Lament and Leadership in the Ashes

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This material was developed from my notes after listening to a webinar on March 24, 2020. Quotes from Dr. Henry Cloud are in italics and are used with permission. Other quoted material is also in italics, those quotes are from memory. Any errors of interpretation are my own. JL

By Rev. John Luth

Dr. Henry Cloud (best known for his Boundaries book and work) recently led a webinar on the Psychology of Crisis. You can catch the webinar here. Cloud’s podcast is available here.

Cloud spoke about how we as humans have internal ‘maps’ of how life is arranged. For example, many of us could navigate through our homes in the complete dark because we have a ‘map’ in our mind that gives us enough confidence to move through that space even when the lights are out. A crisis is like someone rearranged the furniture, moved a couch, brought in a new coffee table, and did all this while we were away or sleeping. In a crisis every one of our on-board systems registers an error message, a signal that ‘it could all go bad.'

Cloud advises that one of the important first steps for us in crisis is to name the error message out loud. I will offer that these ‘error’ messages also represent losses and that the first work of spiritual care in crisis is grief and loss work. Thus, the title I’ve given this reflection: Lament and Leadership in the Ashes. 

Cloud names five foundational aspects of what it is to be human. In a major crisis our system goes into survival mode and we may experience the loss of any or each of these five foundational pieces.  

  1. Connectedness. The bedrock of our humanity is our sense of feeling connected. We speak of ‘hearts knit together in love’ (Colossians 2:2).  In significant life events we draw close to each other. Graduations, weddings, funerals, these are all times when we intentionally connect. Rebecca Solnit has written about how the worst of times bring out the best in people as we draw together out of empathy, compassion, and a need to connect (see her book A Paradise Built in Hell). As we are painfully aware, one of the hallmarks of our current pandemic is that togetherness threatens our survival. Consequently, we need to continually do a kind of override of the very system that has always kept us safe and given us meaning. Those we see who are not abiding by directives to remain home in self-isolation may be seen as rule breakers and miscreants. They may also been seen with some measure of compassion as resisting their experience of loss of connection.
  2. Structure. Humans (along with many other creatures) are creatures that need structure to live and to thrive. Routines, as Cloud says, are wired in our heads to calm us down. Freedom and improvisation (as musicians and therapists know) happens only within structure. At accident scenes, when those who have survived the wreck are sitting dazed in the dust, the most comforting sight is the sight of a person in uniform: a first responder whose very clothing reassures that there is a chain of command, that there is orderliness in the world yet. The EMT, firefighter, or police officer is there to re-establish order. We might recall that the accounts of creation in the creation poems of Genesis are descriptions of order being brought to chaos. As well, the covenants are ‘ordered relationships.’ And, many people find the very structure of systematic theology comforting. The routines and structure of work, school, worship, and exercise all serve to calm us down and comfort us. Loss of structure leaves us in a heightened state of tension. At first we may ‘power through it’ on adrenaline. Soon though, we find ourselves in a state of low energy and high tension, our mood deteriorates, and our sense of peace and calm evades us.
  3. Ability to “calm down the system’  or to self-regulate. Self-regulation is the ability to understand our stressors and manage our responses. Dr. Stuart Shanker of the MEHRIT centre in Peterborough, Ontario says that ‘all of us are born at least six months pre-mature’ and need our parents and care givers to show and teach us how to calm ourselves when we experience upset or threat, and how to rouse ourselves when we need to ‘wake up’ literally or figuratively. When we have enough of a sense of our stressors, and have found adaptive ways to respond to those stressors, we are able to be creative, innovative, to problem-solve, and to learn. In a crisis, the ability of individuals to self-regulate, to self-soothe, to self-calm is lost, at least temporarily. In a large enough crisis, an entire system may lose that capacity to self-regulate, at least for a time. An overwhelmed leader, or a leader who is beyond their capacity to lead, will be replaced by someone else who is not overwhelmed and has the capacity the crisis requires. That person will then become the true leader even if the defined roles are unchanged.
  4. Control. In Being Mortal, Dr. Atul Gawande names a sense of ‘human autonomy’ as deeply important to us. From infancy to our last breath, we do better when there are things for which we ourselves are responsible and which we ourselves are able to manage. Think for a moment of the triumphant ‘I did it!’ of a toddler. That satisfaction never gets old. Dr. Cloud simply says, ‘humans love control.' Having a job and an income fills a deep human need in us for being able to have some influence over our daily and future lives. At this point some of us may hear an alarm go off, reminding of the danger of being ‘control freaks’ or of being ‘over functioners’ who try to control or manage or dominate the lives of others. The loss of ability to thrive by those who are being controlled simply emphasizes how important human autonomy is to each human person. In a crisis, Cloud comments, we lose control, we no longer have the choices we once had. “Loss of control takes people to a place of ‘learned helplessness’ as people give up on their God ordained need for self-management and self-control.” says Cloud. In those who become most seriously ill, the coronavirus takes away even our ability to breathe on our own.
  5. Competency. Competency is about our human need to accomplish. Some of us find almost visceral satisfaction in having a list and crossing off items on it (personal disclosure, I sometimes make a list on my whiteboard just for the joy of erasing the things that I have done). As one of our former Prime Ministers (Jean Chretien) once commented, "A job brings much more than a paycheque, it brings dignity." That dignity is in large part the dignity of getting things done. In this, we certainly image our Creator who ‘saw that it was good’ repeatedly after the accomplishments of each day of creation. The writer of Ecclesiastes also celebrates the ‘good’ of finding satisfaction in our work. In a major crisis, such as the one in which we find ourselves, our established routines of accomplishment are lost to us. A neighbor carefully manages his stock portfolio, using years of wisdom and experience to manage risk and build wealth. Suddenly the market is volatile. A six-year-old loves to bring spelling tests home, proud of her good grades. Now those tests are not happening. Other students have studied, even competed with each other, for the grades that will reinforce their sense of competency and open doors to future possibilities. Some of us in healthcare are isolated at home when patients and co-workers need us most. Our experience of loss of competency may be complicated by guilt.

The path forward

Our deepest spiritual resource book, the Bible, knows much about loss. We may remember the anguish of Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept as we remembered Zion...”,  Jesus’ weeping over the loss of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35), or Paul’s bewildered lament of desertion in 2 Timothy 4.  

Dr. Cloud offers advice for leaders of spiritual communities experiencing deep loss. I will add that spiritual communities are by equal measure human communities. The first need now in the time of loss is for the losses to be named.  

“Nothing is real to us until it is named. Only then can we start to deal with it," said Dr. Jaco J. Hamman (see Hamman’s book, When Steeples Cry).

“Anything human is mentionable, anything mentionable is manageable,” said Fred Rogers. This naming may be done with wisdom and compassion in a liturgy or public prayer. People may also be directed to identify for themselves across the five categories what their losses are, or how they’ve experienced their own or a system’s loss of ability to self-regulate.

Cloud recommends that people be invited to write a list of all the things they have no control over (‘lost’ JL) and then, "worry about that list for five minutes." Those who may be helped by deeper reflection, processing, and prayer may be shown how to write their own lament.

The second activity after writing the list of 'no control' items is to compose a list of “the things today that I have control over." Some examples might be:

  • How I’m connecting with people
  • What I am eating
  • The amount of news media I am choosing to consume
  • What time I go to bed
  • What time I wake up
  • Things I can do that I have been needing to do  

(Cloud)

Leaders will serve their community well by setting incremental goals for themselves and their people that are controllable and achievable. I.e., a church community might be asked to check in with neighbors via Skype or text.

Cloud also emphasizes the importance of messaging and communication for leaders. He states “you have to become the voice they trust.” Cloud encourages the messaging from leadership to be:

  • simple and clear
    • state the reality and what you are doing about it, what you are expecting from your people “combine brutal facts plus hope”
  • be empathic and compassionate
  • be frequent, big gaps lead to anxiety on the part of your people
  • be specific about your course of action
  • honesty, honesty, honesty
  • show them how connected you are with the layers of leadership above you

*elders, pastors and deacons might work the phones, simply connecting with their people, asking about how they are experiencing any of those five foundational aspects of what it is to be human. For example, "What is it like for you now that we’ve all lost so much structure to our lives….?" JL

Cloud concludes by reminding us that ‘with Jesus in the boat we can get through this together.’ Giving people tasks helps them to rebuild their sense of competency.  The mental part, that "being transformed by the renewing of our minds" (Romans 12), is an invitation to the quiet time with God that calms the mind (and the system JL), that works toward better self-regulation. 

Cloud also exhorts us to talk with people about the bigger narrative, cf ‘storm at sea’, ‘Pharaoh’, ‘the exile and homecomings in the Bible’, the treasures of the Psalms. In doing so, we work to build a long narrative of competency of resilience by reinforcing the memory of resilience. Psalm 91 may be especially applicable in our time. 

 

Rev. John Luth is a CRC chaplain with the Salvation Army in Edmonton, AB.

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