What’s the difference between 25 years of ministry experience, and one year of ministry experience 25 times? Reflective practice.
I devote my professional life to teaching adults how to be ministers. Among the gifts and graces I seek to impart is a value for lifelong learning, which includes both acquiring new knowledge and intentionally learning from lived experience. Therefore, it’s all the more surprising how often I myself have to be reminded to reflect on what I’ve been through so I might learn from it, rather than simply reacting to experiences, labeling them bad or good and then charging ahead.
Take the Coronavirus crisis. Like many who read the news, I’m tracking the spread of this dastardly virus filled with anxiety. About a week ago, I realized that I might be reacting more strongly to COVID-19 due to a sad and scary experience from many years ago. My spouse and I adopted our daughter in China in 2003. We made the decision to pursue adoption on September 9, 2001, which was two days before the world turned upside-down, as did the US immigration system. 9/11 was the source of multiple delays, unfounded fears of everyone about everything, and cascading systems failures that spilled over into every agency we needed to turn to for help in our adoption process.
Our dossier went to China, eventually and after many encounters with the absurd (because the process took so long, we had to redo our fingerprints, because they had expired; whaaaa?), and then the clock started ticking. The wait time was to be 11 months from dossier to adoption in a Chinese system ran that like clockwork…until, that is, the US banned travel to China because of SARS, and we were dragged back into a place of anxiety and uncertainty all over again. We ended up with a delay of three months, which sounds brief now, but during that entire delay we were confronted constantly with the possibility that our adoption might not happen at all, the future being so uncertain, and SARS being so mysterious and frightening.
Flash forward 17 years. Our daughter is almost an adult (again, whaaaa?), and fears from those uncertain days faded from our memories as the joy and turmoil of parenthood supplanted all other thoughts. We got to China in September of 2003, 14 rather than 11 months after completing our application. We heard from those we met in China that SARS had been a big deal, but nothing like what we’d been led to believe as related to scope and scale. The Chinese population is so much bigger than that of the US that the proportions of those affected by SARS seemed much smaller from a Chinese perspective. The crisis came, the crisis went, and I thought it was behind me, but no.
COVID-19 has brought up all the emotions of those difficult days as though they had simply been laying dormant, a sleeping tiger. I hear of cases of discrimination against Chinese people due to ignorance about how viruses work and want to accompany my daughter everywhere, a bodyguard ready to pounce. I want to quarantine ourselves and sanitize everything I touch, until I get exasperated and want to let my guard down out of sheer exhaustion. But then I remind myself of past experience and try to approach this moment as though I’ve learned something. So, what did I actually learn from the SARS outbreak, the epidemic that could have scuttled our adoption plans, but didn’t?
- I learned that it’s important to keep things in perspective; take reasonable precautions, but then try to relax and trust all will be well.
- I learned that governments, including our own, spin global health news in ways that are convenient to them but unhelpful to those looking for objective information. George W. Bush needed a “weapon of mass distraction” in 2003. The US needed some other country to be wrong about something after we had been so very wrong about Iraqi WMDs. The rhetoric around the travel ban was as distorted as the gossip of a middle-school child.
- I learned that I’m capable of adjusting, going back to the drawing board, and reorganizing myself inside and out. My spouse and I thought we were clever, timing our adoption so that it would take place at the start of a summer break. We — a teacher and a graduate student/campus minister — ended up coming home with an infant at the start of a new school year. So much for clever, but we adapted and ultimately thrived.
When I live like a learner, I can reframe the SARS experience and find reassurance amidst COVID-19 fears: this isn’t my first rodeo. I have more to offer my family and my colleagues because of that through which I lived. As a learner, I find what might otherwise be a trigger or a flashback can be a source of wisdom.
In my work at Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School, I often talk with students who are discouraged by a not-new experience. Graduate school is cyclical. Every semester includes the early honeymoon, a portion large or small of midterm misery, and a high mountain to climb leading up to finals. Right now, our students are in midterms and heading for break. My role in walking with students is sometimes to remind them that they’ve been here before and have since then grown. Instead of sitting in the space of, “Oh no! It (be “it” writer’s block, circumstantial depression and anxiety, time-management failures) is happening again!” I encourage them to remember how much they now know by asking, “The last time this happened, what helped?”
Of course, after difficult experiences, we need to move on in order to heal, protecting ourselves from the ongoing harm that comes from wallowing. To dust off our sandals and say “never again” is an act of self-preservation and self-esteem. But we needn’t even say those words “never again,” because every new experience is just that: new. There is no “again”. COVID-19 isn’t SARS. This semester isn’t last semester. Resurrection isn’t just what happened after Jesus died. We’re a new creation every day, and that newness is what we find in the reflective, examined life.
Moving forward in time is compulsory. Bringing our learning with us into a new future is optional. If we don’t reflect on our experiences so we might carry learning with us, all we get to keep from difficult moments in our pasts are the traumas and flashbacks and triggers. If we have to carry baggage anyway, my prayer is that we pack the good stuff — the accrued wisdom — and bring it with us too.