Shortly before graduating seminary I struggled with a series of panic attacks. While finishing classes I had taken a job as an aide in the Special Ed department of the Pasadena USD. I felt pressure from my girlfriend to be ready for marriage, I had not settled on a clear career path, student loans would kick in soon, and some quick math revealed I wasn’t making near enough money to make ends meet. Enter the crisis mode.
With graduation looming, I needed to get away and get some perspective. The state I was in, my daily rhythms and comfort zones weren’t adequate to the reality of my situation and external conditions. The result was a general low-frequency dread that sprang up into acute anxiety when triggered. It was clear something had to change, but it wasn’t clear how. It was time to make decisions. This is the root of the word crisis is in fact the Greek krinein, which means “to decide.”
There are many people I’ve spoken with recently who feel a general sense of anxiety right now about global populist and nationalist politics, about the reversing of progress, about the economy, about the acceptance of injustice in our country and in our communities. Some of that is justified given the facts, and some of it is anxiety about a projected future.
There seems to be a general sense of fear among some, a dark cloud for others. Some of it manifests and anger, the seed of violence. For others, it manifests in withdrawal and a quiet, general sense of unease, and for some even depression.
There’s a sense that our inner reality isn’t adequate to the external situation. They’re out of alignment.
But in such a crisis is opportunity. What kind of opportunity? For change and growth. Sometimes our illusions have to die before growth toward a greater wholeness and integration becomes possible. And wholeness, by definition, involves both our internal and external realities.
My communities, for example, are a combination of diverse urban and suburban, mostly educated people. My local neighborhood includes Hispanic, Asian, and African American ethnicities, and religious diversity in the extended community. Given the reality of those we interact with, there is a general desire for policies that are fair, inclusive, and respectful of ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity.
But in a country with such a broad range of communities, other people have quite different concerns that, for them, might supersede inclusion and diversity.
When we aren’t in relationship with a person, let alone a people group, they quickly devolve for us into an idea, a concept with a few short-hand characteristics we use to categorize them in our head. They tend to become not people, but caricatures. If we enter our social media echo chamber, that mentality is usually fed and reinforced, and the prejudices that go along with it.
The result is not wisdom and insight, but an expanded ego-energy with a dollop of self-righteousness. The inner and outer realities are in dynamic relationship.
In crisis is opportunity. The first opportunity is for self-awareness. Post-election, many people have mentioned the realization they live inside their own bubble. We choose our shows, we choose our news outlets, we choose our radio stations, our social media feeds are tailored for us. There is less and less exposure to the broad spectrum of viewpoints, voices, and worldviews across not only ethnic and cultural lines, but across class lines.
In our worldview, who are the excluded? Who are the ignored? Many of us want to cultivate a posture of compassion, but often forget compassion implies an existing relationship. It’s no good having compassion in general if no one is touched by in in particular.
As my sister-in-law and her family lived close to us for the past year from rural New Jersey, I’ve had the chance to spend time with her husband. I realized at dinner recently he is the only blue collar worker I’ve been in relationship with for years. We don’t share all of the same values and there are contextual reasons for that, but he cares deeply for his family, works hard to provide for them, has a gentle, patient strength as a father, and a heart to help others. Prior to getting to know him better, it would be easy to dismiss, downplay, or ignore some of his concerns as that of a misguided people group, rather than a genuine person with genuine concerns.
It’s easier to avoid those who disagree with us than to build relationship and respect and then come to a common understanding, and to have a sober outline of areas of disagreement. In fact that task is monumental, because it requires maturity from both sides.
If nothing else, the election has shaken many of us out of our complacency.
In crisis we’re presented with a choice. First, the task is to come back to a center, letting the swirling emotional silt drift back to the bottom of the glass. Then the task is to see clearly what is to be done.
What change do we need to make in your own attitude, orientation, and behavior? Are there people we ignore or avoid, or whose concerns we ignore or avoid, or whose pain we ignore and avoid? Are there people we look down on or consider less than, who do work we consider less than? How can we expand our exposure and build relationship outside of existing ones?
Another source of anxiety in our time is a disconnect between our sphere of awareness and our sphere of influence. There is a general anxiety, sometimes carefully cultivated and exploited, we experience based on various possible threats to our safety or freedom or whatever. We can now tune into worldwide troubles at any time of day.
But such a time calls for a sober reflection on our particular situation. What are our actual spheres of influence and encounter? Who do we have a realistic opportunity to impact? Where are our actual points of contact with other people? What kind of exchange takes place? How would you like this to change, if at all?
I’ve heard people ask with renewed dedication, “what can I do to help others? What can I do to comfort others?”
There’s the seed of a purpose statement. Who would you like to help most? What change would you like to see for them? How would you like to help, specifically? There’s a broad question to marinate in. Answering it roots us more firmly in place and makes us less susceptible to changes in our external environment, which are then always only temporary setbacks.
Going through these exercises helps us situate ourselves more clearly in our environment. “What should I do?” becomes, “realistically, what can I do?”
Some weeks my wife is in meeting after meeting, conducting memorial services, meeting with the sick or the dying, handling administrative duties on numerous projects in her role as a Presbyterian pastor. Some weeks I know she will be in desperate need of rest even though the laundry is piled high.
Growing up in a house with traditional gender roles, I chafed against household chores like this early on in our marriage. Now, I like to take a broader perspective, when awareness permit. If my wife gets better rest, she can be more present in her various roles in meetings, in services, in counseling or lunches or coffee or a memorial service.
She’s the one with the sphere of influence! In simply doing laundry and folding clothes without resentment, I am preventing a toxic atmosphere from entering the home and reducing her stress level. I am also indirectly serving those she serves in a small way by taking care of some simple tasks.
In crisis is opportunity, sometimes for radical growth, sometimes for a greater awareness of simpler connections. In being dislodged or disoriented, we get a chance for renewed perspective. Maybe there are internal changes to make. And maybe there’s a need to bring into focus a more accurate picture of the world around us and to take responsibility for the role we are to play in it.