Home Concepts Managing Stress & Challenges Finding Sanctuary in a World of Complexity, Unpredictability and Turbulence

Finding Sanctuary in a World of Complexity, Unpredictability and Turbulence

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In a beautifully poignant song (“And So It Goes”, 1983), written by the popular singer, Billy Joel, a sanctuary is described that exists in every person’s heart. This part of our heart will always be “safe and strong.” It is where we “heal the wounds from lovers past/Until a new one comes along.” Sanctuaries of a similar nature exist in our heart and hopefully are supported by our organizations and society as a means of healing other wounds and providing space and time for needed reflection and inquiry.

We are currently confronting a postmodern world that is very complex. Clarity of mission and purpose seems critical in leading an organization, in large part because our organizations are fragmented, contradictory and unpredictable. We live in an era not of accelerating change, but rather of turbulence (the “white water” world): rapid change intermixes with patterned change, stagnation and chaos. In such a world, there is great need for Billy Joel’s “safe and strong” sanctuary.

Complexity, unpredictability and turbulence are not new to us living in a postmodern world. And we are not the first people to yearn for sanctuary. Back in the 1930s, with World War II looming in the near future and the world limping its way out of a major recession, there was a strong need for sanctuary– as captured in the popular film, Lost Horizons. Ronald Colman played the role of a very successful British statesman who is kidnapped and taken to a remote land called “Shangri-La.” For Colman, as for many of us, this location held great attraction. It was free of pain and strife. Shangri-La also provided an opportunity for reflection on the complex and turbulent world outside, while giving those who entered its cloistered walls (in this case, a hidden valley) the opportunity for personal growth and renewal. Colman, like many us who have created or stumbled into “Shangri-La,” found that the hardest part is leaving and returning to a world that he no longer appreciated. However, “Shangri-La” like all sanctuaries exists precisely because of our need to remain engaged in an active life in which we address the critical needs and concerns of our family, our organization and our community.


A sanctuary may be a physical location: a retreat, a “safe place” within or outside the organization. Some Japanese firms provide private rooms where employees can go to let loose their frustrations and anger. However, sanctuaries (almost by definition) usually exist outside of an organizational context. They are found in remote locations, hallowed grounds, beautiful settings or formally constructed retreat centers, spas and health resorts.

Alternatively, as Billy Joel suggests, the sanctuary may be within one’s own heart or head. In one of his gentle stories from the Prairie Home companion radio program about life in a small Minnesota town (“Lake Wobegon”), Garrison Keiller (1983) speaks about the “storm home” that was assigned to him by his school when he was a small boy. Keiller lived in the country and had to get to school by bus. Consequently, to prepare for the possibility that he might be stranded in town as a result of a snow blizzard, the school gave him (and the other children living in the country) an alternative home to go to that is located in town. Keeler never had to go to this home; however, he often walked by his “storm home” and reflected on the loving, supportive nature of the couple who were his “storm parents.” He often thought of this man and woman and their house when things were going bad or when he was discouraged. He fantasized that this couple had specifically picked him out as their “storm child” and that they would welcome him with open arms during difficult times.

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