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Transition, Resilience, and Fireweed

Health & Wellness News

Spring 2018

Transition, Resilience, and Fireweed

by The Rev. J. William Harkins, Ph.D., LMFT

We paused on the trail — tired, hot, and momentarily liberated from the weight of our heavy packs — and I sat down on a scorched, fallen log, grateful for the respite, in what only three years earlier had been a verdant, old growth Montana forest. Now, the charred remains of spruce, lodge-pole pine, and fir were all that I could see. Burned sentinels of formerly majestic trees rose ahead and above us, and those no longer standing seemed to litter the forest floor as if some great force had arbitrarily tossed them and let them lie where they fell. I found myself lamenting the loss of what I knew had once been a fecund, flourishing forest ecosystem. Radically changed by fire, the ravaged forest was now permanently damaged. But was it really? Was I seeing the whole picture? We live in a complex world that is always changing, and the response of any “system,” whether a family, a business, a church, or an ecosystem to the shocks and disturbances of change depends on a number of factors. But what are they, and how do we understand change and resilience in response to them?

Our hiking trip began at a trailhead in an area burned by a large and ferocious fire three years earlier. It was, by most outward appearances, a scene of utter desolation. After several miles of hiking on this hot day, we stopped for water and rest, still solidly ensconced in the burn. As we sat quietly, I began to look around, and see that new life was everywhere, pushing upward in infinite detail, where my vision had been limited only to what was most obvious to the eye. I caught a glimpse of a mule deer, drawn to the open terrain by the lush, waist-high vegetation now growing in the sunlight. Light, life-giving and fierce, seemed to have given birth to the life lying in the trees, and in the soil, all along. Fireweed, a lovely serotinous plant, with lavender and pink flowers, that grows in just such burned-over land, was everywhere around us. How had I missed it?

As I listened, and finally began to pay attention, I heard a low, buzzing hum, and then began to see that the fireweed had attracted hundreds of hummingbirds, dodging and darting, feeding on the fireweed nectar along with bees and other insects. Wildlife of all kinds seemed suddenly visible. Life seemed to be flourishing, and I had not seen it because I had not paid attention to the larger, more complex picture it contained. Seeds of lodge-pole pines that need only the intense heat of the fire to release their inner Chi — the deepest, essential life breath and energy — were everywhere. I had both literally and metaphorically not seen the emerging new forest for the desolate, burned trees.

In their text entitled Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World, Bryan Walker and David Salt suggest that the response of any system to shocks and disturbances depends on its context. They define resilience as “the ability of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure.” At the heart of resilience thinking is a very simple notion — things are constantly changing — and to ignore or resist this change is to increase our vulnerability and forego emerging opportunities. In so doing, we limit our options. And, this raises a question that has implications for us all, regardless of the “ecosystems” within which we work.

Indeed, those of us who live and work in churches and other institutions will quickly recognize that these two concepts on the road to resilience are present in our local, familiar “ecologies” as well! In their book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, Zolli and Healy suggest that “our resilience is rooted not only in our beliefs and values, in our character, experiences, values, and genes, but critically in our habits of mind — habits that we can cultivate and change.” As a clinician, seminary professor, and Episcopal priest whose work is often devoted to “habits of mind” that promote resilience, this caught my attention.

Here are a few ways of cultivating resilience we might consider:

The Rev. J. William Harkins teaches pastoral theology and counseling in the various programs at Columbia Theological Seminary, where he directs the Th.D. program in pastoral psychotherapy. He is a Priest Associate at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip. Bill practices psychotherapy and marriage and family therapy at the Brookwood Center and the Cathedral Counseling Center in Atlanta. He joined the faculty of Episcopal CREDO, a wellness program for clergy, as Psychological Health faculty in 2012.

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