How Do We Get Better?

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It is Week 5 of sheltering in place for many of us.  How are you feeling?  What emotions occur most often?  To where and on whom are they directed?  How do you see the future, and what does that feel like?

Who do we want to be on the other side if this crisis?

For all our sakes, I hope we can be more patient, kind, empathic, open-minded, thoughtful, intentional, and connected.  The COVID-19 pandemic shows us what ultimate paradox really means—trauma and grief on a scale not seen in generations, as well as an opportunity for unprecedented growth, both as individuals and as a society.

I think about the risks and possibilities as both a clinician and citizen.  The experiences overlap, as do the strategies to mitigate suffering.  I am so grateful that physician burnout and well-being has already been addressed in so many institutions, and at so many levels, before this crisis hit.  Programs like physician peer support and Balint Groups show us that our leadership cares for our well-being, or at least recognizes the need for organizational support of it.  Employee Assistance Programs and the like are much more visible now, and hopefully barriers to access are also down.  Everywhere I see offers for formal organizational support and ‘wellness.’

But what will really make the difference in the end?  How will we really grow into our best selves through this, the greatest global challenge of most of our lives so far?

I think it will be in our small, day to day, apparently mundane interactions.

Too often we underestimate the impact of our milieu on our attitudes, thoughts, words, and actions—how we are impacted by our environment, and how we impact it in return.

A wise friend observed two groups of people responding to COVID-19.  One sees the pandemic in terms of ‘what’s happening to me.’  The other experiences it as ‘what’s happening to all of us.’  This is a falsely dichotomous oversimplification, obviously.  But it may be instructive to notice one day this week, if we were to categorize our own thinking/feeling/speaking/acting with regard to COVID, where would we land more of the time?

I’m reminded of the stages of tribal culture described by David Logan and colleagues in their book, Tribal Leadership, and presented eloquently in his TED talk.  I have discussed this idea in previous posts.

The visual above encapsulates Logan et al’s theory of tribal culture.  Their work aims to advance groups from lower to higher levels of culture and performance.  In this framework, the currency of cultural economy is language.  Each tribe member’s dominant cultural stage mindset emanates in their words, and is represented/encapsulated in each stage’s mantra above.

Those who experience COVID-19 as ‘what’s happening to me’ likely live in the lower three stages most of the time—self-absorbed, competing, uninterested in personal or societal connection and growth.  Those able to see how ‘this is happening to us all’ have made the shift toward an Outward Mindset, seeing their node selves as inextricable members of a larger, interconnected system.  For a system to function well, grow, and sustain itself best through crisis after crisis, it must achieve a collective “We’re great” or “Life is Great” mindset.

Whom do you know on your team, among your friends, or in your family, who lives these words (most of the time)?  How do you feel when you’re around them?  What do you hear them saying right now? What energy do they exude?  When I meet people like this in my life, I feel calm, soothed.  They remind me to be humble, and to remember what I can do to help, both myself and others.  I feel connected in their presence; I recall my strengths and potential for contribution, and I’m motivated to act accordingly.  They give me hope.

So what do I hear them saying, what language do they speak that elevates our communal culture?

First, they avoid ad hominem.  They refrain not just from political rhetoric and attacks; they don’t make generalizations about groups based on race, gender, geography, social class, etc.  They also withhold judgment—they entertain various stories about people’s motivation, circumstances, and values, rather than jumping to oversimplified conclusions based on their own biases.

Second, they empathize.  They strive to relate to each person they’re with, as well ‘the others’.  And if they can’t do that, they validate the others’ feelings.  “That’s so hard,” can be the most soothing words a person can hear when they’re struggling and suffering. And “Well, we don’t know what they’re living,” reminds me to be humble.

Third, they offer hope.  But it’s not false hope or superficial, Pollyannish positivity.  They honestly believe in and see the light at the end of the tunnel, and they point to it for our benefit.  They do this by asking, “What do you need?”  “How can I help?” and saying simply, “I’m here.”

When I come across people like this, I want to be around them more.  I want to emulate them.  I point out their words and actions to others, and show the positive movement they inspire in me and others.  Stage 4 and 5 tribal leaders lead by example.  And make no mistake, they are everywhere.  They often don’t have a title or any designated authority.  But the team/organization/family is always better for their presence.

If you have people like this on your team, consider:  how can you be more like them?  What do they inspire in you?  If you are this person, how can you bring people along in this mindset?  This is how we get better through our current crisis:  We find the leaders who speak the language of We, Together, Growth, and Hope.  We find and follow those who set the example, and we strive to set it ourselves.  We take advantage of the programs and support systems around us.  We get help, get better, and then turn around and help others.

Yes, there is much trauma and grief.  There is also boundless love and connection.  We find the latter easily when we look, and it sustains us.  We can absorb that energy, join that movement, and make a difference in every encounter with our fellow humans.  We can absolutely be better.