Helping families, couples, individuals, and organizations work through “government shutdowns” has been a big part of my job for over thirty years, and I know a few things about helping people to get things working again when a shutdown occurs. That being the case, I’d be happy to offer my services to the leaders in Washington, however, the “government shutdowns” I know how to help resolve have nothing to do with political leadership. There are, however, many lessons that apply to either kind of shutdown. Please allow me to explain.
When I meet with someone for pastoral counseling or spiritual direction, it is not uncommon for them to say at some point during our first meeting something like, “I don’t know exactly what’s happening, but I can feel myself shutting down both at work and at home these days. I feel increasingly disconnected from myself, from others, and from God.” If I am working with a couple or family, I often hear similar sentiments. “I can feel myself shutting down in this relationship,” or, “Lately, I feel like you just shut down every time I try to talk with you” are the kind of things people are likely to say when a relationship is on the verge of a shut down of it’s own. I also hear people say something similar when an organization or congregation has become paralyzed by unresolved conflict, “The communication around here has shut down. There are factions that barely speak to each other any more.”
In their own ways, all of these people are describing a case of “government shutdown.” It’s important to note that the root meaning of the word govern means to steer or pilot, as in steering or piloting a ship. If a steamship was to lose it’s pilot in the middle of a voyage and there was no one else to govern or steer the ship, the ship, if there was no wind, would either come to a stand still or it would veer way off course, possibly eventually crashing against the shore. When people report that they are shutting down emotionally or spiritually, one of these two things is probably happening for them and their relationships as well–they are either shutting down and thus coming to a standstill, or they are veering way off course. The shutdown that is being experienced is a shutdown in the ability to govern, the ability to steer and guide one’s self and one’s relationships.
As I said, I don’t know much about how to resolve a political shutdown, but I do know a thing or two about how to resolve an emotional, spiritual, and/or relational shutdown.
The first and most important step toward any resolution is for each person to take responsibility for his or her part of the shutdown. Authenticity and transparency are key here. “I don’t like the way I have been acting lately and I am aware of the negative effect this has had on our relationship” will go a lot further toward ending a shutdown than, “You have been acting like a jerk lately and if you would just stop it then we could get along again.”
A second step that follows this first step of taking responsibility for one’s part of the shutdown, is to apologize and make amends. “I’m sorry for the way I have overreacted” or “I’m sorry to have acted so self-righteously” may unfortunately be seen as a sign of weakness in political circles, but it’s definitely a sign of emotional and spiritual wellness in our personal lives and well worth practicing. Confession of our blind spots to our selves and to others is not just good for our souls; it is good for restoring and strengthening our relationships as well.
A third and final step that helps us to recover from a shutdown in a relationship is shifting the focus from what that which divides to that which unites. One of my favorite bits of wisdom is, “Whatever we pay attention to, is what will grow.” If we pay all of our attention to that which is dividing us, then that division will grow. If we instead remember and celebrate the greater good of that which unites us, even in the midst of the current conflict, then a feeling of good will and unity will gradually grow. This will eventually enhance our ability to work together increasing our chances of resolving the conflict we are currently experiencing.
Government shutdowns are painful and hurtful, in whatever form they take, within governments, families, couples, the workplace, and congregations. The good news is that if we commit to following the three steps outlined above we can recover from them and put the hurt behind us. The better news is that if we practice these steps on an ongoing basis, we have a good chance of avoiding a “government shutdown” from happening in our lives, in the first place.