The external situation is never the problem
Life is full of limits that are beyond human control. These limitations, which we cannot change, are simply the given reality in which we live our lives. This reality, the external situation, is not our problem. It just “is.” Problems arise with the relationships we take to the external situation. Awareness of this fact, and acting upon it, is a guiding principle undergirding ICA’s work, especially as it enables communities, organizations, and individuals to “affirm the significance of their situation and to build responsible plans of action.” Here’s an example.
In 2009, I was the team leader in an ICA contract to facilitate planning in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to rebuild neighborhoods in the aftermath of a devastating flood. A year later the Director of Community Development contacted me about difficulties she was encountering in the implementation of the plan. Federal guidelines had changed and it was her responsibility to explain new procedures and benefits to the community. People, however, were extremely disruptive and angry during the large information meetings she was conducting. “They accuse me of being a liar and I can’t advance the conversation; they won’t listen to what I have to say. Meetings continually disintegrate into hostile accusations and chaotic confusion. What advice can you give me?”
To clarify new guidelines, I recommended that she use large visual diagrams showing procedures, benefits, and recent changes. However, I suggested that she was dealing with something much deeper than misinformation and changing policies. It was important for her to remember that people in Cedar Rapids went to bed one night in June of 2008 to find the next morning that rising waters had washed away the familiar life they had built for themselves. Underneath their anger about changing policies and misinformation was a deeper anger: “Through no fault of our own,” they tell themselves, “our lives have been dumped on and destroyed. Life should not be this way!” I suggested to the Director “it is your job to find ways of acknowledging people’s pain while enabling them to take a new relationship to the harsh realities and raw emotions that they’re experiencing.”
I reminded her that at the very first planning assembly in January 2009 with 300+ people in attendance, every table discussion began with a brief conversation. “We obviously are not entering into this planning process as distant by-standers; the flood has had an impact on everyone in Cedar Rapids. It is important for all planning to be connected to reality, so let’s spend a few minutes sharing something about our experiences. What have been some of the biggest challenges with which you have had to contend?” Everyone at the tables told their story about the impact of the flood upon their lives. They acknowledged their struggles and set a respectful tone for considering the future through discussion about their realistic hopes and desired outcomes for the planning process. On a human level, it enabled them to affirm “the significance of their situation” by a powerful reminder that they were all in this together.
This process moves human interactions from a superficial level to one that is much more profound. It’s based on an understanding of ‘human agency’ whereby people can always devise ways of coping with life, even under the most extreme forms of coercion or desperation. However difficult various circumstances might be, human beings are free to make choices, even if only in regard to one’s attitude. ICA understands this and facilitates community planning within this perspective.
Reinhold Niebuhr, in the form of a prayer, also understood that the external situation is never the problem when he wrote: “Grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know one from the other.”