adaptability & survival

adaptability & survival

Life is full of challenges, problems, and crises. As Pastor Fue says, “Until Christ returns, there will always be problems.” When faced with them, how can we survive and even thrive? How can we influence others—our families, communities, congregation, and world—in the same direction?

Consider challenges, problems, and crises as hostile environments. There are two kinds. The first, I’ll call “Automatic Death.” The second, “Response Dependent.” What are they?

Automatic Death

  • a person, unaided, underwater or in the void of space
  • a fish out of water
  • a person at ground-zero of an atomic explosion

In these hostile environments, survival is impossible. The person or the fish is utterly unequipped for survival. Their response (actions, abilities, adaptability) will in no way avoid death.


Response Dependent

  • the vast majority of hostile environments
  • illness or pandemic
  • miserable marriages and difficult work environments
  • natural disasters
  • economic depressions
  • oppression and injustice
  • chronic violence or war

In these hostile environments, the “response of the organism is a variable in its own survival.” Friedman’s extreme example was the Holocaust.

Yet even in the Holocaust in a Nazi concentration camp, Friedman wrote, human response—holding onto hope versus losing hope—“could make a difference where a difference was possible.” Few of us find ourselves in hostile environments as deadly and demoralizing as this. So already here is a clue to what it takes to survive and thrive in them.

In fact, most of what we call “stress” is our response and not part of the environment itself. For many of us this is what faith and prayer allows—changing our belief about ourselves and our capacity and the nature of the situation, given the good news of Christ.

Family Systems Insights

Let me introduce you to two people: Edwin Friedman and Jack Shitama.

Friedman was a rabbi and therapist. Drawing from both wells of experience and training, he applied the concepts of family therapy to the emotional dynamics of congregations and their leaders. His book Generation to Generation is a classic in a “family systems” approach to leadership. Its second chapter responds to the above questions.

Jack Shitama is an ordained United Methodist Elder and author, speaker, teacher and coach in family systems leadership. During the pandemic, he presented at a Southeastern Iowa Synod continuing education event. His weekly “Non-Anxious Leader” podcast is short, sweet, and useful in many leadership contexts—parenting, workplace, the church, and beyond. My inspiration for this article is Episode 219: “3 Things You Need to Know to Lead in a Hostile Environment.

Surviving and Thriving in Hostile Environments

Here are the three keys, according Shitama’s understanding of Friedman:

  1. our capacity to see our response as a factor in how hostile the environment is
  2. the richness and diversity of our range of responses
  3. our ability be a leader (or our collective ability to produce a leader) who can be themselves and make their own way while staying emotionally connected to others

1. What if we see our response as a factor?

We’re not helpless, but like the steamroller guy from Austin Powers, we tend to see ourselves that way when we’re in a hostile environment. We play the victim. We blame others. We focus on the threat, mesmerized by what we cannot control.

We greatly increase our chances of surviving and thriving when we give our attention to our own capacity to respond.

Other people’s anger and aggressive behavior is a hostile environment for me. My immediate, automatic bodily reaction is panic and dread. I’m really good at pretending calm, while what’s really happening is freeze. As in fight, flight, freeze. “Deer in the headlights” is an apt metaphor: I stare into the blinding light until I get “run over.”

Several years ago, when I was pastor at a highly conflicted congregation, this was not a recipe for surviving and thriving. Teachers and mentors helped me turn my attention back to how I could respond. Shitama suggests an avenue for reflection that’s been powerful for me:

“What makes us vulnerable to this type of behavior? That is likely to come from our family of origin. When we focus on our own vulnerabilities and our response, we are taking responsibility for self, which gives us a better chance to thrive and to lead effectively.”

When I learned to identify this for myself, I became better at separating past and present and at not taking personally what clearly had nothing to do with me. This in turn increased my capacity to see my response as a factor in making the environment more or less hostile.

2. What if we diversify our range of responses?

“When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Or so goes the popular form of Abraham Maslov’s “law of the instrument.” Our “hammer” could be kill them with kindness or complain to the boss or wait to act until everyone agrees. But every problem or crisis is different. No one response is going to work in every hostile environment, or even most of them! The wider our variety of approaches—the more tools in our toolbox—the better chance we have to thrive.

Shitama warns about “togetherness pressure”—in short, the tendency of a family, congregation, or other group to insist that “everybody toe the line and respond in a similar way.” The result is the opposite of the freedom, flexibility, and resiliency we need to better our chances at thriving.

3. What if we become more ourselves and more emotionally connected with others?

Usually, given togetherness pressure, we see only a false-choice either-or. Either I give up part of myself or my values to fit in, or I assert my independence by cutting ties with others.

Leadership isn’t about a title or formal authority. Instead, anyone who does both at the same time is truly leading. Our chances for surviving and thriving are better as people find a way to stay true to themselves and stay authentically connected with others. Those who do both help a family, workplace, congregation, or community—almost like magic—refocus on their response instead of the problem and naturally become more creative in trying out difference responses.

Friedmann offered this example:

A couple asked to have in their wedding vows "I vow not to abandon (the other)." They had seen a family counselor for 6 months during courtship and learned that this is what they had been doing to one another. The minister replied, "That is an unworkable basis for marriage." He suggested: "I vow not to be abandoned, when (the other) abandons me!”

The minister’s suggestion was leadership. And so would be the self-work that empowers either in the couple to not be abandoned.

the gift of Zion

This is written not to correct problems but to describe strength.

I experience Zion as having the capacity to focus more often than not on its response not the threats, having exercised a wide enough range of responses, and having produced enough of these kinds of leaders over the years. It’s evident in stories I’ve heard about past crises Zion has navigated. For example, Zion demonstrated great resilience through the pandemic. It’s also evident in the open, responsive, and flexible spirit of Zion. The way Zion now is receiving graciously God’s abundance in this time. It’s quite remarkable and by no means the norm. I don’t take it for granted.

This quality of Zion—this character of God that Zion shows—this way of being (versus a program or thing to do)—is a true gift Zion has to give. It’s an asset. Light in the darkness.

Everything above is not explicitly Christian. It’s not necessarily taught in the bible as such. Still, these three keys to surviving and thriving in hostile environments are also ways we give the Spirit room to do its spontaneous, liberating work. It is trust/faith in action.

Give it away, and others will indeed catch the same trust/faith, and the Spirit will keep on moving.

Thanks be to God.

Pastor Clark Olson-Smith