Dog Packs, Kitchen Nightmares and Deep Survival

Dog Packs, Kitchen Nightmares and Deep Survival


I am a fan of raiding other disciplines for thoughts on leadership in the church. There are all sorts of at first sight unlikely places to garner human wisdom which can be applied to church life. I regularly watch the National Geographic television show “The Dog Whisperer.” There is much wisdom there about being a calm, confident and consistent pack leader and about the chaos that comes from projecting the wrong kind of energy into the pack. It is quite food for thought for pastors that out of control dogs become calm in a good pack and that good dogs go crazy in a chaotic pack that is poorly led.

Another show I watch regularly is “Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares.” Gordon Ramsey the famous chef and main character of this reality show is vulgar in the extreme and hardly a sentence goes by that does not contain numerous bleeps. The censors allow the word “ballocks” which is used at least once a paragraph. The show which is on BBC America takes Ramsey to different restaurants which are about to go under and gives him a week to turn them around. The survival rate for restaurants is something like one in five. Often he actually helps them. Ramsey has a bullying style which is part of the appeal of the show I suppose and really more morally problematic than the incessant cursing. There is something to learn here. Most of the restaurants are being killed by the same group of problems: arrogant, self-indulgent but weak leaders who are out of touch with their market, an over-elaborate menu which is really beyond the skill set of the chefs, lack of teamwork and poor communication both in the kitchen and between the kitchen, the management and the wait staff, lack of a coherent and realistic vision and a lack of commitment and passion. One of the things that makes the shows galvanizing is that the audience can see almost immediately how out of touch with reality the chefs and owners are and yet like drowning men going down for the third time they fight off the advice of the man who is their last and best chance. It gives Ramsey a lot opportunity to say bleep and ballocks.

By chance I picked up a book called Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales which is a close look at what might be called the psychology of drowning. The subtitle is “Who lives, Who Dies and Why?” The author has spent a life time analyzing and writing about stories of extreme survival of the “58 days alone in a Raft on the Atlantic” sort. He has combined his knowledge of how people act in extreme conditions with the emerging understanding of how the brain works and the role that emotion plays in reasoning and decision-making. It is a fascinating read, and parish clergy and other church leaders will see obvious parallels to decision making and survival in parish ministry, especially during moments of crisis.

One of the chapters is entitled “Bending the Map.” This is a term that has been coined by those who study the behavior of lost people. We find our way by making mental maps. If the lights go out in your bedroom you can probably find your way around reasonably well because you have developed a mental map of the room. We are constantly making such maps and constantly revising them. Psychologists believe that the map-making function is located in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is affected by stress and stress makes it harder to revise your mental maps. One part of the brain tells you where you are but another part, the amygdala, controls the seeking of a goal. This is the part of the brain which governs the emotions and provides us with automatic behaviors which circumvent the thinking function.

When stress makes it hard to update the mental map, people are likely to be lost before they realize it. When it begins to dawn that the surroundings and the map are not matching up one reaction very often kicks in especially if fatigue and stress are a factor. The lost person tries to make their map work even though it is obvious after the fact that grave and possibly disastrous mistakes are being made. It is the same phenomenon that afflicts the restaurant owners in Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares. They have a map that should work but is not working and yet they cling to it. To the detached observer it seems inexplicably irrational. But the emotions are driving and the amygdala is producing powerful motivations to take action, and the organism is clinging to the only plan it knows. The way out is for the higher critical function to kick in but that requires over-riding nearly irresistible emotions that have developed over eons and have for the most part have helped us survive. Tragically when you are well and truly lost some of your instincts are your worst enemy.

Many people who are lost could probably recover by retracing their steps. Very few do. They are driven on by the conviction that what they are seeking is just around the corner. Gonzales says, “It’s simple. All you have to do is fail to update your mental map and then persist in following it even when the landscape (or your compass) tries to tell you it’s wrong. According to the survival expert, Edward Cornell, “Whenever you start looking at your map and saying something like, ‘Well, that lake could have dried up,’ or ‘That boulder could have moved,’ a red light should go off. You’re trying to make reality conform to your expectations rather than seeing what’s there. In the sport of orienteering, they call it ‘bending the map.'” (page 164) At first the map bending is plausible, then the awful, “we are not in Kansas anymore” feeling sets in and then panic. There is a name for this panic, woods shock. When the person can no longer make any correlation between where they are and their mental map it starts a cascading deterioration of their rational function. “In severe cases, the actions of even the most experienced outdoorsmen can seem inexplicable. Hikers have abandoned full backpacks; hunters have left their guns behind.” (165)

Something similar happens to pilots trying to land on a carrier. When they come in too low and slow there are a series of warnings that go off. Alarms sound in the cockpit. Big red lights show up on the carrier deck and the Landing Signal Officer starts screaming in the headphones, “pull up, pull up! It is not uncommon for pilots despite all these signals to run into the back of the carrier and cut the plane in half. The pilots say that once you get your attention fixed on a spot on the deck instead of constantly scanning the whole scene, tunnel vision sets in and the desire to get on the ground becomes overwhelming.

Researchers in the psychology of the lost recognize five stages. First, despite increasing evidence the person denies that they are lost and they press on with mounting urgency trying to make their mental map match what they see. In the second stage, panic sets in and clear thought becomes almost impossible. Activity becomes “frantic, unproductive, even dangerous.” In third stage exhaustion sets in and the person forms a strategy for finding a place that matches their map. The problem as Gonzales points out is that there is no such place. You are lost. “In the final stage, as you run out of options and energy, you must become resigned to your plight. Like it or not, you must make a new mental map of where you are. You must become Robinson Crusoe or you will die. To survive, you must find yourself. Then it won’t matter where you are.” (167)

The applications are obvious. You can get lost in the woods and you can get lost in life. Institutions and corporations can also get lost. Gonzales uses the recent history of the Xerox Corporation as an example. In 1969 Xerox passed $1 billion in sales. In 1971, literally high on this success, Xerox leadership decided to take on IBM despite “the clear evidence that it would probably kill them to do so. They were like snowmobilers, flushed with emotion, who went up that hill, despite the clear evidence it would probably kill them. They were bending the map too.” (167) Xerox has been a long time getting back and may still not be totally out of the woods.

I have survived severe parish conflict. When I look back on it I can recognize all the stages of the lost person. I had successfully led the way in the redevelopment of two previous parishes. My third parish looked like a larger version of the same. I thought I knew where I was and what needed doing. As everything that had always worked before began not to work I went into high energy scramble mode, with the conviction that the same strategies applied with more effort would bring success and that the familiar landmarks were just around the corner. As the panic deepened my thinking function deteriorated even more and I spent long hours frozen at my desk fruitlessly ruminating on my situation. The only thing I did right was to keep praying (survival experts advise people to pray whether they believe in God or not because the positive results are so well documented) and not give up which many lost people do. I remember consciously giving up my mental map. I wouldn’t have called it that then but that is what I did. That was the day I started to pay attention to where I really was and what would work there and that was the day I started to come out of the woods. Many people are astounded and sometimes a little disgusted at the stupid things that clergy and parish leaders do in high conflict situations. I understand it completely. They are bending the map and trying to get home. A lot don’t make it. They can’t get through the panic, throw out the old map and start over. By the grace of God I did. The parish and I had a major turn around and I had many years of positive ministry there. Like a lot of survivors I know well it could have been different and I have a great sympathy for those who have lost the way.

When I look at the conflict in The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion I can see the hallmarks of an institution whose leaders are lost. For that portion of the church that has been laboring for decades for the acceptance of same-sex relationships on a par with heterosexual marriage, the election of the bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 and the election of the first woman presiding bishop in 2006 has to be a rush. It must feel like being at the helm of Xerox in 1971. In the lifetime of these leaders they have seen the church weather the storm over a new prayer book and the ordination of women. Many of these leaders can also remember the deep emotional satisfaction of being part of the civil rights and anti-war movements. In all these experiences, perseverance in the face of opposition eventually led to a success and the great emotional satisfaction of feeling on the side of history. It is an understandable mistake to apply this map to the present crisis in TEC and the Anglican Communion. The concept of bending the map helps us understand why TEC plowed ahead in spite of clear warnings that it would break the Anglican Communion apart and damage the domestic church in unprecedented ways. Even now there is strong denial from the national leaders of TEC that the communion will come apart or that the consequences in terms of loss of membership and funds will be anything but survivable as they were for both the 1979 prayer book and the ordination of women. The church now seems to me in the panicky scrambling stage full of fruitless and desperate efforts to make an outdated map conform to reality. The stress and panic makes it impossible to take in the changing reality and update the map. Thoughtfulness deteriorates and actions become inexplicably counter-productive and contrary to survival.

If Anglicanism is to survive this crisis it will be because leaders both domestically and on the communion stage are able to over-ride their instincts and emotions and to give up outdated mental maps and start paying attention to where we truly are and to soberly consider what will possibly actually work in this terra incognita and who will do one more thing that survivors do; take bold action on the basis of a calm, realistic and updated read of their true situation.

One thought on “Dog Packs, Kitchen Nightmares and Deep Survival

  1. I found “Deep Survival” a very powerful book. I recommend it to anyone having any crisis in their life, whether legal, medical or spiritual.

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