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Nathan Ahearne ponders how we can shepherd our loved ones through the never-before-seen challenges of 2020.

Never has the term unprecedented been used more liberally than 2020, a year of crippling drought, devastating bushfire, and a global pandemic. COVID-19 has forced everyone to encounter the unknown, the never-been-done-before and the unexampled. However, humans have attempted the unprecedented since the dawn of time, from harnessing fire to landing on the moon; we’ve unlocked the power of science to both heal and destroy.

The unprecedented nature of 2020 has two great differences, namely the lack of control and the global impact. Precedents set by a small group of scientists have previously impacted a few nations at a time, but this pandemic has not discriminated between gender, race or wealth. Many leaders have struggled to stay ahead of the game in controlling the spread of the disease and used the term unprecedented to divert attention from a lack of preparation, incompetence, ignorance, and bad judgement.

When confronted with challenging and novel situations, it’s natural to look to those who’ve come before us as exemplars, but the essence of leadership is how people respond when there is an absence of well-trodden paths. Societies have established legal precedents to assist with various judgements and the medical profession and engineering fields create clinical guides, standards, and codes of practice. Whilst a precedent provides a sense of reassurance for the time being, we also know that we will be judged by our actions in the future.

Sadly, we don’t need to look too far into the past to name a number of social justice issues including inequality, racism, slavery and exploitation, and neglect of the most vulnerable. Leadership experts describe the phrase “we’ve always done it that way” as deplorable, claiming it to be one of the most dangerous and corrosive mindsets, as it erodes creative thinking and new ideas. These unprecedented times have forced us to think differently, to diversify, and to innovate.

Earlier this year, we were flung into the liminal space between the known and the unknown, like a trapeze artist mid-way between two beams and without a safety net; there was little time to prepare and decisions needed to be made hastily in a period of uncertainty. Richard Rohr describes this liminal space as a place of vulnerability and where we are most teachable, because we have been humbled. “Many spiritual giants like St. Francis, Julian of Norwich, Dorothy Day, and Mohandas Gandhi tried to live their entire lives in permanent liminality, on the edge or periphery of the dominant culture. This in-between place is free of illusions and false payoffs. It invites us to discover and live from broader perspectives and with much deeper seeing” (Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM). Precedents may provide us with a safety net in which to fall, but the risk is that we may never be stretched and learn to put our faith beyond what we see and know.

Imagine if Jesus had simply followed the precedents of His time and place, content with living a quiet life in the sleepy backwaters of Nazareth. After all, what good was expected to come from there? (John 1:36). Perhaps the undocumented years of Jesus’s life were a time of preparation for departing from the known to the unknown years of public ministry ahead.

The Bible reveals a life that was unprecedented: never before had The Word been made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). It seems that Mary was also unwilling to live by the status quo and her life reflects a similar choice to move beyond the comfortable and to place her trust in God. Neither Mary nor Jesus rejected their Jewish traditions, treasuring both the new and old (Matthew 13:51-52). Jesus came to fulfil the Law and messages of the Prophets (Matthew 5:17-18) and yet, His radical witness of living the Beatitudes shocked the sensibilities of many religious authorities.

The life of a disciple was anything but safe, comfort-driven or unchallenging. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection was a completely unprecedented moment in history, and the varied reactions of his disciples from unfailing loyalty and martyrdom to complete rejection and betrayal speaks to the fragility of the human condition. As the first disciple, Mary’s life suggests that the unprecedented is not to be avoided, as it brings to birth new seasons of growth, self-reflection and insight. Despite the prophecies of Simeon (Luke 2:25-35) describing a sword that would pierce her heart, Mary and Joseph continued their leap into the unknown and Jesus “grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him”(Luke 2:40).

How do we lead our loved ones through unprecedented challenges? #catholicmom

Our families have their fair share of precedents, traditions and expectations of "how things are done around here." One of the great joys and frustrations in the early years of marriage was reconciling our differences and navigating new ways of being family as we negotiated, incorporated and compromised. We have also had many unprecedented moments of illness, heartbreak, loss and disappointment. Whilst these events are not uncommon to most families, there are no instruction manuals or lists of protocols to follow.

So how do we lead our loved ones through the unprecedented challenges? Children learn all the time from the example of their parents and the way we respond to the unexpected can teach valuable lessons about resilience and agility or avoidance and rigidity. After a year of disruption, turmoil and reestablishment of priorities, it’s curious to imagine the precedents that have been set by 2020 and to appreciate the graces that have flowed from God.

Does following precedents keep you safe, comfortable, unchallenged or secure? Are you content to simply go through the motions of life, ticking one box after another? How might you be called into liminal space?


Copyright 2020 Nathan Ahearne
Image: William Daigneault (2018), Unsplash