adaptive challenges


(This was my homily for September 11th.)

There was a beautiful but enigmatic line in the first reading for Mass on September 11th this year, from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians: In my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.[i] After all these years I still am not sure what that means, but on a day such as the one when we remember again, as we do each year, the terrorist attacks of 2001, I can feel it in my own body.

I have returned so many times to this wonderful workshop that I attended on monastic leadership a few years back, and I was reminded of one more theme from it as we commemorate the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in 2001. And that theme is the difference between a technical solution and an adaptive challenge. A technical solution is what you need when something is broken. If the plumbing is blocked, you call in a plumber. If the electricity goes down, you call an electrician. The Internet goes down, call the IT guy, etc., etc.

On the other hand sometimes a situation occurs where a technical solution is not really going to be a solution to a problem but only be a stopgap, a quick fix, a Band Aid. Those are adaptive challenges, when we have to say, “Maybe this is not supposed to be fixed. Maybe something needs to die so that something new can be born. Maybe something else is trying to evolve. Maybe we have to change. Maybe we’re never going back to the way things were. Maybe there is a new normal.” Adaptive challenges require innovation and new learning. They also involve loss and grief, and require a shift of heart and soul. The questions we ask are, “Who has to learn what? Who has to lose what?” And it’s a problem when we try to apply a technical solution to an adaptive challenge, trying to fix something that can’t––and maybe shouldn’t be––fixed.

I think what we have discovered in re-discovering ancient medicine, homeopathic, Ayurvedic, and Chinese herbal medicine, for instance, is that we in the West at some point came to think of medicine and health too as technical solutions rather than adaptive challenges. Illnesses there will always be, but how many health problems could be solved by a change of lifestyle rather than pills, needles and knives? But instead we usually go to the doctor and say, “Just fix me!”

And one of the other examples given of this is war itself. War is usually a technical solution, and quite often a technical solution to an adaptive challenge. “How do we fix this? We just have to kill our enemies!” Now, I’m not going to debate the just war theory here, and when it is justified to defend oneself and one’s country and one’s family. The example that was given at that workshop, and the reason I bring this up, was the headlines the days after the terrorist attacks. September 12th in big bold letters: AMERICA UNDER ATTACK!!! September 13th, smaller letters, the headline reads: WHY DO THEY HATE US? Ah, there was the adaptive challenge, asking the question, “What’s really going on here?” September 14th, big letters again: WAR ON TERROR!!! There was the technical solution.

Again, I am not going to argue the pros and cons of our military interventions in the last 16 years, but I do want to suggest that this question about the adaptive challenge still needs to be asked, especially by spiritual people. So many people, myself included, have gone to great lengths in the past 16 years to actually understand Islam, and come to understand that there is going on what Muslims themselves call “The Fight For Mecca,” meaning the battle for who is going to define what Islam is, and to build paths of friendship with people of other faiths and other cultures. (Great praise to our popes who have led the way on this, making sure that the path of dialogue and friendship stays open, by the way.) At the time of the terrorist attacks, so I have heard from various sources, there was no one in the State Department who spoke Arabic, and so we can assume there was limited understanding of the whole culture of the Mideast. Now, of course, it’s one of the most popular languages to learn in the military. Those are the adaptive challenges.

In the midst of protecting those we love and ourselves, and in the midst of securing our borders and promoting our economic interests around the world (we as a nation, especially if we like to think of ourselves as a “Christian nation”) also ought to always be asking ourselves the question, “Are we building an upright society? Are we exporting the best of our values abroad? Are we taking care of the poorest, weakest and most vulnerable in our society? Are we good neighbors?”

There will always be bad guys, but as I read in an essay by a rabbi named A.B. Yehoshua, writing about the victim mentality: “The victim does not become moral because of being a victim. The Holocaust, with the terrible things that it did to us, did not give us an eternal justification card. It only made the murderers immoral, [it didn’t make] the victims moral. To be moral, you must do moral things,” RabbiYehoshua wrote. “And the test is constant and daily.” And the same for us: to be moral, we must do moral things. Even 9/11 did not give us blanket justification.

In regards almost every problem we are facing as a civilization, as a race, and as a country in our days, there is an adaptive challenge being required of us, constant and daily, and not just a Band Aid, quick fix, a technical solution. What Jesus offers in his gospel is never a technical solution, an algorithm or a formula. What Jesus offers in today’s gospel story[ii] isn’t just a healing, a technical solution. It’s a whole new way of looking at the Sabbath, a whole new way of seeing God. What Jesus offers, as Paul calls it, is a fresh new spiritual way of thinking, a whole renewal of the mind, a conversion. We could think of monasticism in that way too, certainly not as an escape, and not merely as a technical solution, but a whole new way of being in the world that affects everything from how we treat each other to how we treat the tools of the monastery.

Two days after President Kennedy was killed in 1963, Leonard Bernstein, who was a close friend of the president, had to conduct a concert. His opening remarks before the performance, still deep in his own grief, became a kind of credo for musicians. Each year on September 11 up in Santa Cruz we had an interfaith prayer service, concert and gathering, and I would often read this quote. He said, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Maybe we could paraphrase that (I’m going back to the fruits of the Spirit yet again). As followers of Jesus, this will be our reply to violence: to be more loving, joyful, peaceful, and patient; to be kinder, more generous and faithful; to be more gentle and self-controlled than ever before. That would be more than a technical solution; that is our adaptive challenge. And the test is constant and daily.

And so we carry the weight of all this and we too complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.



11 sept 17


[i] Col. 1:24.

[ii] Lk 6:6-11.

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