What can a seemingly dormant season provide?
The leaves have fallen. The days are short. In Indiana this week, the sun doesn’t appear until nearly 8 am, and it’s gone again too soon, with sunset a mere nine hours later, just after 5 pm. Although winter hasn’t properly begun, I find myself thinking about the refrain of the English poet Christina Rossetti: we are in the bleak midwinter, snow on snow. Yet, Rossetti wants us to believe this cold desolation is hardly barren. As the Christmas carol notes, the bleak midwinter is the setting for a pivotal moment of the Christian story; and the poet invites her readers to consider the gifts they have received and what they might be able to offer.
As a new parent, I’ve given a lot of consideration to the miraculous gift of rest this year. While my baby seems to grow overnight, with sleep clearly supporting his development, I am bleary-eyed and my mind is slow-moving, from interrupted sleep, and too little of it. Science tells us that sleep is vital beyond simple refreshment of the body. Sleep enhances the plasticity of our brains, allowing integration of all kinds of information. Without enough sleep, we are unable to process what we’ve learned or retain it. Forgoing sleep comes with a high cost… it negatively affects our mood, metabolism, and immunity. I’m optimistic that my daily deprivation will be short-lived, and eventually this baby will grow enough that he, and I, will sleep through the night.
A time of integration
When leaders, as individuals, make time for rest, they are able to integrate all that they’ve learned. This rest includes actual sleep, but also extends to include a variety of other forms of slowing down. Rest cannot have this positive impact if it is an occasional activity, but it must be part of the regular rhythms of life and leadership. There is a reason for daily rest, weekly sabbath, and yes, seasonal renewal. I have carried with me a lesson shared by the wise psychologist and teacher Chanequa Walker-Barnes. In writing about her own difficulty with sabbath rest, she offers the encouragement that rest is sufficient unto itself, not simply as refueling for continued labor. She describes her own effort to affirm “that deeply and faithfully loving and caring for myself is enough.” This concept of sufficiency, of enough, is especially valuable to those who think and teach and lead around generosity. Identifying what is enough, particularly when it is tied to identity as people of faith, can be a powerful antidote to the toxic expectation of scarcity in our society. Rest may just be the resource that allows leaders to see enough where previously they only experienced too little.
Similarly, at the corporate level, ritual and rhythms of the year can make space for rest and renewal. Some traditions mark the longest night, and in so doing acknowledge the grief that can be revealed in darkness. In the Christian tradition, this attention to the longest night blesses the quiet time of reflection that can accompany this season too, and acknowledges the complexity of faith, making room for doubt. Growth in nature is most often cyclical, rather than linear, and religious traditions can encourage practitioners to inhabit the latent and quiet phase of the cycle as well as the productive and celebratory seasons.
A time of renewal
What other rituals can we embrace to honor the generativity of the quiet, dark, or restful seasons in leadership or in the life of an organization? Can we imagine reordering our organizations in such a way that we can be attuned to the value of dormant or fallow time, as well as to the growth and vitality that emerges from a season of rest? I’m reminded that farmers leave fields fallow for their own well-being, that athletes deliberately taper their training in order to be fully prepared for the contest ahead of them, and perhaps we too can find gifts in the intentional creation of rest in the rhythm of an organization’s life.
Fatigue impacts the ability of an organization to sustain creativity, to remain generative and generous. Could it be that uncovering these gifts of rest and renewal would nurture greater generosity in the lives of religious organizations and those who lead them? When religious leaders and people of faith see the signs of strain, exhaustion, or burn-out, in themselves or in their organizations, what can be done? The work of Lilly Endowment, Inc.’s Clergy Renewal Programs might lend some encouragement about the inherent and creative value of structuring meaningful rest and refreshment. The framing question for these initiatives is: “What will make your heart sing?” How rare it is that leaders ask this question, of individuals and in community. In a culture preoccupied with productivity, forward-movement, or growth above all else, we can miss the opportunities we have for renewal. Religious leaders and organizations can intentionally take time to discern what it is that makes their hearts sing, and to celebrate the creativity that comes when it seems they are doing nothing at all. Perhaps some of that generative space can be found in the long nights of a dormant season – in the bleak midwinters of our lives.
by Kelly Raths
Eight years into my now 15-year career with the Oregon Department of Corrections I became certified in mindfulness facilitation. A prison chaplain at the time, my need for new skills was less for the people in custody I served than for colleagues I served with. Corrections employees suffer staggering burdens of divorce, addiction, chronic disease, PTSD and suicide. Sadly, the public servants tasked to carry out criminal justice policies bear their own secondary harm.
My mindfulness teacher Fleet Maull had served 14 years in the federal prison system. Fleet’s carceral observations nurtured his empathic knowing that what hurts one hurts all—what helps one helps all, even if the “one” and the “all,” the jailer and the jailed, appear unreconcilable. Like it did for Fleet, mindfulness has become a source of stamina to innovate from within the criminal justice system, a system and a work wrought with unresolvable contradiction.
Prisons capture our American imagination in part, I think, because they supersize and then lay bare human complexity. For example, commission of a person-to-person crime depends on an internal justification narrative; something owed, something due, something opportunistic. The guardian angels whispering in the ear of the person pondering such harm would delay their actions were it not for the likely trauma-honed survival instincts and addiction-sating cocktails overriding the better instincts of most who find their way into our prisons.
Narrative creation is universally human. You don’t have to commit crime to actively be curating and reinforcing a less-than-helpful belief system. The challenge of narrative creation, as we see now every day, is its tendency, unchecked, to protect and perpetuate one’s own comfort, possibly at the cost of others’. Mindfulness provides leadership skills necessary to move from self-confirming autopilot, “I’m right and here’s everything that confirms that,” to humble discernment, “What is God needing me to hear, see and do?” It allows us to tolerate and learn from contradictions.
People in prison are no stranger to the high stakes conflicts and monotonous dark nights of the soul we’ve faced in this pandemic. Those I most revere turn their backs on comfort and internal assurance and sit bravely before their conflicting truths: I have done unrectifiable harm to others, and my life’s timeline is punctuated by harm done to me; I have knowingly broken sacred community covenants, and my race, class and social wherewithal make me unfairly vulnerable to criminal justice entanglements.
Prison work has shown me one act of generosity is allowing dearly held but differing truths—truths about vaccine, race, climate, ourselves—to stand together, unreconciled and interdependent. What hurts one hurts all even when the one and the all seem irreconcilable. As I make room this Advent season for my Messiah, I am very uncomfortably making room for discord, my small offering towards restoration and generative renewal in our world.
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