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.

March 6, 2020 — Once a month, I meet with faculty and staff to share stories about ways to (balance/integrate) our call to care for students—our heart and passion as professionals—with institutional structures that lean heavily toward efficiency and structure. Our method for the conversation is simple. I email a poem or wisdom story with a few prompts to stir thinking and reflection from the heart. When we gather I read the poem out loud, hold a moment of reflective-silence, and then invite everyone to share a word, image, or phrase that grabs their attention. The conversation flows from a combination of lived-experience in higher education, insights from the poem, and unexpected connections drawn from what others share. Participants enter our shared space with a variety of emotions from heavy-hearts to the deep-joy of being together.  Our time has a sacred and transcendent quality. It is a real blessing to be part of this community, striving for integrity and fidelity to self and the nature of the work.

We recently explored the theme of burdens and the value of periodically laying them down. The poem “Burlap Sack” by Jane Hirshfield was particularly helpful in guiding the conversation. The poet draws on the metaphor of a mule burdened with burlap sacks full of sand, ropes, nails, and axes to draw a distinction between self and work. She writes: “To think that the stones or sand are the self is an error. / To think that grief is the self is an error.” I find this observation a wonderful reminder that what I do, especially the stuff that is onerous or challenging, is not me. This, I think, is important to keep in mind when the institutional work, that must be done, crowds out the heart-filling work that forms the core of my call to teach. When I’m overburdened, I must, as Hirshfield cautions, be “careful between the trees to leave extra room”. I know this feeling well, moving with intention in crowded emotional spaces. When I’m not careful my overloaded bags, my business, can cause harm and hurt as my sacks of stuff bump into students, colleagues, or family members. I think I can do it all, when in fact I can’t. My hubris is bigger than my actual capacity to do good in the world. Hirshfield concludes her poem with an invitation, to lay my burdens down, to no longer carry the heavy load: “What would it be to take the bride / And leave behind the heavy dowry? / To let the thin-ribbed mule browse in tall grasses, / Its long ears waggling like the tails of two happy dogs?”

In our group conversation we imagined, along with the poet, what it would be like to “browse in the tall grasses” of higher education with joy and pleasure. We went a step further. We wrote on sticky notes the sources of our burdens. The challenges and those tasks that are usually life-giving but can weigh us down if there are too many good things or when we must rush through the joy and on to the next task. We placed the sticky notes on a drawing of a burlap sack, filling it with the burdens we carry around like pack mules. We talked, in triads, about our bags and what they were filled with and we unburdened ourselves by pulling off sticky notes that named tasks we didn’t really need to keep carrying. We invited ourselves to be at peace with the work, both the challenges and the joys.

One theme that emerged during our investigation of the poem—and our willingness to be investigated by the poem—was the question of balance. It is helpful when carrying heavy loads to make sure the bags are well balanced. This is essential to the long-term health of the pack animal. Too much weight on one side creates an imbalance that a person works against to stay upright. Balance makes good sense in the metaphor of pack mules, but I’m not sure it works as well when applied to humans working in educational settings. Balance, in these setting, means stagnation. There is little room for experiencing the fullness of human emotions; the highs and lows. And when the load shifts, the person must add energy to the other side to balance the competing forces. Balance, it seems, ends up distracting a person from a closer examination of what the sources of the tension are. When I’m striving for balance I’m more concerned with the nature of the axes, sand, and shovels in my burlap sacks then how did those items get there and are they the right items in the first place.

I think a better goal to strive for is integration. How do I pull together, into wholeness, the competing forces of calling and institutional responsibilities? Rather than self as a counter weight balancing out other forces, in integration the self is a fulcrum between burdens. The self remains independent of the two demands of inner calling and outer institutional protocols and responsibilities. Integration values a dynamic approach to making sense of the lived experience of educators. It accounts for the ways that at times one side may weigh more, and be out of balance, but the self is still centered. As Hirshfield notes: “The self is not the load of ropes and nails and axes. / The self is not the miner nor builder nor driver.” The self is a combination of the various elements of identity, gifts, talents, and social context.

The balance metaphor is premised on parts and pieces that are consciously maneuvered to achieve a static relationship. The integration metaphor is premised on wholeness with the distinct elements in fluid relationship. The key concepts, for me, are wholeness and relationships. As long as these elements are present I’m okay with shifting sacks of responsibility and unbalanced loads. Here are a few questions to ponder as you seek to integrate your burdens, once you put down the unnecessary ones. In what ways have your gifts of service, leadership, or teaching turned into burdens? In what ways do you find it difficult to navigate your work when your burlap sack is full of burdens? Who or what have you harmed as you bumped into them with your burlap sacks? What burdens would you have to put down to feel like you could wonder freely in the pastures of education?


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