Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
July 2008 - Volume 08, No. 7
Sandbagging - how small is your circle?
And so it was - day after day, beginning early in June, I would access the University of Iowa blogsite to monitor the anticipation and preparation as the Iowa River rose in Iowa City to become a record "500 year flood" - 9 1/2 feet above flood stage on June 15. (This was 3 feet above the all-time "100 year flood" record of August, 1993.) The U of I is my undergraduate alma mater; and my brother has lived and worked there more than 30 years now. So I have a more than casual interest. A week and a half after the crest, I visited him, on an extended road trip to a family wedding in Omaha. (Interstate 80 had re-opened.) He told me that in all, twenty university buildings had sustained damage. Also, on that trip, I drove through Cedar Rapids, where at least nine square miles of the city, 1,300 city blocks, had been flooded by the Cedar River, with property damage estimated at $1 billion!
One can only begin to imagine the months and years of recovery ahead for so much of that state, which was my home from age 5 through 22. Due to months of severe weather, 86 of Iowa's 99 counties are declared disaster areas by the governor, and 78 are under presidential declaration. 20% of the state's overall grain crop is estimated lost. 36,000 have been evacuated from their homes. One commentator notes, an immediate struggle now is against humidity and mold.
On one occasion, when the river was yet a few days from cresting, I was viewing YouTube videos from Iowa City, where I watched for a full fifteen minutes, groups of volunteers sandbagging. One thing about Iowans is that when there's work to be done, they do it. A strong work ethic runs deep there. For over a week, thousands of students, faculty, staff, and strangers filled and tied sandbags, formed sandbag lines, and built walls around buildings. They worked - continuously, steadily, almost joyously, day and night. They couldn't stop the rise of the river, but perhaps they could protect this building or that one by their diligence. Then I saw the notice that sandbagging was to cease. They had done as much as they could - all that was left was to retreat and wait. This was also true for the hundreds and hundreds of volunteers that helped move books, including rare book collections and documents, to the upper floors of the Main Library, who helped remove valuable art objects from the art buildings and museums, research equipment from laboratories, etc.
As I watched those sandbaggers on YouTube, each in their own small place in the massive endeavor, I could feel their satisfaction, in just being able to do something in the midst of such a crisis. (In my younger days I've also sandbagged against the errant will of an Iowa river.)
In times of crisis, our apparent circle of influence or effectiveness or simple ability to function, can become quite small. In some cases this can mean a loss of our 'better selves.' The human brain itself, can recede from the analytical (neocortex), to the emotional (limbic), and finally to the "reptile" brain, where only basic survival instincts are left - such as fight or flight or freeze. What's left can become 'the law of the jungle.' But not where I come from, not in Iowa!
A second model of this 'shutting down' is not a retreat to baser instincts, but a reducing of the circle to a manageable (or 'realistic') size. When one is ill or in difficulty, the circle of attention gets smaller. For the dying, there is an almost systematic shutting down of the social world - saying good-bye step by step to friends and family, as the world of meaning narrows down to more local and immediate essentials. The psychological term for this is decathexis - the systematic disinvestment of mental or emotional energy in persons, things and ideas.
Sometimes, in my marital counseling, I'll find that one party, in order to manage his or her stress or anxiety, will shut out the spouse - often out of a felt necessity (and sometimes with great cruelty). This shutting out is frequently experienced by the other as an abandonment or alienation, which in turn triggers their own stress or anxiety. My work is to somehow keep or expand the circle of each as sufficient to still include the resource or caring (or at least tolerance) of the other. From that point, the process of dealing with the stressors can become at least a mutual project - even if the outcome of the relationship may still be in question.
Consider also when a teenager will increasingly shut out his or her family to more freely explore the larger world. In marriage, each person 'leaves' their original family circle to build a new circle with spouse and children.
A third model of this 'smaller circle' becomes an immediate and new concern for those close to you - your family, friends, neighbors, your immediate community. I experienced this a year ago when a tornado came right down my home street. And this is what has happened in Iowa.
The sandbaggers of Iowa City weren't sure their efforts would prevail. But they had the faith that whoever was directing their labors had a larger picture of what might work against that river. And in that trust, and often not knowing anything else to do, they worked - they worked hard, and they worked together.
My clients are often the sandbaggers. Their initial circle of awareness and options seems small. It's my job to have a larger circle from which to operate - from which to guide and direct their energies. I don't always know the outcome - but I know the river and I know the land. And when the boundaries between them shift, or are violated, and when the individual's circle seems very small at the moment, I know to guide and direct. And then, day by day, help them gain a larger circle for themselves - and then eventually for family and greater community.
Sandbagging can be very hard work. But it can be satisfying, especially when there's hope that after the flood, something vital will have prevailed.
This is where it's especially my job to pay attention.