March 17, 2020 — Have you noticed? I’m sure you have or at least I hope you have. The gentle acts of kindness. The willingness to set aside personal needs, fears, and anxieties in service of the other. The undercurrent of humanness that is running, present but silently, even as the Coronavirus spreads across the land. The author Annie Dillard in “Teaching a Stone to Talk” reminds us to remember that the dragons of isolation are a means, if allowed, to bring us to places of deeper meaning and purpose. She writes:
In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned.
Good and sound advice but not easy to follow for leaders, educators, and members of the helping professions. The individuals who others in need look to for guidance and visions of what is possible beyond the immediate moment of despair. Here are a few ideas to pursue if you are interested in finding the substrate of hope and mutual human care
Walk the aisle of your grocery store or pharmacy. Find the empty shelves. They are easy to locate because they are everywhere. No more tissues, paper towels, toilet paper, wipes, frozen foods, bread, eggs, dried beans, butter… A few scattered packages of Ramen noodles. The lack of essential items speaks loudly in the voice of scarcity. The temptation, and I know this when I recently shopped for my groceries, is to succumb to the social impulse to draw in and circle around my needs and concerns. This feels like a natural impulse, a move toward self-preservation. To gather up all I can find.
But I also realized, while standing there, that much of my panic is driven by my social context; a society that values individual initiative, messages that I’m responsible for acquiring my own means of sustenance, and the privatization of purpose and responsibility. So, I encourage you to go to your grocery store with no other purpose than experiencing the emotion of fear. The impulse to hoard anything you can find, even when there is nothing left to put in your cart. Scarcity is a verb in our society. But also, ride those emotions to a deeper level. Why is fear such a powerful feeling? How realistic is it? Empathize with individuals who are in need in the communities you are most intimately connected to. Expand the circle of isolation beyond your personal sphere that surrounds you as you stand in that aisle, alone while surrounded by emptiness. Connect to everyone in need. You are not alone.
Here is another idea to consider, especially for leaders, formal and informal. In the landmark study by Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider, “Relational Trust in Schools” they identify four social-emotional factors associated with successful school reform. These core elements are equally applicable to organizational leadership or a personal response to social networks impacted by the Coronavirus. Here they are: respect, personal regard, role competency, and personal integrity. Respect; genuinely listening to the other, with regard and attentiveness, even when you disagree. Personal regard: the imperative of extending yourself beyond the confines of your role. Role competence; possessing the knowledge and skills to complete tasks of shared interest to the community. Personal integrity; following through, in a timely manner, tasks you have agreed to complete. Attending to relational trust, as they say, is not rocket science. Saying hello. Asking, with meaning, how someone is doing. Sending a supportive email or better yet a card. Buying flowers for the office. All count toward building and sustaining relational trust. Small acts yield big results in human connectedness and social resiliency.
Relational trust is simply a more descriptive version of hospitality, the age-old commitment to care for the other, the stranger in our midst. Aren’t we all strangers to each other at work and in the grocery store as we grapple with our scarcity inflamed fear?
Hospitality has always had a subversive, counter cultural dimension. Hospitality is resistance… especially when the larger society disregards or dishonors certain persons, small acts of respect and welcome are potent far beyond themselves… Hospitality resists boundaries that endanger persons by denying their humanness. It saves others from the invisibility that comes from social abandonment.
I find in this definition of hospitality by Christine Pohl in “Making Room” to be easy to understand only a little harder to implement. It does take courage and a degree of vulnerability to meet, greet, and care for the stranger at the gate of your city, your office, your home. But like relational trust it is the small acts that add up to resist fear, scarcity, and social isolation. Leaders should make sure everyone they supervise knows the name of everyone else in their group. Create opportunities for sharing stories about navigating, toward wholeness, moments of crisis.
The world right now is full of dangerous emotions that seek to break apart relational bounds and community connections. Now is the time to turn toward others for help. When I’m sick of body and heart, and I’m isolated in my own needs and means I can only rely on others for support. This is the way humans have survived tragedy and the unexpected for tens of thousands of years. Our ancestors lived and traveled in small groups, self-sufficient to the best of their ability. But the archeological record tells another story worth hearing. These isolated groups may have been separated geographically but they were often relational connected to and dependent on other nearby groups. Periodically these wandering tribes would come together or cross paths, exchanging information, trading goods, and developing social bounds. In the face of an unexpected disaster, a group in need could turn to other groups for support until the challenge passes. Survival was both an individual responsibility but also a deeper understanding that underneath everything, as Annie Dillard tells us, is the unifying truth of wholeness; we are all connected. The Coronavirus makes this truth abundantly clear.