What's Tony Thinking

A Spiritual Challenge (2)


The ever-entertaining Maureen Dowd made an observation about President Trump’s leadership yesterday. I quote her not to engage in Trump-bashing (I’ve reached my quota for this month), but because her description is such a superb illustration of what I last week called a “technical problem,” borrowing the term of Ron Heifetz.

“Trump,” writes Dowd, “is just a petrified salesman who believes in perception over reality. He thinks if he can create the perception that this is going to be a quick fix and there’s a little pill coming, then the stock market will roar back, along with his 2020 momentum.”

A quick fix, a little pill — that is to define what we’re facing as a “technical problem.” A TP that will be fixed for us by experts, so we can get back to the normal life (to which we are entitled) just as soon as possible. Of course, it will be terrific if effective medical treatments are identified and a vaccine discovered. But if and when COVID-19 is conquered there will be other and new challenges and uncertainties. This is life. This is being human.

And this present challenge is way more than something that will be dealt with by a quick fix or a little pill. It is a huge adaptive challenge.

When you’re facing an adaptive challenge you’re facing something new (hence: “novel”), something that we don’t fully understand. It is humbling or should be. Moreover, the response to this challenge does not already exist. We can’t just take it off the shelf. More learning and change. Who does the work? While the scientific and medical experts have a crucial role, adaptive work cannot be done by off-loading it to experts. In an adaptive challenge the work is done by the people facing the problem. We all have work to do.

Another excellent report described the adaptive challenge we face well. [Stopping the virus] . . . takes intelligent, rapidly adaptive work by health officials, and near-total cooperation from the populace. Containment becomes realistic only when Americans realize that working together is the only way to protect themselves and their loved ones.” (italics added) The entire article sorts between the technical and adaptive aspects skillfully.

What Heifetz calls “an adaptive challenge” I call spiritual work. We’re facing loss — the world is not as we thought. We Americans are not, turns out, invulnerable. This boomer feels his mortality a little nearer. Our choices have narrowed (hardly all bad as it remains true that in significant ways “less is more”).

There are risks. Small ones like learning new technologies to join on-line worship or meetings. Bigger ones like being generous to those in need, even as our our own financial resources diminish. Or re-considering a big idea we had dismissed: Andrew Yang’s guaranteed income plan. And other sorts of risks like spending more time with ourselves and those closest to us. And then there’s that big one: “working together,” the only way to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

Heifetz notes that adaptive challenges face individuals, organizations and nations with an opportunity, necessity really, to sort out what is “precious” and what is “expendable.” That’s harder than you would think. Some of the things that we cling to are really excess baggage and expendable.

People are, however, engaging this adaptive work. David Brooks caught some this in his most recent column “Screw the Virus.” He wrote,

“While we’re at it, screw certainty. Over the past few weeks I’ve been bingeing on commentary from people predicting how long . . . and how bad . . .

“I’m beginning to appreciate the wisdom that cancer patients share. We just can’t know. Don’t expect life to be predictable or fair. Don’t try to tame the situation with some feel-good lie or confident prediction. Embrace the uncertainty of this whole life-or-death deal.

“There’s a weird clarity that comes with that embrace. There is a humility that comes with realizing you’re not the glorious plans you made for your life. When the plans are upset, there’s a quieter and better you beneath them.”

This is a time of transformation, at least potentially. And a time of “repentance. (It is after all still Lent.) Repentance doesn’t just mean feeling bad about yourself. It means, waking up, seeing life and self more clearly, more nearly as they truly are. Less control (or the illusion of it), more humility.

The modern era has been about human control. Control over nature, over life’s contingencies, over aging and genetics, over disease, over life’s unpredictability and insecurity. There is, to be sure, much to be said for this. I am truly grateful, to take one example, for modern dental surgery!

But with our great powers come illusions of invulnerability and certainty. These illusions distort life and distance us, spiritually, from one another. Living with uncertainty, as Brooks says, “embracing it,” can be liberating. It does bring a “weird clarity” and “humility.” And it may restore a right relationship with all that is. As they like to put it in AA, “There is a God, (insert your name), and it’s not you.”


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