Have you followed the emergence of protests at state capitols this past week? Have you been tempted to join in?
Consider a comparison. On one hand are the calls to drive as many cars as possible to these rallies against government overreach, and to bring along firearms and confederate flags. On the other, we have the aftermath of Gettysburg and the spirit of Lincoln. Today and then, democracy is stressed. People are divided. Nation vs states’ rights are hotly debated. People are dying alone and without dignity.
Today, people are shouting: “Let me work!” “Let me shop!” “Let me assemble!”
Government leaders are tweeting: “I have the power."
Then, the government and its people gathered around these words from the Gettysburg address:
"...we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
My oldest son, Zach, is named after Zechariah, the Old Testament prophet whose opening lines include these words attributed to Jehovah:
"Return to me and I will return to you."
Zach is on the front lines of this COVID pandemic as a hospital chaplain in a county experiencing a renewed outbreak. He stands in for all the clergy who cannot enter the hospital to visit the ill and dying, whatever their disease. One of his colleagues nearly died from COVID--several harrowing days on a ventilator in ICU. They are not fully staffed, working at a hospital where even more people will be brought, should matters worsen.
Our son-in-law, a hospital nurse in the US northwest, has COVID now. He, along with several coworkers, caught it from a patient they cared for. We wait with concern to learn whether others in his family have it.
Our daughter works with elderly patients who cannot care for themselves. She encounters panicked clients and family members who put their stricken family member at greater risk in their attempts to avoid COVID transmission.
A deeply respected Bronx pastor I was privileged to work with just passed from this disease.
The CEO of a medical practice wrote to me yesterday of his serious bout with disease.
A good number of my friends are mourning of the death of their musical inspiration, John Prine.
Those you love
Those you work with and serve
People they know and serve
People you don’t know but live in your community
We all are being touched in some way during pandemic time. Everyone dies at some point, yes, but the speed of suffering’s onset, and even more, the secondary effects of what it does in families, communities, and the marketplace, is beyond any of our experience.
Pandemic time brings us to helplessness. It brings us to intensified prayer. It fosters moments where we choose protests at state capitols or Lincoln at the Gettysburg battlefield and his words to a broken nation. Pandemic time grants us the possibility to hear the prophetic words: "Return to me and I will return to you.”
Moments like these bring us back to first things. To choose them again if we will. But where from there? What to do in moments we cannot recognize, where all other navigating points beyond those first things are unrecognizable?
In one form or another, most of us have been exposed to the concept of unknown unknowns. COVID sheltering in place with a shut-down economy yanks the idea of unknown unknowns out of this theoretical Johari window and squarely into reality. Even more, the unknown duration of this moment blocks us from pulling unknown unknowns into something we can be aware of and begin to know and then to act.
Organizational leaders don’t know when we will know or what we will know when we finally do know it.
We can be poised to respond.
We can clear our proverbial decks.
We can plan for multiple possibilities.
But we still don’t know when we will know. And, we don’t know for sure what we will know. No one does. Not really.
In the face of unknown unknowns we find ourselves faced with yet another Johari window to consider:
Unknown unknowns like this cause us to react to not being able to react. Instinctively:
We try to continue on as before, or
We seek to adapt by finding new tools to continue in an already established direction, or
We hope to expand into new things using the tools we already have, or
We re-invent ourselves by starting over again all over again, or
We try to be ready to do several of these things.
Sometimes old muscles serve us well because they are well honed.
--Sometimes we overuse them; they block us as we demonstrate we aren’t learning or increasing.
Sometimes new muscles serve us well because they are a gateway to a new level of accomplishment.
--Sometimes we hyperextend them; they prevent us from success because we are too easily enamored with new capacities.
With unknown unknowns, we cannot know what will work and when. Not yet.
So, perhaps we might return to a restful poise, gathering strength and energy to move once knowledge is revealed. Perhaps leading now isn't as much about competence as it is agility, or confidence as much as it is poise. Perhaps this is the wisest course. Perhaps the prophet’s words to return meant to return to the wisdom of sabbath rhythm, to the first act of covenant with the Providential One, and thereby being ready to care for the orphan, the widow and the refugee. Perhaps Lincoln’s words about "of, by and for the people” meant the wisdom of returning to a love of the commons and of benevolent civic engagement.
Perhaps underneath all of this is the practical wisdom of loving God and neighbor, rather than just an ability to recite the words.
Wisdom trumps knowledge anyway.