Rainbow Ethics

December 1, 2006
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Anne Underwood

The gritty bathtub flowed over — wasted hot water poured onto fake tiles and polyester carpet. Sixteen hours of delayed flights, a van driver slurping Gatorade with one knee on the wheel while screaming into a cell phone, and now a hideous budget hotel. The tub flood enchanted me. A chaos I could control! Sloshing over, I pulled the plug, yanked the faucets, and skidded into the mirror. It shattered. I bled a little and picked up the phone. No illusions of control remained.

What do we, who are relatively privileged personally and powerful professionally, do when we feel helpless? When we are confronted by situations that force us to recognize we cannot control everything or everyone? What happens when our ascribed power, our achieved status, seem irrelevant or, worse, ineffective, in the circumstances?

I write and lecture about characteristics of “trustworthy” professionals: people who understand power differentials, respect boundaries, and do not misuse the imbalance of “role power” between rabbi and congregant, doctor and patient, teacher and student. Part of this work involves my sitting with adjudicatory panels of professional associations assessing complaints against members.

Most complaints arise from actual or perceived misuse of power. A fiduciary boundary — financial, physical, sexual, emotional — has been crossed. The usual motivational culprits are variations on the themes of greed, lust, arrogance, and entitlement. Occasionally, a different insidious impetus arises: a sense of helplessness to make an appropriate response in a chaotic situation. Good boundaries disintegrate into destructive defenses; the ability to exercise power responsibly collapses.

We are people of free will, called to make ethical choices. The extent to which we approach chaos-experiencing agency, rather than claiming victimhood, helps shape our response. The parent of an enraged two-year-old flailing on the supermarket floor and the medical supervisor of a ranting intern each bear responsibility for navigating an outcome respectful and non-abusive of the storming other. What if that feels as impossible as willing a delayed plane to arrive?

Rev. Wayne Van Kampen offers a modern midrash describing the flood as the Eternal’s great temper tantrum. Frustrated and feeling helpless to alter humanity’s abominable behavior, God created chaos. One family survived as God’s hope that creation could endure the Divine destructive rage. Anger spent and earth in disarray, God looked down and regretted. The rainbow sealing the covenant with Noah was set not as a reminder to humanity, but as a reminder to God to “self-regulate” future disappointment and rage.

Richard Farson, in Management of the Absurd, warns, “Responsibility plus helplessness leads to abuse.” How to use power non-abusively when experiencing helplessness? Perhaps by remembering times we were “out of control” or relationally in a less powerful position; perhaps by remembering that when a person with role power behaves abusively, the actions are measured not by “intent” but by “impact” on the person with lesser power. Perhaps by occasionally reviewing and renewing our own covenants to live and work ethically — resetting our own symbolic rainbows.

Hillel advised, “What you would hate, don’t do to someone else: that is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary, go and learn it.” (B. Talmud, Shabbat 31a) “Go and learn” de- mands the humility to recognize, acknowledge, and articulate one’s personal and professional limitations. It challenges “trustworthy” professionals to discover the nexus of trustworthiness and trustfulness as they become patients/ clients of another. It requires the courage to pick up the phone and say, “I need help” from hotel maintenance, a therapist, a friend, a colleague — sometimes all four.-

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Anne Underwood, an attorney, works with faith communities and denominational judicatories on issues of professional ethics. She writes a monthly column, EthicsWalk, for PlainViews, an enewsletter for chaplains and other spiritual care providers.

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