The Chinese character for crisis combines the characters for danger and opportunity. Military veterans, whose service we honor on Veterans Day, appreciate that double meaning. No military effort in war – whether traditional combat such as was fought in WWII, Korea, and the first Gulf War or a less traditional form of war such as was fought in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places – is without danger and an opportunity for potential gain. Great military commanders have the ability to recognize when the potential gain exceeds the danger.
Military veterans also know that the military loves a crisis. In the absence of a genuine crisis, leaders from the ranks of NCOs up through four-star officers tend to create an artificial crisis. Crises evoke a sense of urgency that can prioritize the perceived urgent over the truly important. Crises can aid in developing team spirit and teamwork. The stress of artificial crises is one way to prepare military personnel for the actual stress of combat.
Post-retirement, I have recognized that many civilians also love a crisis. Pundits are fond of identifying a crisis, real or imagined, that the world, nation, or a particular group of people face. Then, if the pundit takes the role of public intellectual seriously, proposes a solution to the crisis.
Careful analysis and an in-depth knowledge of history contextualizes and clarifies the true nature of many alleged crisis. Illustratively, the current political gridlock and polarization echoes Congress’ inability to pass any major legislation from the 1870s until FDR’s election as President. Similarly, the often-touted social stability and economic progress of the 1950s reflects a predominantly white perspective; for black Americans, the 1950s largely continued the racial injustice of previous decades. In sum, the nature of a crisis is often definitively shaped by the eye of the beholder.
People, according to psychologist Jonathan Haidt, cope with a crisis in one of three ways. A crisis may activate the person (this is the military’s general expectation), prompt a reappraisal of what is happening (politicians and pundits both hope that declaring something a crisis will at least prompt people to reappraise the situation, if not act), or trigger avoidance (i.e., respond like the proverbial ostrich).
Brian D. McLaren in his book, Everything Must Change, identified four global crises that he believes we face:
- The crisis of the planet, which I called the Prosperity Crisis, since our way of pursuing prosperity is unsustainable ecologically.
- The crisis of poverty, which I called the Equity Crisis, since the gap between rich and poor is growing, leaving more and more people in a less and less equitable situation.
- The crisis of peace, which I called the Security Crisis, in which the widening gap between a rich minority and a poor majority plunges both groups into a vicious cycle of violence, each group arming itself with more and more catastrophic weapons.
- The crisis of religion, which I called the Spirituality Crisis, since all our world’s religions are failing to inspire us to address the first three crises, and in fact too often they are inspiring us to behave in ways counterproductive to human survival. (Summary taken from McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, p. 253)
Few people can concurrently cope creatively with four crises, much less the numerous other crises that are features of our personal, professional, social, and political lives. Overwhelmed by too many crises, avoidance typically becomes our response of choice.
Nonetheless, I find McLaren’s listing of the four crises broadly useful as an ethical framework for approaching the future.
However, instead of attempting to respond to all four, at best fragmenting my efforts and at worst suffering from an ethical and practical paralysis, I choose one of the four as the primary focus of my efforts. That focus may shift over time. And I remain interested in all four. But as part of a community of believers, I trust others to focus on the three that are not my prime focus. Indeed, I rely upon others to assist with the crisis that focuses my efforts because all four global crises are too large for any one person to address in total. Concurrently with my personal responses to one of the four crises, I support the efforts of others with my prayers as well as through timely, appropriate comments in my teaching, preaching, and writing.
Furthermore, I find McLaren’s framework helpful in sorting, weighing, and prioritizing the numerous crises that lay claims on my attention and resources. What is truly important (and not simply urgent)? What coheres well with my overall focus? Where can I personally make a difference? Where can only I make a difference?
Conservative economist Milton Friedman believed, “ONLY A CRISIS – actual or perceived – produces real change.” Emulate those veterans who joined the military to make a difference in the world. Choose your crisis wisely and make a difference!