Crisis as a catalyst for change.
Reverend Doctor Mike Pflager, known as “Father Mike,” knows the value of a kairos moment. Kairos— one of two words the ancient Greeks used to refer to time—means a moment of indeterminate length in which conditions are right for crucial action or decision-making. (The other word, chronos, refers to sequential time.)
In a recent New Yorker profile, Father Mike, an activist white priest who leads Chicago’s largest African-American Catholic parish, counts the crisis in Chicago under Mayor Rahm Emanuel as that sort of moment. Following years of charges that city administration had suppressed reporting of police misconduct, video was made public of an officer firing sixteen shots into Laquan McDonald, a black teenager, as he walked away.
A civic chorus demanded Emanuel’s resignation. Father Mike, instead, wants something more: “We have an enormous opportunity to make some real changes in Chicago. My two main concerns are: one, that we don’t blow it, because I don’t know when it will come again; and two, that we don’t make too small an ask and just deal with the issue at hand.” The city, he said, not just the police, needs an overhaul.
In times of crisis, the discipline required to not only step back, but step up, is enormous. Amid a complicated web of noise and emotion, in rapidly changing circumstances, when the outcome is unclear, decisions must be made quickly. Crisis raises fundamental questions of who we can trust, how we’ve lived our lives, what we truly value. The weight of every decision is palpable, and the pain of responsibility, which taps into the deepest reaches of our ego, can be hard to separate from our sense of self-worth.
Yet intuitively, we know that crisis happens because, from time to time, it must. Change happens, sometimes violently, and it tests our resilience, and our ability to evolve. As Mark Twain said, history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. What we learn from that history, and how that learning informs our evolution, is what matters.
I’ve always found museums and art galleries to be powerful places for the sort of meditation and reflection many people practice in church. The sense of historical and cross-cultural connection in such institutions helps us understand our present, and determine our path forward.
Vancouver is home to a little-known temple of art set in the oldest, and one of the most historically important, buildings in Chinatown. The current exhibition at the Rennie Collection at Wing Sang is curated around the theme of finding identity amid chaos.
On the main floor, tucked in a quiet back corner and balancing an explosive neon installation opposite, is Zimbabwean artist Dan Holder’s When the Bag Tears, the Shoulders Get a Rest. The words are stencilled on a checkered, tattered, tarp-like woven bag, the kind you see in markets all over the world.
I recently asked Bob Rennie, principal of Rennie Collection, how this piece and its message resonated. “When shit happens, you get to do an audit,” he said. “You lose all your money, you decide what are your priorities, you figure out how to get through it. Someone in the house has cancer, you figure out how to spend time with the people you love. You re-evaluate the road you’re going to take. It lets you step up.”
Rennie’s take is not unlike Father Mike’s. When what we believe in and trust collapses, we have an opportunity to take stock and do better, be better. Challenging the Chicago mayor’s failed handling of the Laquan McDonald investigation, Father Mike told him, “You knew the process was fucked up, so you hid behind the process.”
At a moment of kairos, knowing your values, listening carefully in the spaces between the noise, and having the courage to find openings and drive through them, are the keys to leadership. That’s how a crisis allows real change to happen.