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Under the Microscope: What Is a Crisis?

In a crisis, knowledge and understanding are power and comfort.

Source: Arcady/Shutterstock

This new series of blog posts is based on my book, How to Survive and Thrive When Bad Things Happen: Nine Steps to Cultivating an Opportunity Mindset in a Crisis . We all have and will continue to experience crises in our lives; that’s just part of the human condition. It’s not a question of whether we will face crises, but rather how we will respond to them. And, given that we are in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, one of the most unsettling crises of our lives, my Crisis to Opportunity blog series is devoted to exploring ways in which we can confront, respond to, and hopefully overcome the crises that arise in our lives including this one.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom” —Victor Frankl, noted psychiatrist

In his inaugural speech of 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed the nation as it was being consumed by what came to be known as the Great Depression. One of his most memorable statements from that now-famous speech is, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” FDR wanted to instill a sense of confidence, calm, and hope into citizens who were truly terrified of what had happened and what lay ahead for the U.S. economy and their lives. What you may not know though is the full context of that declaration: “ First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

FDR certainly had it right about that crisis. He realized that economic conditions and how we respond to them are influenced powerfully by the psychology of the times. FDR also knew that the panicked mentality that was overtaking our country at that time would prevent it from taking the actions it needed to recover quickly.

What Is a Crisis?

Before I go further into our exploration of crises, I want to step back and ask a simple, yet important, question: What is a crisis? The answer to this question may seem obvious as we all know what a crisis is intuitively: A crisis is something bad that happens suddenly. At the same time, I believe in the power of words and how important it is that we all not only fully understand the depth and implications of a word, but also, given the many meanings that any word can have, that we are assured of having a shared meaning.

Here are definitions of crisis that can be found in several dictionaries:

  • A time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger
  • A time when a difficult or important decision must be made
  • A crucial or decisive point or situation; a turning point
  • An unstable condition, as in political, social, or economic affairs, involving an impending abrupt or decisive change
  • An emotionally stressful event or traumatic change in a person's life.

All of these definitions add texture to our understanding of what a crisis is, but, in my view, none fully captures what a crisis really means. In an attempt to capture the full depth and breadth of what a crisis is and its impact on us, let me offer this definition: “An event or situation that arises suddenly or reaches a tipping point in its severity that has the effect of significantly disrupting lives and threatening the status quo, and that may also have long-term, harmful consequences on individuals or groups.”

Qualities of a Crisis

Each of these definitions varies in certain ways, yet they all have common themes. First, crises are unexpected. They occur unexpectedly or reach a new threshold suddenly. As such, they produce shock and, as I will discuss throughout Crisis to Opportunity, trigger an immediate, powerful, and primitive reaction in us that, in terms of most modern crises, don’t serve us well.

Second, crises, by their very nature, create instability in which what was once solid is no longer; for example, think of the crisis caused by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Certainly, the physical and economic damage was staggering, but also consider the psychological damage. Is there anything more that we trust than the ground under our feet? All of a sudden, that “rock-solid” stability was lost for the Haitians.

Third, what was once familiar, predictable, and controllable ceases to be so. In its place is a sense of uncertainty, that what once was can no longer be counted on. Where the past and present can’t be relied upon to predict the future.

Fourth, the instability and uncertainty that emerges from a crisis are experienced as trauma in many forms, including physical, psychological, social, political, emotional, and economic. This profound distress takes a toll on us that exacts substantial suffering in the short term. Just as important, crises produce a delayed and extended reaction that often isn’t realized for years.

Fifth, as I will discuss shortly, the nature of a crisis triggers in us a sense of urgency, a perceived need to act immediately and with force. The impetus behind this exigency is to control in the hopes of minimizing the damage that is wrought by the crisis and re-establish a sense of normalcy in our lives after a period of disruption and destabilization. It is these four attributes that make a crisis so challenging to experience and so difficult to overcome.

The Nuances of a Crisis

Though crises often act as blunt instruments in our lives, they in fact carry with them nuance and subtlety that are worth exploring as we gain a deeper understanding of how it impacts us and how we can respond to them.

If we explore the linguistic roots of the word crisis, what emerges is a different, and more nuanced, understanding of what a crisis is that has meaningful implications in how we perceive, feel about, experience, and respond to a crisis. For example, the origins of crisis in Hebrew means something that is broken but refers as well to a solution, suggesting a crisis is something that is damaged and needs to be repaired or replaced. Interestingly, crisis in Hebrew also denotes a birth, indicating something positive emerging from an episode of pain.

The Greek derivation of crisis, klinein , has neither positive nor negative connotations associated with it. Rather, a crisis simply involves the need to form a judgment or make a decision. This meaning removes the threatening undercurrent of a crisis and with it, presumably, the often-times negative reactions that crises provoke and which can add fuel to the fire of the five qualities that are commonly associated with a crisis.

Interestingly, as John F. Kennedy noted “When written in Chinese, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters—one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.”

Taken together, the modern-day use of the term crisis, at best, doesn’t do justice to its rich, and potentially beneficial, aspects. At worst, our contemporary use of the word crisis is so laden with baggage that its very reference creates a perception about an emotional reaction to the situation that we deem a crisis that we begin our response to it from a decidedly negative, defensive, and counterproductive posture.

“When is a crisis reached? When questions arise that can’t be answered.”— Ryszard Kapuscinski, journalist

Examples of a Crisis

Crises can be experienced in every area of life and from the personal to the societal to the natural. They vary in their specifics but share the common qualities that I just discussed. Crises can be placed into a number of general categories:

  • Personal (e.g., gender, emotions, substance abuse)
  • Health (e.g., illness, injury, aging, dying)
  • Safety (e.g., harassment, violence, property crime)
  • Relationship (e.g., divorce, family estrangement, death)
  • Transition (e.g., child to adult, single to married, new parent, empty nest)
  • Career (e.g., job loss, dissatisfaction, return to work)
  • Financial (e.g., stock market crash, bad investment)
  • Technological (e.g., hacking, identity theft, cyberbullying)
  • Corporate (e.g., deception, fraud, negligence)
  • Governmental (e.g., politics, corruption, scandals)
  • Societal (e.g., poverty, education, health care)
  • Environmental (e.g., pollution, unsafe drinking water, food shortage)
  • Natural disaster (e.g., hurricane, flood, earthquake)

A Crisis Is a Crisis

Crisis to Opportunity is an exploration of all crises, large and small, physical and psychological, short-lived and ongoing, personal and professional, and individual, family, corporate, community, governmental, and societal. The reality is that we face crises of all sorts every day in the form of unexpected challenges, obstacles, setbacks, and failures. Moreover, crises are a test of our psychological, emotional, and leadership mettle. In a way, crises tell us a lot about who we are because the best and the worst of us reveal themselves most prominently during the stresses of a crisis. Given that crises are a normal, though certainly unpleasant, part of our lives, if we can become masters of crises then we become masters of ourselves and, in fact, life itself.

“Life isn’t meant to be easy…Life is one crisis after another.” —Richard M. Nixon, former U.S. president