In my religious tradition today is Maundy Thursday. This is when many Christian churches remember the celebration of Passover by Jesus and his disciples.
I “do” catastrophe preparedness, this has become my principal role in homeland security. In this context the Maundy Thursday narrative has some resonance.
The perennial story begins with a long celebratory dinner recalling liberation and forty years in the wilderness. After dinner, recognizing he is on the edge of an agonizing choice, Jesus asks his best friends to help him. But they keep falling asleep. Later that evening he is betrayed by a long-time friend. As a very dark night unfolds religious hypocrisy and political expediency conspire toward profound injustice. Trusted followers flee and deny any relationship with their one-time hero. Expectations are shattered. Hopes are dashed. The most cynical outcomes are — with wonderful exceptions — confirmed.
Friday is even worse.
The consequences are catastrophic. At least in the Euro-American context, this death and what happened next was until recently (still, in some quarters) widely understood as precipitating a fundamental shift in ultimate reality.
My own strategy for “managing” catastrophe involves individual, family, neighborhood, organizational, regional, and national resilience. I’m all in favor of prevention (up to a point, at some point many efforts at prevention become as bad or worse than the threat). But prevention will fail. There will be another seriously successful terrorist attack on the United States. I don’t know when or where, but it will come. Much worse than any terrorist attack will be when earthquake or pandemic or epic flooding or you name it de-link a major urban area’s supply chains for several weeks.
Mitigation, response, and recovery are, for me, all important components of resilience. But resilience starts, I increasingly perceive, with the stories we tell each other over meals together. Such as Passover when the story is told again and again of courage and cowardice, loyalty and betrayal, victory and defeat.
There’s a new book out called “The Secrets of Happy Families.” It’s another example of delving into social science research to reclaim common sense that was widely accepted until distracted by earlier versions of social science research. According to the author:
Psychologists have found that every family has a unifying narrative… and those narratives take one of three shapes.
First, the ascending family narrative: “Son, when we came to this country, we had nothing. Our family worked. We opened a store. Your grandfather went to high school. Your father went to college. And now you. …”
Second is the descending narrative: “Sweetheart, we used to have it all. Then we lost everything.”
“The most healthful narrative… is the third one. It’s called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”
Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.
For the last sixty years or so the Ascending narrative has dominated the American imagination. In the last six or seven years the Descending narrative has exerted amazing power. But as with most families, our national narrative is more complicated.
Reality oscillates. Catastrophes come. Seventy-two hours later or 40 days-and-nights (or years) later, even 1900 years later reality may take another turn. There are no guarantees of “success”. There are resilient and non-resilient choices.