1. General Christian

Our choices determine how we respond to crisis

           I think that crisis brings out in all of us an exaggeration of the things that we’ve practiced daily, both the good and the bad.  We become more fully the people we have chosen to be, with all of our good qualities and all of our challenges when things are stressful.  That means that strong people can become stronger, kind and compassionate people become more so, generous people tend to step up, and people who are good under stress show themselves to be capable and hard working. People under stress can live more fully into being the best that they are, especially if they are trusted to do so, expected to step up and become the people they are called to be, meant to be.  Unfortunately, people who have acted out badly in the past to deal with discomfort, people who have not built up the skills to handle challenges can end up acting out in extreme ways their personality issues during times of crisis as well.
            On an individual level, I’ve watched several people in my life deal with difficult diseases.  In one case, the person tended towards victimization before the illness struck and she embodies that to a much greater degree.  She sees herself being mistreated in every situation and, as the disease progresses, she becomes more helpless, more quick to blame, attack and accuse, and more prone to dwell on previous insults whether they were real or simply perceived.  Another person with the exact same illness is acting the opposite way: continuing to be positive, to have good humor, to be kind and gentle, even as he grieves the limitations that the disease is imposing on him.  It is difficult to watch and see that personal choices throughout one’s life about how to be in crisis, how to face challenges, how to walk through difficulties, are manifesting in these exaggerated ways when those with these illnesses have less choice later on about how they will react.  It is hard to not proclaim to the first person, “you could still be choosing differently!  You would be happier if you chose to see how you do have power rather than focusing on the places you don’t!” But I know that a lifetime of choosing predominantly to focus on her limitations has engrained in her very being a pattern that will not allow her, now, in this time of decline, to choose a different perspective.  In contrast, the man with the same disease has also had a lifetime habit of looking for the good, seeing the humor in life, and treating others with kindness.  And his lifetime choices are also manifesting in this pattern of response to crisis.
          I’ve watched this with people “out in the world” as well.  Some people are becoming angrier during this time, more confrontive, more attacking; while others have become kinder, more compassionate, more caring.  My guess is that again, those acting out that hatred and anger were people who chose to respond this way before the crisis.  The crisis has just exaggerated this behavior.  As I take walks around my neighborhood, I’ve experienced some people being kinder, saying “hello” as we pass, laughing with me about the situation we are currently in.  I’ve also had people in cars drive by cursing and screaming obscenities for no apparent reason.  This crisis has brought the best out in some, and the worst out in others.  Still, these are choices that people are making.  And every time I do hear someone yelling or being nasty to someone else, I want to say to them, “this day you choose if what you give to the world is kind or hurtful.  Why are you choosing to give harm today instead of something good?”
           This doesn’t just happen at an individual level, but in communities as well.  I think about one of the congregations I served in for a time. Every church has its challenges, every church has its problems, and every church has members in it who “act out” behaviors such as gossip, power-mongering, and a desire for drama that can lead to dissentious behavior and even splits in congregations.  In this particular church, when crisis hit, the congregation did an incredible job of banding together, of supporting one another, of caring for one another.  As a congregation, they had practiced kindness, always, regularly.  When crisis hit, then, they did what they knew best how to do, and they still practiced kindness and compassion.  Still, there were a few members who went into negative, destructive behaviors in response to the stress of the crisis.  At first their acting out was extremely upsetting to me.  But what I saw in this congregation utterly and completely amazed me.  Because it was a healthy community, the “acting out” behavior was given no power.  The gossip did not take root and spread into poison.  The dramatic demands for people to “choose sides” did not morph into anything concrete.  The congregation simply did not empower the bad behavior.  As a result, the few truly dissentious people in the community ended up leaving.  This was not reassuring to me.  The usual understanding of systems of behavior suggests that if one person leaves the group structure or family “mobile”, that undoubtedly someone else will rise to take their place.  Family systems theory says that if a person who is acting out badly leaves a community, they will be replaced with someone else acting out in a similar way.  But again, in this very healthy congregation, in a crisis situation, that simply did not happen.  I think, again, using systems theory, that the mobile had never made room for this behavior.  The choices of the community were to not empower that behavior at any time, and that choice continued into the crisis situation.  The difficult pieces had never claimed a real place in the mobile.  We worked through the crisis time, therefore, and the church continued to be a loving, caring, supportive place.  The people who left did so feeling that surely their leaving would impact the church in the way they had tried to do so by being problematic when they were part of the community.  But instead, the feeling I got from most of the members was one of relief that those who tried to incite disruption were no longer there to do so.
       As we know, this could have gone the other way.  In communities where unhealthy and problematic behavior has taken hold, has become part of the DNA, has carved out a place for itself in the system mobile, problems can often grow.  When people in a group thrive on being key players in drama, where bullying is rewarded, and choosing polarizing sides becomes the norm; crisis situations provide fertile ground for painful implosion and turmoil.
        Our society right now is under incredible stress.  Nothing is normal, nothing is what it was or as it has been.  And we are seeing different responses to that stress, as individuals, as small communities and in the larger communities of state, country and world.  How we will respond to crisis will vary.  Some will act out with insensitivity, a failure to self-reflect or to learn, violence, anger, and hate.  Others will use this time to deepen as communities, to build networks of support, care and love, to step into new ways of doing things that are more inclusive and kind, to learn and connect with others in different ways.  Each of these must start with the individuals that we are, with the choices that each person in a community makes.  Then, as a community of individuals strives for compassion, forgiveness, understanding and communication, those communities will grow, learn and become what they are called to be.  In places where dissention is exacerbated and fed through behaviors such as gossip, intolerance, and violence of word or deed, communities will be disrupted and may fail or become more entrenched in unhealthy behaviors.  We will have to make some choices about who we choose to be during this time.   And that has to start with each one of us.
             Who will I be this day?  What behaviors do I want to practice in my person that will be habits that may be hard to break in the future?  How do I want to respond to crisis?  And how do I want to choose to interact with those around me when they are upset, acting out of crisis, or misbehaving?  Can I love and support a person without exacerbating their worst behaviors, passing on or even acting out gossip?  Can I care about someone without feeling I have to choose sides?  Can I respond to anger and violence with peace and love?  Can I take a step back from drama and choose to see a bigger picture, a picture that recognizes the stress of this time and chooses to be a grounded voice of peace?  These are questions we will not only have to ask ourselves in the larger context, but perhaps in each moment of every day.  The answers to those questions will determine the future of our communities.  May you have the space within you to listen for the Spirit’s guidance in this day.

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