Fear and Trembling—and Solace

It’s been quite a week: a terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon, an even deadlier (unintentional) explosion in Texas, a letter with ricin sent to the president and more deaths and explosions as authorities closed in on the suspects in Monday’s bombings.

In short: terrible.

Having lived through two world wars, in addition to all the other violence and deadly ideologies of the 20th century, Peter Drucker was well acquainted with tragedy. It was, he felt, a central fact of life: a reality that, for all our hopes of progress, was intrinsic to human existence.

The tendency to view humanity as on a steady path from darkness to light, a tendency that was particularly pronounced in the 19th century, was a delusion that continued to exert a hold on people, even as events proved otherwise.

Søren Kierkegaard by Luplau Janssen
Portrait of Søren Kierkegaard by Luplau Janssen

“Our own catastrophes make no impression on the optimism of those thousands of committees that are dedicated to the belief that permanent peace and prosperity will ‘inevitably’ issue from today’s horrors,” Drucker asserted. “To be sure, they are aware of the facts and duly outraged by them. But they refuse to see them as catastrophes. They have been trained to deny the existence of tragedy.”

Drucker did not deny tragedy, and he found solace in the work of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (“a prophet,” in Drucker’s words). “Human existence is possible only as existence in tragedy,” Drucker wrote of Kierkegaard’s beliefs. “It is existence in fear and trembling; in dread and anxiety; and, above all, in despair.”

And yet Drucker, for all his awareness of tragedy, was not the sort to despair. He found much to be lauded in human resilience, which was on vivid display in the wake of countless global tragedies.

“Most of this world, and especially the developed world, somehow managed not only to recover from the catastrophes again and again but to regain direction and momentum—economic, social, even political,” Drucker wrote in a 1986 preface to The Frontiers of Management. “The main reason was that ordinary people, people running the everyday concerns of everyday businesses and institutions, took responsibility and kept on building for tomorrow while all around them the world came crashing down.”

What gives you strength in times of adversity?