Vision in times that feel like crisis
Times are stressful. Families and businesses are under stress. Sectors of the economy are hard-hit. Some businesses are going under. There are loved ones we cannot visit, and people who are seriously ill or dying because of the pandemic. In universities, there are constraints on activity and restraints on our finances. Some have lost their jobs. Many vacancies are unfilled. And we continue trying to do the university’s work while also juggling increased care responsibilities or worries. Inevitably, it feels like trying to do more with less. It can feel like a decline.
Responses to stresses
When times are worrying or confusing, our attention tends to focus on one thing—whatever is most in front of us—to the exclusion of other things. Today’s bad news seems to be all there is. As a result, any new demand on our time or care seems overwhelming. How can we worry about X when we are so worried about Y? And yet hyperfocus can’t help, because there are so many new and difficult things, in times like these—in a pandemic—that we can’t deal with each of them in sequence. It’s a complex situation, and many things demand and deserve our attention.
I am reminded of my personal physiological responses to stress. I have learned, over the course of my life, to work effectively when sleep-deprived or low on blood sugar. But I have noticed that my consciousness changes when I do so. What I experience is a narrowing of my focus of care and attention. I am less likely to see anything outside of my singular focus. In fact, anything else vying for my attention comes across to me as an irritant. My wife Norma might say it can make me frustrated or annoyed, but I am sure she must be exaggerating.
I describe this change in my consciousness as tunnel vision. It is a way of short-term coping, but it involves obvious risks—notably, failing to pay attention to a different risk or opportunity than the one I am focused on at the moment. In fact, unless I am all-wise—and who is?—I am certain to miss something important.
So I have also learned practices to force myself to widen my vision. Talk to other people. Learn what they are doing and how they are reacting. Seek different views. When I feel a topic is unwelcome, irritating or a distraction from what is “really important,” I stop and look closer; my discomfort might actually be a sign I have to pay attention differently. When in doubt, I check in with my personal values and remind myself what I most believe in, even when it challenges me.
Vision as a wider awareness
I believe institutions and organizations are in some way similar to individuals. Under stress, they can experience tunnel vision.
Vision is a significant word. It is an old saying that where there is no vision, the people perish. But why is that, exactly? If each person does their own job, won’t everything turn out all right for the organization (the people) as a whole? So why not each keep our nose to the grindstone—won’t the university then take care of itself?
Short answer: no. A university is not simply the sum of individuals doing their jobs in isolation from each other. Like any organization, a university is people working together. And we do so under constantly changing circumstances, this year with more change than usual.
Unless we widen our vision, we may collectively fail to notice a significant new opportunity or threat. In that case, our students’ outcomes could be at risk, and any or all of our jobs could be as well. In other words, focusing on what we do now does not ensure we are sustainable. If we want stability—and in times like these, who doesn’t?—the paradox is that we have to seek change. If we want to save the thing we are focused on, we have to pay attention to other things as well. Tunnel vision is a threat to our viability.
So what can we do about it?
Talk to other people. Learn and listen. Seek different views. Slow down and think before reacting to what seems irritating or unwelcome. Make room for and embrace some new things. What I thought I was working on may be a little less important than something else I hadn’t considered. Check in with our institutional values and see where they lead our attention.
Vision and purpose
At TRU, like in many organizations, we have formally adopted a vision statement whose purpose is to help all of us widen our view beyond current day-to-day pressures. Not only can a vision widen our view; it can direct our attention to things that are important. In this our vision and values are also like a filter that can help us make sense of the numerous pressures and ideas that are competing for our attention. Which ones are important to pay attention to, even when we feel thinly stretched?
Our university’s 2020 vision statement states that we aim to boldly redefine the university as a place of belonging—a vision that calls us to respect our hosts (the Secwépemc, who have lived here for thousands of years), the land and genuinely to welcome and include all people in educational transformation no matter where they come from. This statement reflects our identity and the contributions of thousands of members of our community.
We don’t exist to do a job, provide a service or build a building. The purpose of all jobs at TRU is to help students and communities to be successful in their own terms. They need us more than ever. I have no doubt we have to scale back some things we are now doing, but not to be a lesser university. Rather, we will continue to be a university that takes on new things, meet the most important needs today.
In times like these, students and communities have changing and new needs. What TRU did yesterday may no longer be the most important thing. In times like these, our ethic of inclusion leads us to worry about those who are at risk of being marginalized or left out. So yes, it’s time to seek new partnerships and raise new funds for our students. Yes, it’s time to work on truth, reconciliation and rights. Yes, it’s time for an anti-racism task force, which we have recently established, and work on employment equity, diversity and inclusion. Yes, it’s time to launch new community-based research projects. Yes, it’s time for carefully chosen new programs and services that are critical to under-served communities.
People often talk about emerging from a crisis stronger. It often seems to ring hollow, at least at first, during the crisis, because in a growth-centric society we are used to thinking of stronger meaning more, richer, larger and it’s hard to see our way clear to that. Perhaps, when the whole pandemic-and-recovery story is written, TRU will be larger in some respects. But the most important thing is that we will be more strongly bound to our purpose and our mission, and our partners in communities will be, too. We will be more united to do what is most important. Because people and communities need us.