Whether you face long-term or acute stress, whether you work in public safety or elsewhere, you will find in these pages invitations to ways of thinking and acting – attitudes and actions – that lead to wholeness and balance. I invite you to let go of three bad habits that our culture encourages. Reject grand plans, simplistic solutions and comparison stress shopping.
Grand plans don’t work for grief and trauma. They fail partly because they have an end goal in mind: to “get over” whatever has happened. However, we don’t get over losses and traumas that are life-changing – we figure out how to live with them. Grand plans also fail because it is impossible to plan your reactions.
Even if any of us had enough self-knowledge to make such a plan, the rest of the world rarely cooperates. Instead of planning what you are going to do in the future, healing comes from figuring out how to be in the present as much as possible. Just like major physical injuries and illnesses, predicting a fixed path to healing and timing is foolish (which doesn’t mean we don’t want it – of course we do).
Trust that you will know what to do when it is time to do it, if you take the time to listen to your heart. For example, at my house we have several boxes of my father-in-law’s clothing. He died more than a decade ago. When it is time to do something with them, my wife will know. Until then, my job is to patiently wait and set aside the idea that we really could use that storage space for something else.
One of Mother Teresa’s oft-quoted sayings rejects grand plans: “Do small things with great love.”
Simplistic solutions are the cheap answers that often come out as supposedly comforting clichés. After losing a loved one, have you ever been told something like, “She’s in a better place?” That’s a half-truth because the reality of your loved one’s death is missing.
Faith indeed says she is at peace, but at the same time your senses are telling you, “She’s not here and I miss her!” Faith accompanies, rather than erases or cancels, the pain of loss. It doesn’t reduce the pain, it makes it easier to bear.
When people hear clichés and other simplistic answers they are often left feeling alone and criticized for being weak when they find – as they almost always do – that grief and trauma are never simple. Truly stressful life events are always messy and complicated.
Overly simplistic solutions are pervasive. We see suicidal high school students overloaded with pressure to get into the best colleges and leap to the conclusion that to end the self-destruction we have to figure out how to lower their stress. In the quest for the simple fix, focusing on academic pressure, we ignore what is missing from their lives – most critically, social support – when academic achievement crowds out everything else. They don’t need lower stress (the best schools are also the most challenging), they need us to restore priorities that were abandoned when academic success became the only thing that mattered.
This kind of black-and-white thinking has also given us political parties that are defined by who and what they are against. In this atmosphere, debate rarely rises above criticism, as if by proving the “other side” is wrong, our problems are solved. Christian churches split over whether or not a particular idea is right or wrong, forget that the only true unity in our faith is the result of a work of ultimate sacrifice by God alone.
We are uncomfortable with ambiguity, so we focus on competition, right and wrong, and accomplishments – winning/being right is the only thing. Sadly, if we stick to that mindset when we experience grief and loss, the world will seem wrong and we feel like losers because we have no other dimensions in which to live. And yes, stress is indeed toxic when we view the world as a place in which our responses are limited to “fight or flight.” When we are stuck there, we have forgotten that we are also deeply wired, spiritually, psychologically, and physiologically, to connect with one another, the divine and the physical world, engaged in the often-holy work of tending and befriending. We are not created to focus only on correcting ourselves and others, we are also made for connecting – with people, the world and the spiritual or divine.
Comparison stress shopping is a name that our crisis intervention team uses to describe a way that people often minimize their own or others’ stress. “It’s so much worse for that person; it’s not so bad for me.” Caregiving professions such as public safety, medicine and teaching are full of people who are in the habit of putting others’ needs ahead of their own. Many of them are accustomed to putting their own emotions on “hold” so that they can take care of those around them.
Deferring or ignoring their own needs is especially common for leaders. For example, every time I ask a school administrator in the midst of crisis the question, “What’s hardest for you right now?” the answer is something like “Making sure my staff is okay.” Ask the teachers and the reply is, “Making sure my students are okay.” Ask a fire captain or police sergeant and the response is similar – they will be focused on taking care of those who report to them, rather than themselves.
Comparison stress shopping is more than just an obstacle to self-care. It isolates those who are struggling, which aggravates their stress. When people honestly express grief, sadness, frustration or other emotions that those around them are also feeling, the others know that they are not alone, which is crucial to living with stress. This is what it means to carry each other’s burdens, as the Bible and other spiritual writings urge us toward.