This is Not a Drill

Over the last week of August our family rented a cottage on Cape Cod. One day we came home from the beach and discovered a gas leak in the basement. For a few minutes the best word to describe my response was confusion. OK, it’s only in the basement, except I can smell it a little bit upstairs. We have to do something. Let’s call the owner – or should we call the gas company, or the plumber, or 911? It’s dinner time; the boys are getting cranky from hunger; I’m getting cranky from hunger; is it ok to light the grill, which is near the house, but not that near? Can the pilot light on the water heater ignite the gas in the basement? Is it OK to take a shower? Stephany reached the owner on the phone, who thought it was best to call the plumber who had been working on the house earlier that day. That’s when the fire alarm went off. Yikes. For a moment I experienced full-blown panic. Then, for the first time since smelling the gas I took a breath. Just one breath with that loud beeping and that jarring, mechanical voice announcing the presence of a fire, and I somehow gained clarity, calm, and a sense of resolve. I yelled at Stephany to have the owner call the gas company to come turn off the gas. I ordered the boys out of the house to the front yard. I grabbed my phone and some corn chips and salsa. We camped out on the front lawn, away from the house, until the gas company arrived, turned off the gas, vented the house, and fixed the leak. The whole ordeal lasted about 90 minutes.

This was not a drill. If it had been, I would not have given myself high marks for my initial response. Confusion and panic are understandable, but if there’s a gas leak, evacuate first, then be confused. And in hindsight, we should have called 911 immediately. The gas company treated the situation as an emergency and arrived quickly, but I suspect the fire department would have arrived more quickly. 

This experience raises two related questions, both with spiritual ramifications. First, in the midst of a crisis or a disaster—a fire, a flood, a long-term power outage, an earthquake, a medical emergency, a shooting—here or, for that matter, anywhere you happen to be—how do or would you respond emotionally? In such situations it’s rarely our rational mind that responds first. There’s a moment of surprise. Our ancient, limbic, fight-flee-or-freeze instinct kicks in. Fear, anger, panic, confusion kick in. It’s a survival response. It floods the body with adrenalin, quickens the pulse, quickens breathing. It often makes decisions for us. We fight before thinking, “I need to fight.” We flee before thinking, “I need to flee.” We push a child out of the way of an oncoming car before thinking, “I’ve got to save that child.” We say, “Oh my God,” before thinking, “I need to pray.” So, how—and how quickly—do we get to that place of clear, calm resolve? How do we get to thoughtfulness?

That initial gut response is virtually unavoidable. It’s in our nature, our wiring. Hopefully it does what our ancient ancestors needed it to do, which is save our lives or the lives of others.  But once we’ve been surprised, once we’ve been confused, once we’ve reacted emotionally to the threat—our ancient, limbic response becomes increasingly unhelpful. We need calm. We need clarity. How do we move from fight-flee-freeze auto-pilot to calm, clear rationality? How do we move from hot to cool in the midst of a disaster? My sense is that the quality of our day-to-day spiritual lives matters immensely in moments like this. If we don’t have a daily practice of any sort, if we aren’t used to intentionally sinking into a relaxed, focused state of being for at least a few minutes every day, then we have very little to reach for in the midst of a crisis. But if we are accustomed to setting aside time each day to breathe, to pray, to meditate, to settle in, to sink in, to focus our attention, to study and contemplate, to stretch, to engage in ritual, to connect intentionally with a reality larger than ourselves—if it is part of our regular living—then we can use it in the midst of a crisis. Over time our spiritual practices become instinctual too. There’s smoke coming from the kitchen. Your pulse is racing. Take a breath. There’s a foot of water on the basement floor. You’re panicking. Quiet your mind. Someone has fainted in front of you. Imagine that calm state you attain when you exercise or stretch. You hear screams and you know something is wrong. You’re highly agitated. Say that short comforting prayer that’s always been meaningful to you, even if you don’t believe in the power of prayer. Say it with intention. It is a spiritual resource for bringing calm and clarity in the midst of a crisis.

A few years ago a group of us studied spiritual writer Thomas Moore’s A Religion of One’s Own. One of his central ideas is that regular spiritual practice cultivates an alert mind. He means a mind alert to insights, intuitions and synchronicities that come to us as if out of nowhere. Often we don’t notice them, let alone realize the directions in which they are pointing us. Often we ignore them because we aren’t ready for them. Regular spiritual practice—anything that focuses or unclutters the mind—opens us up to receive revelations, says Moore.[1] It strikes me that having a regular spiritual practice contributes to our alertness and readiness to manage ourselves and others in the midst of a crisis.

Last week at the 9:00 service I shared some words from a blog post by the Rev. Dawn Cooley, a staff member in the office of the Southern Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Her post was called “Beyond Disaster Relief.” She talks about the way so many people respond to disasters like hurricanes with not only love and compassion but courage and heroism. Without in any way belittling these loving, heroic testaments to the human spirit, Rev. Cooley points out that “Our tendency is to latch onto these stories and think about how great it is that we help each other out when we must. But … why must it take a disaster, such as a hurricane, to get us to treat one another with care and concern?” She quotes a friend who asks: well before the storm, “have I been my brother’s keeper? [Have I cared] about his livelihood before his actual, physical life was at stake…. That’s a question worth sitting with.”[2]

It’s true: the regular, daily quality of our community, of our relationships, of our concern for one another and for strangers, impacts the quality of our response in times of crisis. The more we care about each other and strangers in good times, the better able we’ll be to care for each other and strangers in hard times. Rev. Cooley says “Send love, and care, and financial support to those in Texas and Louisiana [and now Florida], but don’t stop there. Let us work to find ways to implement these actions and attitudes into our daily lives. Urge your representatives and elected officials to create crisis plans, knowing more events like this will happen. Work to create legislation that treats people with dignity at all times. Demand justice for those in need—not just in a natural disaster but at all times…. For better and for worse, we will have many opportunities to practice.”[3] The more we do the work—the spiritual work, the service work, the social justice work—in good times, the better able we’ll be to respond to crises, the more quickly we’ll move from fight-flee-or-freeze to calm, clear rationality when disaster strikes.

Second question. In the response to any crisis, do we actually know the right things to do and in what order they need to be done? This question also has spiritual ramifications. A simple example: imagine that during worship on a Sunday morning, a fire breaks out in the kitchen. We’re here in the sanctuary. We become aware of the fire, and although it isn’t huge, it also doesn’t appear to be under control. Whoever is leading worship calmly invites you to evacuate. People on the left move slowly to the walls and down the aisle to the doors. People on the right move slowly to the walls and down the aisle to the lobby and out the doors. Somebody hit the fire alarm on your way out. Four or five of you have already called 911 (Note: in an emergency it’s best to call 911 from a landline which routes more quickly to local dispatchers. The closest landline to this room is in the kitchen which, in this scenario, is on fire, so call 911 on your cell.) Be mindful of elders, people in wheelchairs, people with babies. Move at their pace. This will not take long. Somebody near the right-hand door, please go downstairs and alert the adults that we’re evacuating due to fire and they must do the same with the children. By the way, conduct a garden level fire drill with the kids every year. We don’t conduct a main level fire drill, but we will start doing them periodically. Here’s why: We’ve successfully evacuated the building, which includes establishing a location for teachers to bring children to their parents, but then what happens? The safest, most helpful place to be now is in a car; and that car is to remain parked. Nobody attempts to leave. The hill at the entrance to our lot is too steep for some of the firetrucks to use. They will use the exit ramp. If anyone tries to leave, they risk blocking emergency responders or, worse, colliding with them. Do we actually know the right things to do and in what order they need to be done so that we do them as effectively as possible?            

Unless we plan and train for crises, we won’t know. One of my jobs as the head of staff, and one of the Policy Board’s jobs in its fiduciary role on behalf of the congregation, is to ensure that we and our building are as safe as possible. One dimension of safety is knowing what to do in a crisis. To that end, the Policy Board charged an Emergency Preparedness Team with the task of creating an Emergency Preparedness Plan. The team includes at large members Cressy Goodwin and Peter Marroto, Bill Graver from the Buildings and Grounds Committee, Sue McMillen from the Pastoral Care Committee, Jane Osborn, our sexton, Annie Gentile, our Office Administrator, Gina Campellone, our Director of Religious Education, and myself. Thanks to all of you who’ve been part of this effort. Under Cressy’s leadership we created the plan earlier this year. It is consistent with guidelines for the town of Manchester and our region, which are consistent with guidelines established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The plan offers concise directions in the event of smoke or fire, a power outage, a medical emergency, an armed and dangerous person entering the building, an unarmed but dangerous person entering the building, storm damage, flooding, septic system failure, hazardous materials spill, loss of water supply, breakdown of our heating and cooling system, and how and when to provide temporary shelter to members and friends. We’ve begun training the staff in using the plan. We’re offering a workshop today at 1:00 for anyone who would like to begin their own training. We’re still figuring out the best ways to provide training to all of you. Knowledge is definitely power in an emergency. An actual fire drill is coming.     

One of my anxieties in talking about this is that it will raise doubts in your minds about how safe we truly are here. In naming the potential for fire, might some of you look around and wonder, Hmmm, if there were a fire in the kitchen, could we really evacuate in time? If there were a shooter in the lobby? What chemical do we have that could spill? But that anxiety comes from me anticipating your fight-flee-or-freeze response. Not talking about it is pure denial. Doing the planning and the training on a regular basis, making it part of the life of the congregation, will enable all of us to respond with calm, clear resolve if a crisis should befall us here. It makes us safer. Doing the planning and the training—that’s the work of being our siblings’ keepers before the crisis comes. That’s caring for each other before the crisis comes. This making ourselves ready, this preparing ourselves, is not just a fiduciary responsibility. It is love in action.

I read to you earlier from my late colleague, the Rev. Robbie Walsh two meditations, “Fault Line” and “Fire at the Parsonage.” He isn’t writing about emergency preparedness, but he it reminding us that disasters happen, that our lives, “already spilling over the brim, could be invaded, sent off in a new direction, turned aside by forces [we] were warned about but not prepared for.”[4] He reminds us that “The world is going to end, and we don’t know when. My world, or yours, may end tomorrow in some unexpected way.”[5] He warns us about the fragility of life, the potential for everything to come crashing down in an instant. “Have we done what we need to do?” he asks. “Have we said the words we should say before the opportunity is gone?”[6]

That is perhaps the greatest spiritual benefit to come to us from emergency planning. In naming the crises that could happen, we accept our fragility, and ultimately our mortality. In doing so we are inevitably reminded of the things that matter most, of the people and pets and places and experiences we love most deeply, of the bonds that hold us close, of the passions that set us free. We are reminded, in Walsh’s words, that “the shifting plates, the restive earth, your room, your precious life, they all proceed from love, the ground on which we [move] together.”[7]

Life is not a drill. May we plan well, because it will make a difference, even if disaster never strikes.

Life is not a drill. May we respond well, because our lives depend on it.

Life is not a drill. May we love deeply before the storm, because our lives can change dramatically in an instant, and we may not get the chance again.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Moore, Thomas, A Religion of One’s Own (New York: Avery, 2014) p. 184.

[2] Rev. Dawn Skjei Cooley “Beyond Disaster Relief, September 5, 2017, http://www.uua.org/southern/blog/beyond-disaster-relief.

[3] Rev. Dawn Skjei Cooley “Beyond Disaster Relief, September 5, 2017, http://www.uua.org/southern/blog/beyond-disaster-relief.

[4] Walsh, Robert, “Fault Line,” Noisy Stones: A Meditation Manual (Boston: Skinner House, 1992) p. 15.

[5] Walsh, Robert, “Fire at the Parsonage,” Noisy Stones: A Meditation Manual (Boston: Skinner House, 1992) p. 14.

[6] Walsh, “Fire at the Parsonage,” p. 14.

[7] Walsh, “Fault Line,” p. 15.

This entry was posted in Sermons and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *