Heinen: More trust would bring less anxiety

Someone I know and trust recently posited we’ve become the United States of Anxiety.
divided united states flag

I’m usually reluctant to include a specific date in this space to avoid making the column feel dated. But you need to know that I am writing this as the coronavirus continues to spread unabated. Global financial markets are gripped by uncertainty with the attendant impact on retirement accounts. And yet another shooting rampage — this one close to home in Milwaukee — tears at our hearts. Our politics are a disheartening mess. Events can change quickly and they may have by the time you read this.

But in the last few months I’ve heard references to global pandemic, environmental catastrophe and civil war. That’s right: civil war. The cover story of the December issue of The Atlantic magazine was “How to Stop a Civil War.” No wonder we’re feeling a little anxious.

Someone I know and trust recently posited we’ve become the United States of Anxiety. That was actually the title of a March 1 blog post by Rich Harwood, the president and founder of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. It resonated with me because, not only was I feeling some anxiety myself, but I sensed it in people I ran into, friends and family included. I’ve had the good fortune to work with Harwood in several capacities over the last 25 years. I like and respect him as an author, philosopher and inspirational speaker. He’s spent three decades at the Harwood Institute thinking about how communities can solve shared problems and, more recently, “the profound and troubling anxiety running through America.”

Harwood believes solutions to our shared problems will not be found by government. Rather they require people and communities working together. I agree, but I would add institutions to the mix. I think schools, nonprofits and the media are part of the collaborative approach needed for problem-solving. But Harwood’s point is well taken. He argues that the biggest issue we face is to restore our belief that we can come together and get things done, and that will only happen in our local communities. “We each have the power within us to overcome our anxiety and set a new trajectory for the country,” Harwood writes. I find that hopeful.

But what do we do when conditions within our local communities are also the cause of our anxiety? How do we reconnect with others when there’s been a breakdown of trust within the very space to which we need to turn for solutions?

Differences of opinion can be healthy. If we are willing to listen to each other and make a sincere effort to find common ground, we can respectfully disagree. The differing reactions to the hiring of the new superintendent of the Madison Metropolitan School District strike us as carefully considered and heartfelt.

But underlying those reactions — as well as the conflicts over the prospect of F-35 jets at Madison’s Truax Field; the funding priorities of the United Way of Dane County; local strategies to increase affordable housing and decrease homelessness — is a breakdown of trust and civic will. This makes it tough to tackle shared challenges, to say nothing of reducing our anxieties.

University of Wisconsin–Madison professor Kathy Cramer’s Local Voices Network is instructive. We need more of that kind of structured listening in our every-day civic lives. We have issues of bias and ignorance, jealousy and fear, empathy and compassion that we should acknowledge. Admitting that and respecting the admissions of others will help reduce our anxiety and strengthen our ability to deal with its causes.

Neil Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine and WISC-TV.