
Detached leaders can analyze, but they do little to affect change. Differentiated leaders maintain objectively and can operate in an emotionally charged situation, recognizing where fear is driving the bus and as well as the contributing factors, then invite people to a better way. They operate from a place of ultimate hope, which, ironically, is the same place the detached leader comes from. Even Furedi acknowledges that fear does not win in the end. He writes, “(Precautionary culture) lacks the ability to engage with people’s idealism or their aspiration for hope. Which is why the current state of the culture of fear cannot indefinitely endure.”
Furedi’s worldview places his hope in humans to figure this out. Perhaps we will, but I believe it will be with the help of a higher power. Scripture reminds us, “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline.” This power is the power to overcome all fear, but it is most effectively shown not in the ones who merely talk about how wrong we all are to fear, but in the ones who help us harness the energy of our fears into something positive, productive, and life-giving.
Today, none of my children are afraid of thunderstorms, or the dark, or of things that go bump in the night. They have grown up. They have other fears and none of them are perfect, but I believe they also have the resources to face those fears. Perhaps what society needs more than anything are those self-aware, non-anxious leaders who willingly offer space for those who are scared to settle in and calm down a bit so that we might grow out of the place we are and into the place of hope and comfort God desires for us.
 Frank Furedi, “How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the 21st Century,” (New York: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019,) 33.
 Ibid, 259.
 Edwin Friedman, “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix,” (New York: Church Publishing, 2017,) 194.
 Furedi, 259-60.
 2 Timothy 1:7, NIV.