Week Seven Column from the President

Welcome to Week Seven of this 144th Assembly. Only at Chautauqua could one be taken on a journey that moves from the Supreme Court to supreme laughter to exploration of the impact of fear in our society. As I continue my first season with you, I am struck by the depth and breadth of our conversations at Chautauqua. Whether you are joining us for your first week or continuing your Chautauqua journey, please know how grateful we all are for the many ways you infuse our community with life and purpose. Welcome!

It really is a bit of intellectual whiplash between this week and last. What a joy it was to laugh with you last week during our celebration of comedy. So many Chautauquans told me how much fun it was to have a reminder that “laughter is the best medicine” to the many challenges and issues we are facing as a nation.

Last week was also so special to me, as I got to experience two sacred Chautauqua traditions for the first time and hopefully helped start a new one. Thank you to everyone who participated in the reimagining of our Old First Night (Chautauqua’s birthday, for those new to Chautauqua) celebrations. Many of you shared with me that you enjoyed the family activities on Bestor Plaza, the return of a birthday cake (or cakes, thanks to our Denominational Houses!), having family entertainment in the Amp and the preservation of some of our dearest and oldest traditions (the Drooping of the Lilies, roll call, and others). A very special thank you to Dick Karslake for continuing his role in helping us celebrate the many generations that have called Chautauqua home for decades.

I was touched to be selected as the “class honoree” for the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC) Class of 2017 and to participate in addressing the Recognition Day ceremony. I am now a CLSC member myself and am well on my way to completing my first 12 books. I hope to graduate in the Class of 2018. It was a joy to celebrate this symbol of Chautauqua’s commitment to the literary arts.

The new tradition I hope we started was when a group of 5-year-olds from Children’s School came to the President’s Cottage to present a letter outlining ways they think Chautauqua could improve as part of their “Kids Government” class. It meant so much to me to sit with these young Chautauquans on the porch of the official residence of Chautauqua presidents and to hear their thoughts. I’ve asked the Children’s School to repeat this visit every year that I am president as a built-in reminder that listening to our young Chautauquans is a critical ingredient to the long-term health of our beloved Chautauqua. If you’d like to read their letter, you can see the full text in Nathan Healy’s great article from the Daily in Wednesday’s edition or at We’re already scouting locations for the “mythical monsters zoo”!

Through all of these joy-filled moments, we know that the human condition is more complex. This week we turn from a week of laughing to discover “The Nature of Fear” in our world and what impact that fear has on society. Now more than ever, fear dominates us in ways we may not even be aware of — in politics, in advertising, in media. In this week, we grapple with recognizing fear and what it does to us. We will ask (and hopefully start to answer) the following:

• What is the history of fear as a political tool and how effectively has it been used to shape our politics?

• What is fear’s effect on the brain and how has fear been shaped by evolution?

• How and why does fear work in persuading, motivating and manipulating us?

• What does it mean to seek out that which scares us, from Grimms’ Fairy Tales and ghost stories to rollercoasters and haunted houses?

In our companion Interfaith Lecture Series, we look at “Spirituality in an Age of Anxiety.” Theologians have begun calling the time in which we are living “The Age of Anxiety,” and describing an immersion in an ocean of fear and insecurity. In this week we will strive to identify the presenting causes of anxiety in our times, and in previous times, and to discern what secularists, religions and spiritual modalities can offer as antidotes.

While all of this may seem heavy, I would argue that fully understanding the root causes of our fears and anxieties better equips us to move to a place of peace and reconciliation — in our families, among neighbors, in our communities, in our nation and in the world.

That reconciliation of mind and spirit is one of the results of what I called for in my first Three Taps address, where I asked our community to practice a muscular civil dialogue. (I recognize that not all Chautauquans can be with us every week of the season. For those that missed the opening Three Taps of the Gavel, I asked if we could commit to a new muscular civil dialogue this season and beyond. If you missed that talk, you can find it

To help us to build and exercise that muscle, we have invited partners from Claremont-Lincoln University to join with us in launching the Chautauqua muscular civil dialogue initiative. I hope you’ll join us for this inaugural engagement at the Hall of Christ this Friday at 3:30 p.m. If you can’t be here in person, you can join in via online simulcast. We will be sharing more about this program and ways you can participate in The Chautauquan Daily, via email and online at

As we enter the last three weeks of our season, I am struck by the ability of Chautauquans to tackle the great issues of the day and to challenge — and laugh! — at ourselves in the process. If the rest of the nation could do so, imagine how far we could go in reducing our fear and anxiety and start resolving the many conflicts and issues in front of us.

Welcome to another important week at Chautauqua. Our pursuit of this imperfect ideal is only possible because you have joined us for the journey.

Tags : FearFrom the PresidentThe Nature of FearWeek Seven
Michael E. Hill

The author Michael E. Hill