Early on in the shelter-in-place days, I discovered some beautiful running trails just minutes from my house. Each morning in this refuge, I would watch the sunrise, wonder, think, and pray for the potential of a new day. Waist-high grass stood on either side of the single-track trails. Alternating between running and biking, this routine worked itself into the rhythm of my soul. One morning, as I jogged around the corner, I startled an American robin in the middle of the trail. Fleeing, it tripped down the path just out of sight. I turned the next corner and as if surprised the robin frantically half-hopped, half-flew down the path. A third time, oblivious to my continued path, the frightened bird flew ahead but remained below the grass tips down the path. Finally, the fourth time, as I agitated the robin, it flew out of the path, above the grass and, realizing its ability to soar, ascended confidently away.
The Lord gave this to me as a picture of many entrenched in a rut of thinking, living, and leading. While this bird was designed to soar, it hobbled down the rut, just to be cemented in with the same, perpetual problem. As I interact with Christian leaders, I hear words like “stagnant,” “stuck,” and “rut.” As they dream for a moment, inevitably they share dim hopes of something “new,” “fresh,” or “thriving.” Like the robin, the rut is real, and forces intensely pull us back to the known. These forces are spiritual, emotional, and physiological. I have explored the former two elsewhere, but here, I offer just a couple of observations about the physiological elements that reinforce the status quo.
I am indebted to Stephen D’Souza and Diana Renner for synthesizing the work of several neuroscientists in their work, Not Knowing. The mind searches for certainty. While this can generally motivate the search for knowledge, it possesses the possibility to paralyze leaders whose primary responsibility is to shepherd others into the unknown of the future. One neurologist even asserts that “threats to our certainty can be neurologically as painful as a physical attack” (32). These uncertainties leave the brain debilitated. A further study showed the brain’s left hemisphere’s role as one of “the Interpreter…always looking for order and reason, even when they don’t exist.”
As neurons get connected, they form patterns. These patterns turn into one of two things: healthy reinforcement, or a negative rut leading to addiction. Neurologically speaking, we are wired for the expected, for the known, and for order. Much of life and leadership, however, are surprises, unknown and chaotic. While many will falter down the path, a few are called to look into the chaos and fly, and in so doing, show there is a new path… it springs up, do you perceive it? He is making a way in the wilderness, streams in the wasteland, and flight paths out of the grass.
Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner, Not Knowing: The Art of Turning Uncertainty into Opportunity (New York: LID Publishing, 2016).
5 responses to “Neurological Entrenchment”
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Shawn, I’m reminded of the definition attributed to insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. When we get stuck in our ruts, we keep trying to trudge along and get out of it without actually breaking free of the status quo.
What are some of the practices you’ve incorporated in your own life to help you escape the ruts?
I love how God met you out in the wild and gave you a glimpse of glory and grace. Simply beautiful! Forging new thought patterns and practices is tough. That bird instinctively figured out it was made to soar. How do you remind all those ministry leaders of that same truth and embolden them with courage to take flight when the ruts are comfortable, known, and instinct wants to keep them there?
“These patterns turn into one of two things: healthy reinforcement, or a negative rut leading to addiction.” This is so true. One of the greatest challenges I have found both in my life and my business is staying out of the the ruts of life. It is a very subtle process especially in business. When you form a habitual process that works, our minds do not see them as ruts but good business practices. This is often true as long as the business environment stays the same. Part of this, is clients like predictability and routine. BUT, when the environment changes (COVID 19) drastically what worked before doesn’t work now. It is at this point that those good business practices turn into ruts. Change is needed to meet the clients needs but is often hard since we struggle letting go of the old practice that worked well but are no longer viable. How has your understanding of innovation assisted you in climbing out of ruts?
Yes, but… I’ve found that it’s one thing to take a posture of being ok with uncertainty and ambiguity, only to get sucked back by the anxiety of others in the room who just can’t handle it. Everyone has their different ideas about what leadership and success look like, and those who like order, certainty, and stability are often much more convincing in leading others to demand the same, thus subverting a more non-anxious leader’s process to be more open and willing to see where the road goes. How have you helped the more anxious and stuck to dare to spread their wings?
Thank you for your beautiful story of the trails. Reminds me of many wonderful encounters with wildlife out there over the years, going fast and slow over great distances on the trails. Keep getting out there; it’s good for you!
Turdus migratorius 🙂 love the American Robin. One encounter that remains with me of a sweet little robin was on logging roads on the way back from a Marine Station I had just been living and studying at in the springtime of 2003 (or so).
I was driving with one of my professors on a long stretch of super-bumpy terrain and a robin flew in front of his vehicle. Almost hitting it, he cried out, ‘Get out of the way, bird!’ I remarked that it surprised me he didn’t address the bird by its scientific name. ‘Oh, you mean Turdus migratorius’, he replied. From that point, I was inspired to classify and memorise the scientific names of all kinds of local flora and fauna.
Your comment, ‘while many will falter down the path, a few are called to look into the chaos and fly, and in so doing, show there is a new path…’, leaves me slightly-stalled and wondering what you mean?
Is it possible that enduring the chaos, as opposed to simply looking into it from the outside, gives best information (having to endure the flames) for the flying and new path? Perhaps there are few called to enter into the chaos and fly?
The fiery furnace? Daniel and some of his adventures? Adventures of Jesus and his disciples?