Monday, November 5, 2012

In Times Of Crisis, Character Shines Through

The event that's now being called Super Storm Sandy continues to impact the Eastern seaboard of the United States.  The wind has passed, and in the storm's wake, people struggle to cope with the damage.  In the process, peoples' true character (or lack of it) is showing.

Up and down the coast, buildings have been swept off foundations that up till last Monday were assumed to be secure.  Millions of people remain without electricity. Gasoline is scarce.  In many areas, authorities are only now allowing people back into the hardest-hit zones. so the scope of the destruction is only now being realized.

The devastation has hit all classes in society.  People who invested a lifetime of time and energy to create their perfect seaside retreat are now weeping as they sift through its muddy debris.  Working-class families pile ruined furniture on the curb as snowplows clear the sand from their street.   Less than a mile from my (thankfully) safe and secure house, an emergency shelter is filled with people who have been left with, literally, nothing.

For communications watchers like me, it's instructive to observe how a catastrophe of this magnitude brings forth the entire spectrum of human responses.  Some examples:
  • A woman was overheard saying, "My power's out, and I waited in line two hours for gas, then they told me they had run out, so now I'm going home to get drunk."
  • A radio news reporter asked a nurse who'd been taking care of the elderly people on her storm-ravaged block why she had gone out of her way to help others.  "I'm a nurse," she shrugged. "It's what we do."
  • High school students whose classes had been cancelled for the week set up a table in front of the local grocery store and asked shoppers to donate canned goods for people in need.   
  • A hand-lettered sign appeared on a shuttered storefront:  "Looters will be shot by local vets."
  • One of my neighbors made a big pot of soup and took it door to door to offer it to people who have been without electricity for six days.  
How do you react to cataclysm? 

We tend to shed our carefully-manicured public images in the tough times of life.  Our storm-damaged puppet personas are hung out to dry, and our real character becomes visible.

In situations like this, it seems to me that there are two basic types of people.

If you are accustomed to having a larger view of life -- a view that looks beyond your own concerns, desires and ambitions -- then when trouble comes, an internal compass of integrity will guide your steps.  You will feel that your fulfillment comes from continuing to be an honorable person, no matter what ones outer circumstances may be.  You will choose to act out of a sense of purpose. You will be motivated, not by fear, but by a core belief that things happen for a reason and even tragedies contain opportunities, and you will look for ways to instill meaning and value into even the most random-seeming circumstances. Your communications will be other-centered, seeking to heal rather than hurt.

However, if you customarily have a smaller view of life, your reactions will be starker. By smaller view of life, I mean that you have based your sense of security on externals -- your possessions, your position in the community, your bank account or your BMW -- and your energies have been focused on acquiring and maintaining them. To the degree that your external acquisitions have fed your sense of well-being, you might find that you are on shaky emotional ground when your edifices of pride and complacency get swept away.  You will find it difficult to escape feelings of fear or anxiety.  Hardships and uncertainties will easily move you to act out of despair, greed or desperation.  Your communications will be self-centered as you use your words to try to manipulate or dominate others, vent your rage, and re-establish your illusion of control.

Which of these patterns describes you?

Sometimes it takes a hurricane to reveal the hollowness of our life outlook.  The book of Proverbs puts it this way:

If you're slack in the day of distress, your strength is limited.

In other words, if you can't be a person of character when times were tough, then you need to realize that you're not as invulnerable as you have presumed yourself to be.  And that awareness can turn into the resolve to forge a new beginning.

When the New York City Marathon was canceled due to the storm this past Friday, many runners had already arrived from all around the country and the world to compete. They found themselves in Manhattan without a race to run.

While many howled in outrage, some of these world-class athletes decided to turn a negative into a positive. First a few, then hundreds, took to social media to communicate with each other and plan an altruistic alternative event: a marathon of service.  On the Sunday of the cancelled marathon, just a few miles away from where the race would have started, they swarmed into devastated neighborhoods wearing orange jerseys and bearing backpacks full of supplies. They spent the day cleaning homes and mopping basements.

Some had prepared a whole year for the marathon.  They were in great shape.  They had endured rigorous training.  They were ready for a challenge.  When life presented them with a different challenge, they responded with compassion, using their strength for the good of others and trusting that the outcome would justify their sacrifice.

How have you been prepared for the moments of crisis that come your way?  Where can your strengths make a difference in the chaos?  What messages will issue from you as you seek to right your ship and navigate the problems ahead?  Will your words and deeds inspire others, or tear them down?

If you're already looking at life through the lens of a larger purpose, good for you.  You will not only be happier in the long run, but you will be physically and psychologically healthier.  But if you catch yourself reacting poorly to life's big and little catastrophes, you still have the opportunity to change your words, actions and attitudes to make the best of the situation.

Advice columnist Ann Landers used to say, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."

When it comes to catastrophes, that truism is doubly true.  I hope you opt to be part of the solution.  And that means that I hope you decide in favor of becoming a person who views life as a series of opportunities to serve a larger purpose.  Start now to develop that perspective, so that in the day of distress, you're ready to run the race that life sets before you.

Living a life of higher purpose today will prepare you to lead others through the hurricanes of tomorrow.    And in the process, you will build a strong foundation of character that will never be swept away.

Note:  With this column, I am doing away with Manager Mondays as a weekly feature.  I intend to turn the blog into a more general commentary on good communications tips and practices. I'll still comment on workforce messaging, but I will do so on a semi-regular basis.  

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