Anxiety and Community


Friday night a nineteen year old young man was shot and killed in Palmyra. This is a tragedy all the way around. A young man is dead, and his family is grieving. Those who witnessed the murder will need to deal with this trauma if they are to move forward. Even the person who committed this act will have their life profoundly altered, even if they are never held accountable for the destruction they’ve wrought.

This is not the way things are supposed to be.

Palmyra is a small town, and a fatal shooting here has made many residents anxious. This anxiety is only natural. This is the second shooting within the town’s borders in the last six months, and the fact that both shootings involved people who are not from the town doesn’t do much to make people feel better. No one wants this type of violence on their doorstep.

There are some who would say that being anxious over an event like this isn’t helpful, but I disagree. People being anxious about a murder can be a sign of a healthy community. It shows that folks haven’t become so desensitized by life that they are resign themselves to shrugging their shoulders and acting as though it isn’t a big deal. Anxiety over a community trauma is an indication that people recognize that what happens in our town impacts all of us, and that’s a good thing 1.

But if this type of anxiety is to be beneficial, it has to have a healthy outlet. When the energy expressed by anxiety is just bounced off a wall it has a tendency to come back at us and cause new, often unrecognized, wounds. These wounds are often created when people who are feeling anxiety circulating their anxious emotions without offering to help one another lay down the burdens they create. When this happens the negative aspects of anxiety are amplified, instead of shared.

Anxiety amplified in this way tends to be sent back to us as either anger or fear. We want to know who to blame, we look for people to target, we lament how things used to be so much better. This leads people to lash out at their neighbors, think the worst of unfamiliar faces, and breed resentment among anyone who becomes the communal target for this angst. Anxiety which become reflected as fear and anger is cancerous, it breeds a fortress mentality and breaks down the paths of casual friendships which form the bedrock of a vibrant community.

It’s important for us to understand, this isn’t the path anxiety has to travel. When it’s taken up as a shared burden, instead of amplified in our individual psyches, anxiety can be a profound catalyst for positive change. It can breed resolve, emerge as empathy, and strengthen the bonds of casual neighborliness upon which a community depends. Whenever anxiety leads neighbors to say, “We’re going to look out for each other,” without turning inward toward a fortress-mentality 2, we have evidence that stress is leading a community toward healing.

It’s to this end I’d like to see our communities aspire–healing, openness, and wholeness over fear, mistrust, and anger.

  1. And maybe it will help us have empathy for other towns which have more experience with this sort of violence. This would be an ideal path to walk, moving forward. 
  2. A fortress-mentality sees “not us” as a threat to a community, of any size. Once in the fortress “outsiders” have to be removed, neutralized, or defeated. The current polarization of American politics, the Islamaphobia of the post-9/11 world, the present obsession with refugee reduction and the border wall, and the historic animosity toward African-Americans by the white majority are all examples of a fortress mentality.