Monday, March 16, 2015

Taking Reproof and Repenting like an Astronaut

 I’ve been reading an Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield, and in it he shares a lot about how NASA deals with mistakes made and turns them into learning experiences.  I want to quote a section that I think can teach some neat spiritual lessons:

“In any field, it’s a plus if you view criticism as potentially helpful advice rather than as a personal attack.  But for an astronaut, depersonalizing criticism is a basic survival skill.  If you bristled every time you heard something negative—or stubbornly tuned out the feedback—you’d be toast.

At NASA, everyone’s a critic.  Over the years, hundreds of people weigh in on our performance on a regular basis. Our biggest blunders are put under the microscope so even more people can be made aware of them: “Check out what Hadfield did—let’s be sure no one ever does that again.”

Often, we’re scrutinized and evaluated in real time. Quite a few simulations involve a crowd: all the people in Mission Control who would in real life work that particular problem, plus the trainers who dreamed up the scenario in the first place and the experts who best understand the intricate components of whatever system is being tested. When we’re simulating deorbit to landing, for instance, dozens of people observe, hoping that something new—a flaw in a standard procedure, say, or a better way of doing something—will be revealed. They actually want us to stumble into a gray zone no one had recognized could be problematic in order to see whether we can figure out what to do. If not, well, it’s much better to discover that gray zone while we’re still on Earth, where we have the luxury of being able to simulate a bunch more times until we do figure it out.  The main point is to learn—and then to review the experience afterward from every possible angle.

The debrief is a cultural staple at NASA, which makes this place a nightmare for people who aren’t fond of meetings. During a sim, the flight director or lead astronaut makes notes on major events, and afterward, kicks off the debrief by reviewing the highlights: what went well, what new things were learned, what was already known but needs to be re-emphasized. Then it’s a free-for-all. Everyone else dives right in, system by system, to dissect what went wrong or was handled poorly. All the people who are involved in the sim have a chance to comment on how things looked from their consoles, so if you blundered in some way, dozens of people may flag it and enumerate all the negative effects of your actions. It’s not a public flogging: the goal is to build up collective wisdom. So the response to an error is never, “No big deal, don’t beat yourself up about it.” It’s “Let’s pull on that”—the idea being that a mistake is like a loose thread you should tug on, hard, to see if the whole fabric unravels.

Occasionally the criticism is personal, though, and even when it’s constructive, it can sting.  Prior to my last mission, my American crewmate Tom Marshburn and I were in the pool for a six-hour EVA evaluation, practicing spacewalking in front of a group of senior trainers and senior astronauts. Tom and I have both done EVAs in space and I thought we did really well in the pool. But in the debrief, after I’d explained my rationale for tethering my body in a particular way so I’d be stable enough to perform a repair, one of our instructors announced to the room, “When Chris talks, he has a very clear and authoritative manner—but don’t let yourself be lulled into a feeling of complete confidence that he’s right. Yes, he used to be a spacewalking instructor and evaluator and he’s Mr. EVA, but he hasn’t done a walk since 2001. There have been a lot of changes since then.  I don’t want the junior trainers to ignore that little voice inside and not question something just because it’s being said with authority by someone who’s been here a long time.”

At first that struck me as a little insulting, because the message boiled down to this: “Mr. EVA” sounds like he knows what he’s doing, but really, he may not have a clue. Then I stopped to ask myself, “Why is the instructor saying that?” Pretty quickly I had to concede that the point was valid. I don’t come off as wishy-washy and I’m used to teaching others how to do things, so I can sound very sure of myself. That doesn’t mean I think I know everything there is to know; I’d always assumed that people understood that perfectly well and felt free to jump in and question my judgment. But maybe my demeanor was making that difficult. I decided to test that proposition: instead of waiting for feedback, I’d invite it and see what happened. After a sim, I began asking my trainers and crewmates, “How did I fall short, technically, and what changes could I make next time?” Not surprisingly, the answer was rarely, “Don’t change a thing, Chris—everything you do is perfect!” So the debrief did what it was supposed to: it alerted me to a subtle but important issue I was able to address in a way that ultimately improved our crew’s chances of success.

At NASA, we’re not just expected to respond positively to criticism, but to go one step further and draw attention to our own missteps and miscalculations. It’s not easy for hyper-competitive people to talk openly about screw-ups that make them look foolish or incompetent. Management has to create a climate where owning up to mistakes is permissible and colleagues have to agree, collectively, to cut each other some slack.

I got used to public confessionals as a fighter pilot. Every Monday morning we got together for a flight safety briefing and talked about all the things that could have killed us the previous week. Sometimes pilots confessed to really basic errors and oversights and the rest of us were expected to suspend judgment. (Deliberate acts of idiocy—flying under a bridge, say, or showing off by going supersonic over your friend’s house and busting every window in the neighborhood—were a different story. Fighter pilots could be and were fired for them.) It was easier not to pass judgment once I grasped that another pilot’s willingness to admit he’d made a boneheaded move, and then talk about what had happened next, could save my life. Literally.

At NASA, where the organizational culture focuses so explicitly on education, not just achievement, it’s even easier to frame individual mistakes as teachable moments rather than career-ending blunders. I remember one astronaut, also a former test pilot, standing up at a meeting and walking us all through an incident where his T-38 (the plane we all train on to keep up our flying skills) slid off the end of a runway in Louisiana. For a pilot this is hugely embarrassing, a rookie error. There wasn’t much damage to the plane, so the guy could’ve either kept his mouth shut, or the moral of the story could have been, “All’s well that ends well.” But as he told it, the moral was: be careful because the asphalt at this runway is slicker than most—it contains ground-up seashells, which, it turns out, are seriously slippery when it’s raining. That was incredibly useful information for all of us to have. While no one thought more of that astronaut for sliding off the runway, we certainly didn’t think less of him for being willing to save us from doing the same thing ourselves.” (pp77-80)

Thinking about this spiritually, I think we can learn a lot about sincere repentance.

How often, when we’re repenting, do we take time to have a debriefing meeting with ourselves as we discover we have sinned or made an error?   Do we concentrate on what we can learn and refrain from labeling ourselves or beating ourselves up? How often do we try to dissect exactly what went wrong, from the thoughts in our mind, to our energy levels, to the pressures that were on us, to the principles that we forgot or were decided to ignore?   How often do we notice where we fell into a gray area where our standard operating procedures of sin resistance training hasn’t been built up?  How often do we amend our inner manuals to ensure it never happens again?   

Faith in Christ is necessary to repentance, but so is self-analysis to figure out what to do better next time.  If our standard ops don’t change, have we really changed?  Not really.

Another thing I notice is that in Hadfield’s experiences, when people gave criticism, it focused on what he did, not who he was.  Even calling attention to his authoritative manner wasn’t designed to attack him, but point out something he was doing.  You have to give him credit that he stopped to think about why it was given and he examined himself enough to realize that there was something to what had been said.
Lessons: Constructive criticism has to be very specific and focused on what people are doing, not who they are.
To receive reproof well, you have to think carefully about whether there might be a reason for it, then find ways to adjust.

Here are some great things that Guide to the Scriptures says about chastening (or reproof):

Correction or discipline given to individuals or groups in order to help them improve or become stronger.
·       Despise not the chastening hand of the Almighty:Job 5:17; ( Prov. 3:11; )
·       Blessed is the man whom thou chastens, O Lord:Ps. 94:12;
·       All scripture is given for reproof, for correction:2 Tim. 3:16;
·       The Lord chastens those whom he loves:Heb. 12:5–11;
·       The Lord sees fit to chasten his people:Mosiah 23:21–22;
·       Except the Lord chasten his people, they will not remember him:Hel. 12:3;….
·       They were chastened that they might repent:D&C 1:27;
·       Whom I love I also chasten that their sins may be forgiven:D&C 95:1;
·       All those who will not endure chastening cannot be sanctified:D&C 101:2–5;
·       My people must needs be chastened until they learn obedience:D&C 105:6;
·       He that will not bear chastisement is not worthy of my kingdom:D&C 136:31;

I’m okay at receiving constructive feedback in some things, but in other things I am not so great.  I suppose I will have to some careful self-analysis about that in preparation for improvement.

I like what the D&C says, not just about chastisement, but about how we should respond.

31 My people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion; and he that will not bear chastisement is not worthy of my kingdom.
32 Let him that is ignorant learn wisdom by humbling himself and calling upon the Lord his God, that his eyes may be opened that he may see, and his ears opened that he may hear;
33 For my Spirit is sent forth into the world to enlighten the humble and contrite, and to the condemnation of the ungodly. (D&C 136: 31-33)

Sometimes reproof and chastisement comes because we are ignorant. We don’t know what we don’t know and we don’t know how to make it better.  I like that the above scripture says that if we humble ourselves and pray for the Lord to help us see, the Lord will enlighten us.  The Lord is both gentle and powerful when He enlightens.  The times He has enlightened my ignorance about what I’ve done, it has not caused me pain, but it has deeply impressed me as to the importance of changing and doing things differently such that I become very motivated.

..with the chastisement I prepare a way for their deliverance in all things out of temptation, and I have loved you— (D&C 95:1)

I love how this scripture is so similar to 1 Nephi 3:7.  Just like the Lord prepares a way for us to keep the commandments He gives, He also prepares a way for us to be delivered from temptation when we are chastised.  

Another spiritual principle we can see in from Hadfield’s experience is that our painful experience can be very helpful in preventing others from getting into difficulty and can help others get out of it.  I’ve heard of how sharing in a safe environment is an important part of addiction recovery meetings.  I know I have been helped by all those who have shared their struggles with me and how they’ve overcome them.  If we look carefully in the gospels, we can find instances where Jesus shares principle of resisting temptation.   

This leads me to a question that I’ll pass on to you:  What do you think is the difference between sharing experience with sin and escaping it in order to help others  versus dwelling it and wallowing in it, as we’ve been instructed not to do?

Bonus insight: What might the NASA debriefing meetings tell us about the kind of accountability interview we might have on Judgment Day?  If the lives of astronauts are so valuable that so much effort is made to keep them safe, and if their technical decisions on spaceflights are so important that they are hashed over so carefully, then what does that say about what awaits us on the other side considering God has told us near the beginning of this dispensation that the worth of souls (our own and others) is great in the sight of God?   Also consider Jesus’s words here: “But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.” (Matthew 12:36).

I can't end without noting how awesome it is that the Lord helps us with all stages of repentance. He brings about chastisement and reproof so we can realize we've sinned.  He has given us our conscience so we can have an inner connection to Him, no matter what spiritual stage we're at.  He invites us to repent.  He gives us this time of probation in mortality in which to repent before the full consequences of judgment come. He promises and gives enlightenment if we're not sure what to do instead or how exactly we're off.  He takes our sins when we have faith in Him. He helps deliver us from temptation.  He gives us grace to overcome.    

How wonderful that we can repent!