Strengthening Servant Hearts

Strengthening Servant Hearts
Expanding Individual and Organizational Resilience
by Robert J. Wicks and Tina Buck

Our vocations often choose us. One moment we may be walking along, humming and content, when something or someone stops us in our tracks. And then we recognize that nothing can ever be the same again.

Our vocations often choose us. One moment we may be walking along, humming and content, when something or someone stops us in our tracks. And then we recognize that nothing can ever be the same again. A pivotal moment for me (Buck) came in the form of nine girls ranging in age from thirteen-to-fifteen years old. I had served as a Sunday School teacher at the elementary level for several years and felt called to work with teens. Just before the new school year started, a volunteer opportunity opened to co-lead an Authentic Life Group for teens through my church. Our focus was to help youths connect to a Creator and purpose greater than themselves. The girls were from different backgrounds, family structures, and schools. Had the setting been a high school, most of them would not have acknowledged each other. Yet, in this informal gathering of youth, the social boundaries had been loosened and trust had begun to grow amongst us.

Less than a month before, we had been strangers. We had developed some expectations of one another including regular attendance, listening, and being supportive. One day, when we were doing our regular check-in on how the week was going and what was coming up, a teen was visibly upset and trying to hold back her tears. She was a beautiful young lady with a gentle spirit. She was driven and excelled in everything that she did. Her goal was to attend college and become a doctor. Yet in that instant, I saw a very little girl who was desolate. She said, “my dad committed suicide three years ago today. He overdosed on heroin. He chose drugs over me.” Her tears spilled over and so did ours. Her courage to share this cataclysmic event in her life empowered the others to share about their own stories of trying to be “normal” teenagers while navigating the struggles of living in households surviving paycheck-to-paycheck and the challenges of helping friends who were cutting or using substances to numb their feelings. These revelations were overwhelming, and, frankly, my co-leader and I were not prepared to handle them. Thankfully, we could call upon a greater spirit within or beyond us to provide the guidance, words, and comfort in the moment. 

Prior to that evening, I had been insulated from some of the stark realities that are far too common in the lives of our adolescents. I had identified myself as wife, mother, daughter, sister and friend. My profession was as a banker in corporate America. What did I know about kids who were hurting? That evening sparked an ongoing quest within me to know more. It led to graduating with a master’s degree in pastoral counseling, swapping a lucrative job with benefits for contract counseling positions, and being outside of my comfort zone daily. It also led me to the realization that to co-journey with traumatized children and families, I needed to be diligent about my health so their burdens did not become my own. Likewise, I needed to remember that service was but one aspect of a spiritual journey. Disciplines such as scripture study, prayer, and being an active member of a church community were also an integral part of my growth and development. 

***

Our call to service can be exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. We appreciate the many rewards of helping others, and yet, because there are so many to help, we run the risk of ignoring ourselves—our most valuable resource in reaching out—and becoming vulnerable to physical, mental, and spiritual decay. We will not be able to sustain our passion and drive over the long-term if we find ourselves consistently too tired, hungry, or stressed. As we are depleted, that which makes us whole diminishes, and we become toxic. Thus, particularly for those of us in ministry and service, a steady practice of alonetime, mindfulness, and self-nurturance is imperative. These elements of self-care strengthen our resilience so we can remain true to those people we serve and to ourselves. An essential element of compassion is self-compassion.

For many of us who are in helping ministries and professions, we are part of organizations that offer structure, support, and resources to populations that are hurting. We may also be part of organizations that have inherent stressors such as lack of funding, too broad of a scope, mountains of paperwork, and the constant challenge of meeting overwhelming needs. Thus, expanding individual resilience benefits not only the people whom we serve but also those people with whom we work. 

In the novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, twelve-year old Paloma comments on the haka, a pre-rugby match warrior chant, saying, “What makes the strength of a soldier isn’t the energy he uses trying to intimidate the other guy by sending him a whole lot of signals, it’s the strength he’s able to concentrate within himself, by staying centered.” When we are centered, that is, fully aligned with our authentic selves regardless of what comes, we can not only persevere but also thrive. 

So, in a world of 24/7 global connectivity, how do we do this? If we have many people relying on us for emergency needs, how do we catch our breath? To go on a retreat or take a vacation would be the simplest answers, however, very few of us can recharge in this manner regularly. For some of us, in fact, even the prospect of a vacation or retreat may actually increase stress! Most of us do have the ability to take time alone (even in a crowd) to recharge if we are intentional about our appreciation and exploration of such periods of reflection. The benefit of such alonetime practice is that we can clear away the clutter that has a tendency to collect when our minds have little downtime. Our projections lessen, and we are able to be easier on ourselves and become less discouraged when personal or vocational successes aren’t fulfilled. We can be filled with a sense of intrigue—examining our resistances, allowing us to surprise ourselves, and being open to learning and unlearning throughout the day. We develop a sense of inner ease. There are several specific practices that can be easily incorporated into available spaces in our days including mindfulness, self-nurturance, daily debriefs, rituals, and a positive mindset. Such minor additions or adjustments can make a significant impact on our lives and the lives of those whom we serve. 

Mindfulness: Appreciating Now

Our approach to ourselves, especially during periods of silence and solitude, is the key to strengthening resilience. Finding silence within ourselves allows that which needs to speak to actually be heard. Accepting the stillness and truth that is uncovered through informal and formal mindfulness meditation practice eliminates unproductive movements. Taking time to appreciate now helps us to:

  • Recognize the importance of focusing on personal and vocational faithfulness instead of success. 
  • Focus on empowering others in order to strengthen them versus enabling them, which creates dependence.
  • Recognize when our healthy expression of emotions teeter into expressions that damage instead of build up (part of what helping professionals call “self-regulation”).
  • Examine traits, habits, and personal rules that destroy our purpose and joy.
  • Keep present-focused instead of living in the past or waiting for the future. 
  • Limit our judgment, worry, preoccupation, resentment, fear, and regret so we do not miss that which is in front of us now.
  • Confront our transitions gently so we value their roles in our lives.
  • Allow for intrigue about ourselves, including both our gifts and growing edges. 
  • Limit instances that have us projecting faults onto those we are helping or our colleagues, taking on excessive self-blame, or wallowing in discouragement when we are not meeting our expectations.

An intentional effort to lean back psychologically in a mindfulness practice allows us to pursue inner freedom and ask tough questions such as, “why are we continuing to live in ways that are not renewing? Why is our personal journey less important than those of the people we serve?” Our mentors or colleagues may have modeled this sacrificial approach. Or there may be something within us that tells us that we must be martyrs to be of value. But if we listen intently to our hearts, we know that this is not true. So, through mindfulness practice, we nudge open an inner portal to access a healthier, freer perspective and to access abundance. 

So, through mindfulness practice, we nudge open this inner portal to access a healthier, freer perspective.

Expanding Our Resiliency Range

Self-nurturance is a sense of full awareness that requires attention to self-care and self-knowledge as well as a desire to maximize our resiliency range. It also necessitates a spirit of unlearning and relearning. Several suggestions  for practicing self-nurturance in order to expand our resilience range include:

  • Practicing slowing down. If we are moving so fast that we cannot catch our “psychological or spiritual breath,” we may be losing the purpose behind why we serve. By slowing down, we are able to offer more to those we serve and the people with whom we work. 
  • Honoring our past. We often are motivated by personal experiences. Recognize that personal traumas that are not addressed will not disappear and may greatly impact the decisions that we make for ourselves and others. One of my clients (Buck) found himself in an abuse intervention group as a perpetrator of intimate partner violence. After twenty years of a peaceful existence, he could not fathom why he had lashed out when his wife had threatened to hit him with a baseball bat. But then he recounted horrific memories of murders, forced isolation, and beatings in his native Sierra Leone. He thought he had safely locked up those experiences and thrown away the key. 
  • Quashing the negative self-talk. Rarely are we too gentle on ourselves. It is much more likely that a punishing monologue starts when something doesn’t go quite as planned and then we fail to question why. 
  • Respecting gifts. We are each uniquely equipped for our chosen purposes. No two people serve in the exact same way. So, we need to keep a fresh perspective on the core reasons for our work and how we do it and to allow others to do the same.
  • Developing a self-care protocol. Conducting a periodic self-assessment guides our time and helps us to align our actions with our authentic selves. Create a self-care protocol that includes personal debriefing approaches, rituals for renewal, and ways of releasing judgment. 

Personal Debriefing

Serving others is an intense business. We may regularly experience physical and emotional exhaustion. Sometimes things get much worse than this, though. As we listen to stories of terrible things that happen to others, we may catch some of their futility, fear, vulnerability, and hopelessness rather than experiencing concern or frustration. We learn that no matter how professionally prepared we are, we are not immune to the psychological and spiritual dangers that arise in living a full life of involvement with others. I (Wicks) remember learning this the hard way myself.

In 1994, I did a psychological debriefing of some of the relief workers evacuated from Rwanda’s bloody civil war. I interviewed each person and gave them an opportunity to tell their stories. As they related the horrors they had experienced, they seemed to be grateful for an opportunity to ventilate. They recounted the details again and again, sharing their feelings as well as descriptions of the events that triggered them. Their sense of futility, their feelings of guilt, their sense of alienation, and their experiences with emotional outbursts all came to the fore.

In addition to listening, I gave them handouts on what to possibly expect down the road (problems sleeping, difficulties trusting and relating to others, flashbacks, and the like). As I moved through the process of debriefing and providing information so they could have a frame of reference for understanding their experiences, I thought to myself, “this is going pretty well.”  Then, something happened that shifted my whole experience.

In the course of one of the final interviews, one of the relief workers related stories of how certain members of the Hutu tribe had raped and dismembered their Tutsi foes. Soon, I noticed that I was holding onto my chair for dear life. I was doing what some young people call “white knuckling it.”

After the session, I did what I usually do after an intense encounter—a psycho-spiritual countertransferential review. In it, I looked at the objective side—the peaks and valleys of the day, namely what had happened. Then I looked at the subjective side—how had I responded or interpreted the events. I questioned what feelings I had—what made me sad? What overwhelmed me? What sexually aroused me?  What made me extremely happy or even confused me?  Being brutally honest with myself, I tried to put my finger on the pulse of my emotions.

The first thing that struck me about this particular session was the tight grip I had on the chair as the session with the relief worker progressed. “What was I feeling when I did this?” In recognizing my emotions I could then, in good cognitive-behavioral fashion, look further at my cognitions (ways of thinking, perceiving, and understanding) so I could see how I might have been viewing things inappropriately. In doing this, I could then pick up some of my distorted or exaggerated beliefs (“If I am really a good helper, I should be able to help this traumatized person feel better immediately.”)

It didn’t take me long to realize that their terrible stories had also broken through my defenses and temporarily destroyed my normal sense of distance and detachment. I was holding onto the chair because, quite simply, I was frightened to death that if I didn’t, I would be pulled into the vortex of darkness myself. That recognition alone helped lessen the pain and my fearful uneasiness. 

We learn that no matter how professionally prepared we are, we are not immune to the psychological and spiritual dangers that arise in living a full life of involvement with others.

Using debriefing tools like this helps us to prevent the slide into unnecessary darkness and to learn, and thus benefit, from the events of the day as well as our reactions to them. Personal debriefing allows us to reconsider what is within our control and what is not, to re-align our priorities on what is truly important, and to create a specific routine that refreshes and deepens us.

Renewing Rituals 

A thoughtful personal ritual can help us center ourselves, create order, and offer comfort. It creates space for and between us so we can intentionally move through the day. It focuses us on carving moments out of the day when we can stop, breathe, and enjoy what is before us. This is not a check-the-box kind of effort, nor is the length of time prescribed. Renewing rituals center on cultivating awareness that is effortless and non-judgmental. If inclinations towards effort and judgement arise, we allow them to pass through to be dealt with at another time. Without some kind of practice, we run the risk of rushing through our lives and then finding ourselves disconnected and depleted to the point that there is nothing left for self, let alone for others. Simple but potentially powerful rituals might include:

  • Experiencing some alonetime by having a cup of coffee or tea in silence and solitude first thing in the morning.
  • Taking a mindful brief walk or run to experience all that is around us—not a “think” break in which we just ruminate about something in the day.
  • Practicing meditation or mindfulness techniques.
  • Involving ourselves in activities in which we simply “flow” such as playing music,  creating or preparing something with love, or volunteering. 
  • Playing with pets.

The beauty of rituals is they are as varied as the people who implement them. The hope is that at least one new one can be integrated into our daily practices each month until we have structured them into our daily routine for support and growth. 

Increasing Positivity

As people involved in so many renewing and depleting activities, we can develop greater sensitivity to stressors that may be present as well as the ability to learn how to recognize these stressors early. We can then adopt healthy attitudes and approaches for bouncing back and even learning from their presence. To do this, we need to question “negative” emotions that arise instead of avoiding, retreating, or attacking. Also, it is helpful to examine the actual facts regarding a situation instead of only looking at the “shoulds.” By approaching our interactions with ourselves and others with more positivity, we sharpen our perspectives and start to see people and experience events as they really are. An attitude of openness, intrigue, and hopefulness allows us to minimize self-condemnation and projection. We can then focus on learning and plumbing our depths. Some examples of “energy sappers” are:

  • Living in a way that is contrary to our authentic selves. 
  • Expecting others to live up to our hopes for them.
  • Being so driven by a mission that symptoms of workaholism such as ongoing fatigue, emotional distance, and disillusionment are overlooked.
  • Responding sharply, flatly, cynically, or intellectually to inquiries or feedback.
  • With a regular practice of intentional living and the courage to prune that which obscures our positivity and purpose, unexpected gifts will become evident. 

Servant Leadership

...often we concentrate on the ‘what ifs’ or ‘plan D’ instead of what is presently in front of us. Give ourselves permission to only focus on the decision before us.

Whether we have a formal title of “manager” or not, the reality is that all of us who serve are leading and influencing in some way. We may be coaching individuals or teams, advocating on behalf of a population, or guiding an organization. Any opportunity of this nature is a privilege and requires great attention to self-care because others are responding to our cues consciously or unconsciously. Much like the ripple effect of a single pebble hitting the water, a single word, look, or action reverberates in a way that can empower or decimate. Several strategies that have helped us and those we serve strengthen our servant hearts include:

  • Beginning with ourselves by taking the time to reconnect with why we are serving as we are. What strengths do we bring to this chosen ministry? Do our attitudes need fine-tuning or an adjustment to see the riches in life more clearly?  Do we view any of these areas differently if we are tired or stressed? Do certain individuals sharpen us or dull our perspective?
  • Focusing on the next healthy action. Often we concentrate on the “what ifs” or “plan D” instead of what is presently in front of us. Give ourselves permission to only focus on the decision before us by jettisoning the “maybes,” making a choice, and then being okay with the outcomes. So, we put thought into the possible solutions and pick the best one with the information we have. If we then explore the outcomes for any unintended consequences and once again focus on the present, we may find opportunities of unexpected value. For example, my family (Buck) signed up to train a standard poodle as a service dog for a veteran dealing with a traumatic brain injury and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The only pets we had ever had before were goldfish and one unfortunate hermit crab. We knew we would only have her for two-years, but we were excited about her purpose and our role in the training process. She was a smart puppy and acquired commands quickly. She also had a propensity for chasing small animals. Alas, this was not a service dog characteristic, and she was released from the program. Yet, in the time she had public access I recognized that she was able to open channels with wounded children and families in a way that I could not do in therapy by myself. So, the “failed” service dog is now in training to become a therapy dog, and our family has a much loved pet that we no longer have to give away.
  • Scanning the stations. If we feel unsettled, bored, or confused, take a few moments to ask ourselves why we are reacting in this way. We all have a few pre-set stations that we return to because they may be safe, predictable, remind of us of another time, or fulfill a sense of loyalty. For example, one station may help us avoid conflict so we do not explode in anger or another may allow us to turn off and protect our feelings. It is important to recognize our motivations and determine if they keep us in alignment with our authentic selves. If they do not, give ourselves permission to try other stations until a new one seems just right.
  • Considering the cascade. When we think of a waterfall, we consider both its beauty and the force behind it. If we look at its essence, we recognize that there are thousands of droplets coming together as one. The cascade perspective lends itself to an individual and a team application. Individually, if we do the little things with great faith, then they will lead to even greater things. Collectively, all of us working together in unison can do outrageous things that no one of us—no matter how gifted—can do alone. We were created to use our strengths within a community setting for our global community. How do we keep this concept fresh? How do we do so, especially when there is a crisis or we are at the end of a funding year or there is still so much more to do?
  • Embracing abundance. Often when we are serving others, we are meeting a need and assuming a lack. A good friend recently returned from a trip to Ethiopia to assist at one of only two schools for children with Autism. When she arrived she was surprised by all they didn’t have by Western standards (floors, stoves, refrigerators, etc.), and yet, she was more amazed by their joy in the simplest of things such as a sunrise, a wide grin, a truck engine that started, and a cup of freshly roasted coffee. Adjusting our definition of abundance may help us to better appreciate it when we see it. As David Steindl-Rast once pointed out (and we paraphrase here), each of us often leaves the house with a list, and on that list is what we will be grateful for. Our job in being mindful and embracing abundance is to throw away the list and be grateful for whatever might come our way. But this takes a willingness to recalibrate our views and perspectives. 
  • Recalibrating gratitude. Our experience has shown us anecdotally that when our gratitude is saved only for the “big” things that eventually we forget to be grateful even for those things. This can also be a real symptom of compassion fatigue. We are so worn out helping others that what once gave us pleasure has muted us. Taking a few moments each day to acknowledge blessings can change our perspective within a heartbeat. It also helps us to remember that life does not go on forever. We are granted a few precious moments to savor. If we are really lucky, we have surrounded ourselves with others who can bring even greater richness to this shared banquet. If not, it is never too late to start. 

When we serve others, we often end up being the ones served. The opportunity to share our lives in these intimate ways is part of a sacred journey. Self-nurturance characterized by intentional alonetime and mindfulness creates space for spiritual abundance to overflow. It is in this excess that miracles happen. It is in this excess that we know who we are and to whom we belong. How fortunate are we? §



Dr. Robert J. Wicks received his doctorate in psychology from Hahnemann Medical College. He is an expert on the prevention of secondary stress (the pressures experienced in reaching out to others) and the author of Perspective: The Calm within the Storm, Bounce: Living the Resilient Life, and Riding the Dragon: 10 Lessons on Inner Strength in Challenging Times.


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Tina C. Buck is a licensed graduate professional counselor working with children and families at Carroll County Youth Service Bureau and a group facilitator for the Abuser Intervention Program in Montgomery County, Maryland. She specializes in healing family trauma caused by abuse, loss, and co-occurring disorders. Contact her at tcbuck@loyola.edu.

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