We’re Living in Troubled Times
Perhaps it has never been harder to lead and support others than it is in today’s social and economic climate, which makes it difficult at best, and impossible a great deal of the time, to do many of the things we believe are most important to our work.
- It’s more difficult to engage in behaviors that truly help others [in the best sense of the word] because time, energy, and financial resources are stretched thin, or actually depleted.
- It’s more difficult to formulate strategies that make and keep our organizations as effective as possible without extreme human costs.
- It’s more difficult to cultivate healthy or ganizational climates when tensions, conflicts, and disillusionment are widespread.
- It’s more difficult to be a balanced person oneself, to nurture our own health and relationships, when most everyone is dealing with these same painful realities.
We are finding that most of those we serve have courageously held onto hope, commitment to their organization’s mission, and the fortitude to stay that course. However, they also tell us that moments of disillusionment come more frequently.
Disillusionment means the disenchantment or disappointment or downright devastation we feel when we discover that someone or something we’ve assumed to be good or right or true, isn’t. Disillusionment is a form of betrayal, although we might not understand it that way.
The experience of disillusionment feels as if it happens “to” us; we are unwitting, unsuspecting recipients. We were just living our lives, being good people, doing good work, and out of the blue comes some information or event that pulls back a curtain and provides evidence that our assumptions or expectations have been unwarranted. In this sense, the following quotation is instructive:
Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are a good person is a little like expecting the bull not to attack you because you are a vegetarian.Dennis Wholey
When we are disillusioned, we feel a sense of unfairness because we don’t deserve whatever has caused it. We’re trying to do what’s right. In this sense, we have all been vegetarians attacked by bulls.
People who lead human services organizations come to their work because of deeply held beliefs about serving others, about wanting to help–rather than destroy–quality of life. They are good people. They are vegetarians.
Each of these organizational experiences constitutes an unraveling of one’s idealism, and can lead to burnout and compassion fatigue. After awhile, it can seem as if the system itself is flawed. At least it feels that way when only silence answers the unfairness of our situation. Sometimes we see the organization itself as “a bull.”
All of us can recite a list of disillusionments over the course of our lifetimes, and most of us survive and grow from the experiences. But in the moment, the impact doesn’t feel like a life lesson; it feels personal, and it leaves nagging doubts about whether or not we truly are who we see ourselves to be. And for many, disillusionment is the catalyst for abandoning their work, vocation, calling, or employer. To push disillusionment away, some of us work harder and longer. Some of us abuse ourselves through substances and activities that numb us; others may act abusively toward other people. These things shouldn’t be our only choices.
Disillusionment is a human experience, and it doesn’t just affect us outside our organizations. And if disillusionment increases during tough times, then a better alternative is to name it, educate ourselves about it, and deal with it in healthy ways. We can make disillusionment a major step in the development of resilience, rather than movement down a path of resentment and cynicism. Helping leaders with a sense-making process in the face of disillusionment has become a major element of COR’s work in the last few years.
Sometimes each of us is a bull, intended or not; for sure, we have all been metaphorical vegetarians. The best outcome is for us to understand this phenomenon so that we can realistically process it rather than “putting it behind me,“ getting on with it,” “whistling a happy tune,” or reminding ourselves that hardening our hearts is the only logical response.