Brazillian philosopher, social theorist and politician Roberto Unger once pointed out in an interview that we often see change happening after a crisis or a trauma. He knew what he was talking about, having served in Brazil’s government and participated in its turbulent political life.
This seems an almost Utopian ideal, but one may also see the value—shock value, actually—of crisis or trauma as an impetus for change. The figure of John the Baptist as precursor to Christ illustrates this point. There was shock value to his unusual way of life: “Preaching in the wilderness of Judea… John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.”
This way of life and his message called attention, as we see in the Gospel today: “Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
Clearly he had an impact, attracting not just a band of followers but huge crowds. His message further heightened the sense of crisis among his listeners: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Now, those are words that certainly call attention and create impact!
Yes, there seems to be wisdom and grace in crisis as an entry point into the process of change. But we need so much more than crisis—and this is where we falter, in the follow-through and how to bring the process to completion.
I remember what one of our project team members told me around six months ago. We had a family recovery center (trauma counseling) project in one barangay hit by Typhoon Pablo. A few months after the calamity, many of the groups who had initially come in droves were nowhere in sight. Only a few remained to help in the more tedious and deeper process of recovery and rebuilding.
This is a normal occurrence we witness in many issues. This is what we often refer to as the ningas cogon mind-set. The problem is not that crisis or trauma is not an effective tool for change; rather, it is that we don’t make the choice to see the process to its logical conclusion.
The classic Greek process of crisis, antithesis and synthesis seems to be at the heart of the wisdom of change. It reminds us that there is life after crisis. In fact, new life is borne out of crisis, the synthesis.
John the Baptist summarized this process: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repentance is a call to “break down.” It is a turning back to and a return to the right path. But to do so one must “break down” the status quo and let go of the familiar routine that gives us security and comfort.
A group I am working with now is preparing an aging seminar for its top management. The group saw the need for the seminar because many members of the management team are encountering midlife crisis. In a preparatory conversation, one of the managers talked about his struggle to accept that he was slowing down. It was compounded by the entry of young, dynamic and talented managers into the company, which represented competition against him and his job security.
The senior manager said, “The struggle was painful.” Then someone jumped into the conversation with: “But the struggle is necessary to humble us.” To which another added, “And for us to realize that the perks of our office are great, but they are not the essentials. What matters in the end is that our contribution added value to the company’s work and mission.”
This is often the tragedy of the workplace and life in general. We do not prepare for transitions. There is a process, and there are transitions in this process of crisis, antithesis and synthesis.
Crisis is breaking down what we have gotten used to and allowing another perspective—the antithesis—to emerge. It does not necessarily throw away all the old and familiar, but it certainly refines them, improves on them. However, one only realizes this when one goes through the whole process and reaches the point of synthesis.
From the perspective of repentance, crisis and antithesis bring us back closer to our authentic self. Again, the words of John the Baptist: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” This is our authentic self—life in the Kingdom of Heaven, sharing in the divine existence.
There is value in crisis and trauma, in the shock effect. We often say in Filipino, “Natauhan!” We come to a sudden realization. But the root word remains tao, the human person. It is getting in touch with our humanity again and living with greater awareness of this humanity.
This is one of the great gifts of the Advent and Christmas seasons. They are seasons of grace, when the very mood and spirit carry the hidden process of crisis, antithesis and synthesis.
The classic story of Scrooge encountering the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future carries this same process: being shocked into a breakdown, becoming open to the antithesis, then emerging renewed, newly synthesized.
Advent and Christmas are seasons of grace that afford us the opportunity to enter this process of renewal, to repent and realize that we are destined for the divine. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand—it is around us, it is in us, it is us.