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The tsunami metaphor

by Robert Docter – 

I’ve been thinking about this tsunami—that day when the ocean disappeared and then returned with a vengeance—crashing through hundreds of miles of coastline—piling full-size, sea-going fishing boats like unkempt toys in a disorderly playroom—adding almost mountains of land in some places while subtracting an equal amount in others— freezing the faces of survivors, staring without seeing, denying feelings as their only escape from pain, immobilized in shock and despair, unable even to think rationally, powerless to satisfy even basic needs.

I admire greatly those among us who rush into the breach to bind the wounds, care for the suffering, and minister to the bereaved. I admire those among us who are able to develop strategies to rebuild a nation’s infrastructure even when faced with such monumental complexity.

Tsunami—I’ve noticed that the word seems now to be part of the current lexicon. Most of us know how to spell it, and it’s even used as a metaphor for institutions, organizations, and individuals hit suddenly, without warning with some kind of series of giant traumas that inhibit normal functioning.

I think this is an appropriate use of the word, for the shock and awe of that which befell South East Asia is still very fresh in our minds and hearts. It brings rich meaning and provides valuable insight concerning what might be happening in some beleaguered body or business, suddenly snowed under—inundated with complexity and crisis.

Sometimes, its multiple crises—its giant wave of almost seismic upheaval—hits individuals.
You see it in their faces, their posture, their energy level, their tone of voice, the words they use, their absence of joy. You see it in their attitude—their mood message that seems to suck all the positive energy from a room.
“I’m overwhelmed,” they say. “Sometimes, I just don’t think I can keep this up—everything’s piling in on me.
It’s coming apart. I feel exhausted. I can’t seem to hold it together. It’s hopeless. I don’t feel much joy anymore. I’m barely surviving.”

I’ve seen this in students—especially toward the end of a semester. I’ve seen it in business owners facing what they perceive as financial failure and total ruin. I’ve seen it in families trying to cope with a cataclysm of monumental losses. I’ve seen it in Army officers, thrust into a new and complex appointment, impacted by feelings of guilt, thoughts of inadequacy, engaged in self-blame.

With some, there is a tendency to want to blame someone—maybe the spouse, maybe the boss, and when someone close is unavailable, maybe God. Assigning blame only deepens feelings of powerlessness. Some want to blur these feelings with drugs or booze. This act of denial of one’s humanness only exacerbates the problem and postpones its resolution.

Tsunamis have multiple impacts that deliver multiple problems at the same time. So does depression—what we tend to label this array of thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Physiological, psychological and social trauma combine to send wave after wave crashing over one’s personal coastline. Telling such a person to cheer up doesn’t help. Helping them find professional help probably would.

Breaking free from powerlessness- promoting, self-defeating, debilitating, automatic “stinkin’-thinkin” can change one’s worldview and view of self. It can begin the process that allows one to grow toward freedom from despair and a return to effective functioning. It’s a negative spiral that’s very difficult to end. Physical activity, connecting socially, and discovering a more rational point of view can help.

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