The Dark Side of Fraternity and the Fears That Take Us There

I am a Star Wars nerd, and proud of it. I grew up with the original trilogy and still have the boxes of toys and action figures to prove it. Tonight I take my sons to see the newest installment and I'm stoked. While as a child I appreciated Star Wars more for its action and adventure, as an adult, I can better see the deeper themes it conveys. 

The Star Wars canon is based upon the idea that there is a Force that binds the galaxy. That Force can be used for good, as it is by the Jedi, or it can be used for evil, as it is by the Sith. The evil use of the Force is called the dark side. It's power is drawn from emotions such as fear, anger, and hatred. Those who go to the dark side are often tempted there because of their inability to handle such emotions and by the promise of significant power. The dark side is not a natural state of being, but the inability to foster positive emotions of peace, justice, and kindness combined with the inability to control negative emotions makes the lure of the dark side difficult to avoid.

Kind of sounds like the real human experience, doesn't it? And the fraternity experience as well.

If there is a Force that binds together the fraternal life, then there is also a light and dark side. What seems apparent, especially in light of recent headlines, is that too many of our brothers and sisters are being drawn to the dark side. Because of that, they use fraternity as a vehicle for their worst impulses and wreak damage upon it as they go. 

But like in Star Wars, I believe that the dark side is unnatural, which means there are reasons why someone would be drawn there. 

Like Master Yoda, I believe it is about fear. The Jedi Master once told his pupil Luke Skywalker:
“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
I believe there are three primary fears that fraternity and sorority members all have as they enter the experience, and how they address or manage those fears determines if they find the light or dark side of fraternity life.

Fear of Vulnerability
Perhaps one of our greatest fears in life, as well as in fraternity, is the fear of vulnerability. It's what leads us to be scared of public speaking, hesitant to be open with our emotions, and fearful of being rejected by those we admire. This avoidance of vulnerability leads us to build walls around ourselves and to live a carefully manicured life.

To be vulnerable with our brothers or sisters means that we are honest with our emotions, open with our challenges, and willing to admit our mistakes. It means inviting deep conversations about life, and a desire to explore our inner self through conversations with others. Bestselling leadership author Patrick Lencioni lists vulnerability as the number one thing necessary for teams to be successful.

The man or woman in your organization who fears vulnerability is the one who makes up for it by trying to be always funny, or always cool. He or she probably is recognized by everyone, but truly known by no one. It might be hard to describe his/her life outside of the fraternity, or really describe anything other than surface-oriented traits. Their insecurities are masked by indulgences that look like a cry for self-discovery. I know this fear, and almost all of us deal with it.

Fear of Accountability
The fear of accountability doesn't simply mean fear of being caught doing something wrong, just like a 4-year-old hides the fact that he stole a cookie from the jar. It goes a little deeper than that. It really means fear of being called to be a better man/woman than we already believe ourselves to be. It means not wanting to face the fact that to strengthen our character means doing really hard work and being open to those we love holding a mirror to our faces and pushing us to be something more.

The fraternity experience is expertly designed for those who want to be better versions of themselves. Not only does it proactively do this through training, education, and exposure to life-guiding values, but living life in such close proximity to others means that our flaws will likely be exposed. If the fraternity life is lived well, there is conflict (internally and externally) that puts our character on full display. Our brothers and sisters then are uniquely positioned to challenge us, question us, and hold us accountable to who we want to be.

The man or woman in your organization who ignores the fraternity experience as one in which they can become better likely struggles to fully embrace it. These may be your disengaged members, or the ones who start strong but never progress to become the members others thought they would be. They may grow to see fraternity as only a vehicle for enjoyment, and treat it as such. They are afraid to be criticized for their thoughts or actions, and thus the easier choice is to drift into the shadows.

Fear of Acceptance
As human beings, we all want to be accepted and appreciated. It's a chief reason why so many of us seek out organizations - to achieve that sense of belonging. But we are scared that our true selves, our personalities, our idiosyncrasies, and our personal traits are not good enough to be accepted. We tell ourselves that we should instead model the behavior of others and wear their faces instead.

This fear of acceptance leads us to conformity. And in today's fraternity, unfortunately, conformity looks an awful lot like the dark side. It's more normal to respect the social calendar more than the Ritual. It's more normal to treat pledges or younger members as neophytes instead of equals. It's more normal to be apathetic instead of raising one's hand to serve.

When we fear acceptance, then we may choose to live fraternity as others do, instead of listening to our inner voice. You can probably see how all of these fears are linked. If we aren't vulnerable, then we aren't placing our true selves forward to be accepted. And because of that, we may discount how much power the fraternity experience has to make our true selves even better.

If you do not believe that you can ever truly be accepted in your fraternity for who you authentically are, and this has been tested, then it's time to find another.

Those who are able to conquer (not likely), or manage (more likely) these fears are those who will find the strength in the light side. It starts with understanding them, and acknowledging that it's normal and appropriate to have all of these fears. And then, deciding to be vulnerable, to be held accountable, and to seek acceptance for your authentic self.

If we are too proud to acknowledge these fears in ourselves, and thus ignore how much they are controlling our destinies, then the dark side will come beckoning. 

May the Force be with you.