April 3, 2020 — Stability is something I long for in these days of the coronavirus pandemic. I dread the uncertainties of what is next. The recent weeks of personal and professional transitions were anything but normal. I struggled to: integrate work and home responsibilities, change patterns of social interaction, set up a home-office, teach family how to Zoom, plan for the spring quarter of classes, track the latest updates on the virus, and find ways to virtually check on neighbors. Always in the background was COVID-19; amorphous, mysterious — peeking over my shoulder — assessing my safety protocols. Waiting, it seemed, to exploit cracks in my physical isolation, daring me to make skin to skin contact with another human. In a matter of days my usual spring rituals, practices, and traditions were upended. My new normal is composed of feelings of unease, uncertainty, and wonderment. Luckily I do not have to travel the path of fear and a new normal that is anything but normal, alone. My traveling companions are family, colleagues, poets, and keepers of wisdom stories.

The Columbian poet William Ospina, in response to the dread of the coronavirus envisions fear as a teacher:

“There is also something poetic in fear: it teaches us the limits of strength, the extent of audacity, the true value of our merits. Like the sea, it knows how to tell us where there is something that surpasses us. Like gravity, it shows us what powers are over us. Like death and like the body itself, it tells us what commands we cannot violate, what is not allowed, what border is sacred.”

I can find a sense of stability in knowing that fear, as a teacher, professes the truth that there are forces bigger than self and self-knowledge. Ospina names them as the sea, gravity, and death. He offers the image of fear as guardian and protector of the sacred borders of knowing and being. Fear and its compatriot change are reminders to me to pay attention, to walk softly, sacred ground is near. There is a certain spirituality to anxiety, a religion of observation, as Ospina writes: “That, as a Latin said, religion is not kneeling, praying and begging, but looking at everything with a calm soul.” In practical terms I welcome the fear and unease that I feel prior to the first class of the academic quarter. They are reminders to look sharp, to listen deeply, and to enter the classroom as a sacred space of learning. Anxiety keeps me instructionally alive and it provides the energy to resist complacency.

When faced with fear what do you find yourself paying attention to? What brings you closer to the center of your “calm soul” where you can see and experience the fullness of the world; the true complexity of the classroom? What brings you to a place where you can count on the stability of the bigness of the world to eclipse the ego and efforts to control self and others? For me, I count on the rhythms of nature in moments of dread. For instance, on March 19th the earth passed the spring equinox in its orbit around the sun, our trustworthy center of cosmic life. Every dawning day means more light, less darkness, in the world. I can count on that, day after day after day.

I too, like the seasons, can create predictable cycles in my life even in the midst of apprehension and change. For instance, the poet Wendell Berry shares his spring ritual, which speaks strongly to my teacher-heart. In “A Purification” he invites me to consider the ritual of cleaning out the old, overused, and false; to make way for the new. To bury fear deep into the fertile soil of possibility, not to hide from it but to repurpose it into something new and unpredicted. There is much that is disturbing and tragic about the coronavirus (viral fear in the world), its personal and professional impact is frightening. And the virus also invites me to reevaluate, create new practices, and wait for unexpected outcomes. The road map for turning failure, uncertainty, loss, and death into new life is clearly outlined by Berry:

At the start of spring I open a trench / in the ground. I put into it / the winter’s accumulation of paper, / pages I do not want to read / again, useless words, fragments, / errors. And I put into it / the contents of the outhouse: / light of the sun, growth of the ground, / finished with one of their journeys. / To the sky, to the wind, then, / and to the faithful trees, I confess / my sins: that I have not been happy / enough, considering my good luck; / have listened to too much noise; / have been inattentive to wonders; / have lusted after praise. And then upon the gathered refuse / of mind and body, I close the trench, / folding shut again the dark, / the deathless earth. Beneath that seal / the old escapes into the new.”

I can’t control or even attempt to control the coronavirus. I can protect myself and those I care for with proper handwashing and social distancing. But the virus, in its smallness, is bigger than me. Like the sea and gravity, it moves with a steady energy that exhibits a power over me and my definitions of normal. And at the same time, as Berry suggests, I can count on rituals and practices to bring a sense of stability to my life, especially when those traditions are aligned to movements in the natural world. What ritual or practice (past, rediscovered, or explored) brings you light and enlivens your spirit these days? If you were to dig a trench into the ground of your personal or professional identity/work. What items from the winter of your work, personal life, or coronavirus do you want to bury? What would it feel like to know that the elements of loss are composting, breaking down, and waiting to burst forth into the newness of your personal/professional life?

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.


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