The past three years my family has been impacted with an extraordinary amount of loss and change. This essay is an attempt at outlining the connections I’ve started to see between grief, OODA loops, mindfulness, and system and psychological resiliency. It sounds like such grab bag! A sad attempt to find something out of the pain. Maybe so. In any case, apologies in advance for this essay, and thank you for reading, if you do.
Have you seen “Inside Out”? In the movie, Riley, a healthy, happy 11 year old, experiences disruptive change due to their family’s move to a new home. Understandably, the stress of the move causes conflict among Riley’s emotions. Her family inadvertently makes matters difficult by invalidating those emotions. In one case her mom tells her to fake how she feels for her father’s sake. As a consequence, Joy and Sadness are lost in the recesses of Riley’s mind, leaving behind only Anger, Fear and Disgust to navigate the world. Riley runs away, almost leaving on a bus, to what would have likely been disastrous consequences.
Only by regaining access to the fullness of her emotions, her Sadness most importantly, is she able to be resilient and adapt to the change she’s going thru.
Resiliency, Executive Function, and OODA Loops
Resiliency is a property of all systems, organizations, and people. There are many definitions, specific to the context they are used in. I am going to use a rather abstract definition for my purposes, apologies (again!):
Resiliency is the ability to adapt to disruptive change, retain what is essential, and move forward.
Many have said the loss a loved one, sudden or not, is like a punch in the gut. Your fight/flight/freeze response fires, sending signals to your mind and body, as it takes the blow, and absorbs the shock, to prepare for the next immediate hit. You bend over, protecting your soft parts. Your breathing tightens. Your vision narrows, making things more black and white, more sharp. There’s a cost to staying this hyper vigilant though, a physical and mental toll that takes resources from you, and your executive functioning gets squeezed.
To go on the offensive, to learn, or make a change, you will need to allow yourself some vulnerability once again; to observe things clearly, to make decisions, and to act, instead of merely react.
United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd coined a term for this, calling it the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act). It describes the cycle you go thru to survive uncertainty in a changing environment. In order to be resilient and adapt, it’s crucial to be able to observe clearly and interpret your predicament. In order to adapt to change, you need to be mindful and aware.
Being Vulnerable, Being Open, Moving Forward
The sudden loss of a loved one, and its response, makes this difficult. With time, and help, you learn to open up once again, arms falling at your sides. Making vulnerable the soft parts. Allowing Sadness and Joy their roles. Incorporating the Joy of the person you loved into your memories, while recognizing the Sadness of the loss.
Otherwise, you grow unhealthy, physically and mentally. Eventually losing the ability to see clearly, a fight/flight/freeze response triggered by the slightest of shadows or whispers. PTSD, and Complicated Grief, here we are.
Moving forward doesn’t mean “snapping back”. Our relationships change us. Their absence changes us. How that change carries in us, and how we are able to interpret it, makes a difference.
There isn’t a “snapping back” to a previous state. That isn’t possible. There is no ”moving on”. But hopefully, there is a going forward.
Bringing it back to Riley, and us
So, imagine if you were Riley, and you got off the bus, and on the way home got a text message that your aunt died (this movie just got _grimdark_). Maybe you still made it home, but then a then couple weeks later, another close aunt passes away. Then a month later, a neighbor. Then a grandfather, and then…did your eyes just blur over then? Me too.
Throw into the mix a lack of people in your life to share your grief with, like Riley, an only child, whose family, rather than meeting you where you are, and sitting in the pain with you, instead attempt to fix things, or deny the reality of things, because they too, are hurting from _their_ grief.
Well, to spell it out, recently, our family has had a run of “Inside Out” events, one or more occurring every few months, for a stretch of three years, starting with Shell’s sister Rose passing away, and just a short while ago, her Uncle, Dad, and then my brother Al, doing the same in quick succession. In all, six members of our family, and one friend, passed away with little time to breathe in between. Amidst all this, some family moved far away, and we moved to a new home.
Counting upon your perspective, two uncles, two aunts, a mother, a father, a daughter, a husband, two grandfathers, and two siblings have passed away. It just sounds so unreal cataloging it, all this loss to navigate, and adapt to, during three short years.
Our hearts left reeling, feet without footing. Some days it still feels like a storm that’s hard to believe will ever let up.
The following is a list of pithy practices, that may not apply to anyone, that we’ve been learning how to do, more or less, in our home:
- Eat right, sleep right, and stay active
- Keep faith, have hope, and practice love and kindness for yourself and others (Inspirations: 1 Corinthians 13 and Mr. Rogers)
- Practice mindfulness:
- Listen to ourselves, uncritically, and to each other – don’t invalidate feelings. Banish shame
- Seek out help (therapists, doctors, support groups, books, music, and friendship).
- Drink water.
- Express gratitude, often.
- And take it a day at a time.
It goes without saying, most days we slip on a few of these. Some days, many! And if we were dealing with greater financial or health struggles, it would be all the more difficult. I believe these are skills, which we’re still learning (especially me), and they help keep our own internal OODA loops from breaking down *too* far.
Everyone is hard on themselves. We can’t control the cards we are dealt. So I pray to get better every day, and that that the cards are favorable for a bit for all my loved ones.
Hopefully writing this doesn’t tempt fate.
Resiliency Analogs for Engineering Teams
Change is constant, no matter where you work, but I believe even more so for software engineering teams. Change brought about by rapidly evolving requirements, or environments, immediate change brought on by system or dependency failure, upstream and down, or surges in demand. How teams and systems can deliver value, adapt to change, and be resilient to demand or failure, largely determines their success. Do we learn, do we incorporate what we learn into how we work? I believe I’ve been part of a few teams over the years that exhibit these properties, most recently, the team that develops the APIs supporting Comcast’s Xfinity Stream. What follows are some cultural elements and practices, that have helped us adapt to change, and deliver value:
- Having an ownership culture where teammates are encouraged to improve how we work.
- Having a Devops culture, where everyone takes part in operations and deployments.
- Practicing CI/CD, where we perform multiple, small releases weekly, sometimes daily, keeping risk minimal, with a massive automated test suite all team members contribute to.
- Working in Kanban-influenced style: anyone can take any work that is incoming. Work continuously flows in and out of the org.
- We actually watch Work In Progress limits!
- API design that enables teams upstream and down to evolve at paces they require.
- Adopting infrastructure-as-code (really anything-as-code) techniques to enable our team to apply the same peer-review/test infused process to infrastructure, as we do our applications. Infrastructure delivery is the same CI/CD process as our apps.
- Peer review is accompanied by peer support. You’re never out on a limb alone on this team and we support each other’s success. It’s a team.
- Having leadership who encouraged these properties, practices and cultural qualities.
- Lastly: encouraging psychological safety. Whether it be running blameless postmortems when issues occur, to how we work as collaborators, not competitors, we have a challenging, fun team. When it’s safe to be honest, it’s easy to pursue improvement.
I’m thankful for the health I have, the work I have, and the people I work with. The therapists we’ve engaged with. All the friends and family who have reached out, given unexpected hugs, or a kind word. All these are privileges, without which any lessons offered probably has no weight at all. And most especially Richelle, my partner day by day, who keeps us in the here and now, and the tomorrow, in faith, hope and love.
Here’s to today, and to tomorrow.
- Oxford Dictionary: Resilience
- Psychology Today: Inside Out, Emotional Truths by Way of Pixar
- Wikipedia: Executive Functions
- Wikipedia: OODA Loop
- Psychology Today: Faith, Hope, Love and Gratitude
- What’s Your Grief: We Don’t Recover From Grief, and That’s Okay
- Exercise: Psych patients’ new natural prescription
- Irish Times: Keanu Reeves: ‘Grief and loss are things that don’t ever go away’
- American Psychological Association: The Road to Resilience
- Systems Engineering Body of Knowledge: System Resilience
- Github: Resilience Engineering: Where Do I Start?
- High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It
- Google: re:Work: Understand team effectiveness
- Slack: Psychological safety first: building trust among teams
Richelle’s Dad passed away Friday morning, October 20th. We’re going to miss you!!!
He was one of the first men I met in my young life that I actually looked up to. A kind man who served his parents, who served his country, who served his family. He walked the walk, and would do so with warmth, a wink, and a smile.
You telling me you were proud of me meant everything. Thank you for welcoming me as part of your family.
Your wife, your children, your grandchildren, all who knew you, love you and will miss you.
Richelle’s Dad, Gin, passed away Friday morning, October 20th. I’ll be writing about Dad in a follow up here, but before get to that post, I wanted to share that just a month ago, on September 20th, I had the honor of giving a eulogy for his only sibling, his brother Gus, who passed away August 12th.
Uncle Gus was an extraordinary person and I hope you take a moment to read about him.
This was a rough year for so many. Amidst all of it there is plenty to celebrate and be thankful for, and to build upon.
What a crazy year.
I hope all of you have a happy new one.
Here’s to 2017.
I haven’t added a new page to this blog in eons!
I summarized a few FB posts into one page this morning: Poetry for Rose.
We miss you Rose.
I haven’t posted on my blog in about a half a year, and to post now after so long a break feels strange, but it feels necessary. Much of what I’m about to share below I’ve shared privately on social media.
Rose, Richelle’s sister, Emma’s Godmother, her Aunt Roro, passed away early last week, most likely from a heart attack.
Her entire family is struggling to find words that can make any kind of sense of it all, but there is just no way to do so. She meant the world to her family, friends, co-workers and clients.
Parents shouldn’t be put in the situation to have to bury a child.
Sisters who loved each other as the deepest friends shouldn’t be taken from one another so soon.
And Emma, oh Emma, I can’t come close to express her heartache and what she lost. Rose really was Emma’s third parent.
Rose leaves behind so many great memories. Let me share just one: As a late teen, I had never danced. Rose lost her date to the prom and I ended up taking her, with Richelle’s blessing. And Rose got me out on that dance floor. She was that kind of person to so many!
I’ve known Rose since I was 17. She was positive, passionate, and believed in me and Shell. We had the kind of relationship where she knew she could let me have it – and that we’d still be good the next day. We’d talk about vocation, about what our careers meant to us, about how to stand up for ourselves, while not getting caught by the kind of negativity that can keep us locked in place.
She inspired me, and I know I am not alone.
We are all thankful for the prayers and support we’ve been receiving.
If you feel so inclined, send a message to the family on the Wetzel and Son memorial page. Up to date details regarding her memorial service are found there as well.
There is a space in the world that just shouldn’t be. We love you and miss you Rose.
My thoughts and prayers for his entire family and to all who have known him. Comcast has been a great place to work, and has been great for family, and to give back to my community, and I know that springs in no small part to its founder.
I’ve just finished an eight week mindfulness course and I’ve been asked a few times if I got anything out it. Yes I have: I improved my card playing technique.
Hear me out.
There is a card playing metaphor me and my little brother have shared through the years to help get through difficult times: The goal is to play the hand you’ve been dealt, to the best of your ability. Don’t think too hard about the hands you’ve been dealt in the past, or worry about the cards which may come in the future, they are are out of your control.
If you spend too much time looking at the past, or worrying about the future, you will not make the best choice you can in the moment.
People who know me well, know I quote this quite a bit. It sounds so simple, but think of your own experience, and you know it is anything but.
The next few hands might mean winning or losing everything, and this day has been nothing but work, work, work, and you’re always losing these things so why are you sitting there anyway, and.. well.. Your adrenaline is probably pumping, and the moment you’re in might feel like the most critical moment EVAR. What happens next is what matters… right?
Hold onto that for a moment while I shift gears. I promise to return to this.
But first, let me ask you, doesn’t time start to really fly as we age? Blink and days, weeks, even months seem to zip by.
That’s because most moments, maybe this one if you are skimming (you probably are, lets be honest), are not an examined moments. Intentionally or not, as our experience grows, so do the stories we mentally collect, to filter our world by.
It is absolutely necessary. We need to do it to survive. Pondering the rain can keep you from seeking shelter and avoiding a lightning strike, and lightning rods are awesome.
It is probably the advanced pattern matching ability we have that differentiates humans from most animal life. And from one another.
We see someone react well, or poorly, under certain circumstances and we think that it is a sure sign of their innate intelligence, or their innate resilience. When, underneath it all, the truth is, they’ve had some experience, some teaching, some lesson that got absorbed.
Watch children play before they get too caught up in thinking before acting. They are experiencing the moment fully and learning from it. Sight, smell, sound, everything is getting recorded for pattern analysis and reuse. That’s why time moves so slow for them. Each moment is a learnable moment. Forming connections, stories, experiences that will get used in future situations. There is a lot of input getting written to memory. Absorbing that takes time and energy. So time moves slow.
Eventually all kids start to think about the future and the past, and that removes them from the current moment. How is school going suck tomorrow? Why didn’t my so called friend call me back? Time moves faster as the now is less and less examined. It does that because they no longer are in the current moment. They’re elsewhere.
When this becomes habit, whenever they are in a moment where there isn’t flooded with new stimuli (even though all moments are unique, how quickly we lose that!), you’ll hear, “I’m bored”.
So, full circle, back to the metaphor, the card game. The class has given me some techniques to get my head in the moment, to strengthen the quality of my attention, and to do so non-judgmentally. So I can hopefully see my hand of cards and recognize my mind’s attempts at zipping to the future or the past, to see the moment as a teachable one, once again.
Hearing classmates share their own struggles and journeys helped me to realize I wasn’t so alone. As our instructor shared, though we may all have different experiences, we feel similar things. We weren’t as isolated as we may think. Speaking of the instructors, I’m thankful for how they constructed the class, its pace, and making it easier to connect with concepts that can be very abstract and hard to grasp with self study.
Being non-judgemental is key. It’s necessary in order to observe those stories, those filters, that might have once been all important, when now they limit the choices I might make, or the enjoyment I might feel, if I let myself take in something fully.
As a child might, with a beginners mind.
And it’s not easy. It’s not about relaxing or positive thinking. It’s work to take your head out of your ass once it gets used to being there. It’s forming new habits to replace the old.
That means practice, one day at a time. One moment at a time.
That Ferris Bueller quote now seems far more deep now doesn’t it?