No try

No! Try not! Do. Or do not. There is no ‘try’. Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

So often the very quality we have most to bring to the world is also, in our desperate reaching for it, the cause of our suffering and difficulty.

The woman who, trying to feel loved, over-extends herself in helping and self sacrificing, pushing herself into others’ lives without understanding that her efforts obscure that her very presence in the world is a form of love itself.

The young man who, in his urgency to demonstrate his integrity, judges and criticises those around him, wounding and driving people away – not seeing yet that his inherent integrity, in its truer form, is always present, spacious, welcoming and wise.

The man in his 40s who, in his insistence that he not be boxed in – that he remain always free – breaks focus and relationships and so creates a cage for himself, denying the very freedom to engage meaningfully that is his in every moment.

And me, so wishing to bring about peace, stillness and harmony that for many years I stifled others, turned away from disagreement, and did not know my own capacity to be still in the midst of storms of conflict and difference and anger.

So often the key to our own flourishing – and to bringing our gifts – is finding out that the very quality we are efforting hardest to bring about is the one that is right here, if we could be brave enough to embrace it and to relax our endless trying.

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Where it comes from

It’s easy to relate to the objects which fill our world as if they were just there – a taken for granted, already existing feature of human life.

But the materials in everything you own or use – everything – had to either be grown by somebody or dug out of the ground first. Even the most synthetic and complex of products start out this way. Growing and mining, the source of it all.

That’s quite a thought to consider. Take any object around you, from the smallest bolt to the tallest building, and imagine back through the long and complex chain of people and interlocking processes to the raw materials that came from the earth itself.

Remembering the source of everything, and the commitment and ingenuity that makes it all possible, can be a way of cultivating deep gratitude and wonder that any of it is available to you in the first place.

These must be more possibility-filled moods than the resentment or frustration we can so readily feel at all the products that don’t work as expected, at the chaos of the world, at the sheer everyday humdrum repetitive ordinariness of things. And gratitude, for this aspect of life’s many wonders, can go a long way to awakening the sense of possibility, responsibility and focussed commitment we need in order to do our best work and inspire others.

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No email in my pocket

Our tools shape us. I’ve argued this here before, most notably earlier this week.

And so, inspired by a blog post from Danielle Marchant, I have disabled email and facebook on my phone. It has been a revelation.

No longer do I carry in my pocket a device that calls to me in the way that it did. A smart-phone, I have found, beckons to me even when it is doing nothing. It lays out a pathway, a scaffold, for checking and rechecking, for wondering if anyone has tried to contact or me or if anyone needs me, and for addressing my longing – and my wish to help – in a very superficial way. I find myself drawn towards it, but left hollow and wanting from my interaction, and then checking again in the hope that the emptiness will be filled. A feeling of emptiness, itself, I see, that is brought about by the very pattern by which I try to assuage it.

As I let go of the neediness that my phone both invites and promises to resolve, I see why we have been hooked so absolutely by our amazing and life-altering devices. I do not wish to abandon technology that can serve to connect us in ways we could never have imagined. But I do wish to give up on the world that gets brought about by my being always-on, always-available, distant from myself and so often distracted.

I am checking my email only when with my laptop – a purposeful act, chosen consciously and deliberately around my other commitments, rather than a habitual, reactive interruption to them.

So, please, if you know me personally and need me urgently, a call or a text are the way to go.

And as a result of all this I find myself more present, more fully engaged in the simple contactfulness of conversation with others, more alive to the places I’m in and to what’s going on around me. I am less split, less distracted. My horizons have shifted, subtly, meaningfully, by spending less time looking down at a sliver of screen in front of me and more time looking up and out at the world and at other people.

And, in the way that such subtle but important shifts of perspective can bring about, the world feels bigger too.

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Will, action, and driving on the left

It seems common sense to think of will-power – our capacity to do or not do the things that matter to us –  as coming only from within us. If I can’t start something or stop something, develop a new habit or take up a project, if I find myself procrastinating, then it must all be down to me, and me alone. And, if that’s the case then pushing harder, or harsh self-criticism, or both, seem to be the way to go in order to get myself started.

But self-punishing is hardly life giving, and barely supports our capacity to flourish and get up to what matters in a sustained way. And it’s based on a profound misunderstanding, deeply rooted in our culture, that we are essentially separate from the world. If I’m separate, if the world is essentially divided into me (my mind, my thinking) and everything out there which I have to move or push against, then when I find myself not moving or not pushing what other conclusion can I come to than (1) I’m not trying hard enough and (2) there’s something wrong with me?

But there is another way to look at this that takes into account how open to the world, how indivisible from the world, we are. When we see this we also start to see how much we are affected by who and what is around us. We discover that the world is an affordance for certain things – that different places and people draw out of us different kinds of action and inaction, and that this is often a better description of what’s happening than ‘I willed it’.

Chairs beckon me to sit, paths beckon me to walk, people who are open and receptive beckon me to speak, others beckon me to keep quiet. Place a stack of chocolate biscuits on my desk, and I am drawn to eat. Place a phone in my pocket, filled with incoming messages, tweets, emails, voicemail – and I am drawn to check.

Our whole physical and social world acts as a scaffold or a pathway for our action and inaction.

The startling corollary of this is that how we are in the world is not brought about by inner will alone. It is also, in large part, brought about by what and who we choose to surround ourselves with in our homes and work spaces. In this way the worlds we build for ourselves also make us.

And just as the road layout and road signs here in the UK are an affordance for driving on the left (they call for left-of-the-road driving), and those in mainland Europe or the US are an affordance for driving on the right, we can begin to lay out – with our choice of possessions, tools, spaces and relationships – paths that are an affordance for distraction and delay, or for doing what matters most to us.

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Planning for dinner

On the way home from work, you decide that you’d like to go out for dinner.

You mention it to your partner, who hasn’t thought about it until now but, on reflection, is willing to set aside the evening’s plans to join you.

You’re in the mood for something spicy – noodles perhaps – but your partner isn’t so keen. ‘Perhaps pizza?’. But that really isn’t what you feel like at all.

And so an hour later you find yourselves in a restaurant that neither of you really wished for. And the mood between you is cooler than the joyful celebration you’d hoped, after the rather unexpected twists and turns of your conversation.

A simple plan to go out to dinner… what could be difficult about that? And yet your plans, upon meeting those of another, turn out to be far from straightforward to bring about in the way you’d imagined.

It would be so easy – predictable – if you didn’t have other, self-directing, confusing, unpredictable human beings with their own wishes, intentions, and cares to deal with. And this is why planning for the future is so hard, and our plans in practice so unreliable.  It’s hard enough to be sure what will happen with one other involved, let alone a hundred, or a thousand, or the millions and billions whose lives impact on our own.

The longer the time period our plans address, and the more people they rely on, the less we can be sure of them. And so we would be wise to relate with lightness and openness to our plans, especially in the complex world of organisational life, and to see that often when we make detailed predictions over long periods of time we’re doing so because they settle us and others – because they make us feel better. And that, despite what we tell ourselves, having planned is hardly a guarantee that any of what we imagine will happen will actually come to pass.

[With thanks to Professor Ralph Stacy, whose work inspired this post]

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Roll out

So much difficulty, suffering, and effort would be alleviated if we understood in our organisations that culture is not something we can implementroll-outinstill, or command. It cannot be programmed nor demanded other than through force, coercion, intimidation and fear (a topic that totalitarian states know about only too well), methods which themselves can produce only rigid, stuttering, repressed cultures that serve only the few.

Culture is not a thing, an object, or an entity that has an existence separate from us. We cannot stand on the outside of it, analysing or directing it as if we were not involved. It is born of our participation. It arises from the conversations, promises, commitments, practices and intentions we have towards one another. And it is sustained and created anew in every moment by our acts of relating and responding to those around us – every one of which is either an act of sameing or an act of changing.

If we understood this – if we saw that cultures develop through many tiny living experiments in speaking, listening and interacting – we might relax our efforts to ‘manage’ change the way we do, or our demands that someone else sort out culture on our behalf. We would give up waiting, complaining, until there was more ‘communication’, or until ‘they’ saw the light. And perhaps we would find ourselves stepping in – seeing that although we could never know quite what the outcome would be, every act is an opportunity to tell a new story, to experiment, and to invite a new conception of who we are, who others are, and what there is to do.

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Diminishing returns

What are the habits you have that diminish you?

It’s not so difficult to find out what they are. You’ll probably do them automatically, without thinking. They’ll soothe you in some way. And they’ll leave you afterwards with the vaguely queasy feeling of having wasted your time – they’re distracting rather than nourishing, numbing rather than enlivening, they cover up what’s going on rather than have you face it,  and they have you turn away from genuine connection with yourself and with other people.

A few candidates for you to consider:

checking your email in between other activities
checking your email in the middle of other activities
browsing facebook just in case there’s something interesting
scanning and rescanning the news headlines
or the weather report
eating whatever comes to hand
breaking off repeatedly to grab snacks or drinks
clenching your jaw, or tensing your shoulders
booking back to back meetings (because they need me there)
tuning out
editing and re-editing your ‘to do’ list
flicking from website to website
flicking from tv channel to tv channel
checking your email again

Each time you’re turning away from life, because you don’t want to have to feel whatever life is bringing you – perhaps anxiety, or boredom, or fear, or your tiredness, or being seen by others, or maybe even joy – and in turning away you’re profoundly reducing your capacity to engage.

For the moment, you’re soothed. But when you look back at the hundreds, thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of times that you’ve checked out in this way, can you honestly say it adds up to anything you care about?

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Thinking hats, mood hats

I’ve been reintroduced to Edward de Bono’s six ‘Thinking Hats‘ this week. Described by de Bono as styles of thinking, using them makes it possible to (1) notice your own habitual thinking style, or that of a group in which you are a participant and (2) invite different styles, that in turn open new possibilities for thinking about a problem or situation in which you find yourself.

My friend and colleague Natalie, who brought the hats to my attention this week, taught me that de Bono’s framework is not just about thinking, but also about mood, and in doing so revealed hidden depths that I had not appreciated before.

Moods, you see, are entire orientations to the world. They include thinking, but go far beyond. Each mood opens up certain kinds of possibilities and closes down others. And each mood has us comport ourselves towards the world in distinct ways – we notice different features, we listen differently, we act with varying kinds of intensity and sensitivity, we are present in different ways, and we are more or less open to what we encounter. And kinds of actions we are disposed to take shift with mood.

Moods (which are in some ways harder to see and are more enduring than the more rapidly shifting phenomena we call emotions) bring about in a very profound way the kind of world in which we find ourselves, shaping how we think, act, speak, listen and relate. Which is why we ought to pay them serious attention in the world of work, and why de Bono’s hats can help.

You can read about the Six Hats model in its original form here. And here’s my interpretation – the six ‘mood’ hats:

Hat 1 – the white hat – evokes the mood of sincerity, in which we look with unflinching eyes at what is the case, not turning away or distorting what we see in order to make a point, win affection or esteem, or defend ourselves.

Hat 2 – the red hat – is the mood of tenderness, in which we pay attention to what we and others are experiencing emotionally, naming it as accurately as we can without pushing any emotion away or privileging one over the other, so each can be understood and encountered directly.

Hat 3 – the black hat – brings us into the mood of skepticism, in which everything is called into question, and all the worst outcomes of what we are intending are given expression.

Hat 4 – the yellow hat – is the mood of hope, in which the life-giving future possibilities at the heart of our plans are brought into the light.

Hat 5 – the green hat – invites the mood of playfulness, in which we allow ourselves to imagine creative responses to the situation in which we find ourselves, abandoning ourselves to the wildness of our ever-bubbling imagination.

Hat 6 – the blue hat – is the mood of trust, in which we commit to action, knowing that something will come from stepping in rather than waiting.

The power of the hats becomes clear when we start to notice that we habitually inhabit certain moods, closing off to us whole avenues of response and understanding and that by naming and inviting new moods, we really can do something about it.

Two applications that became clear in the work Natalie and I were doing together:

(1) Explore an issue, together with others, using each hat in turn. For five minutes or so, take up the body, pace and orientation to the world that the hat invites, and speak and listen from there.

(2) Start naming which hat you’re wearing when you speak, declaring when you change hat, and invite others to do the same. It’s revelatory to know, for example, that someone who you know as speaking most often from a mood of skepticism (black hat) is expressing tenderness (red) or hope (yellow). And equally revelatory to set aside your predominant mood, in the moment, and find out what the world looks like from the midst of another.

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Putting arms around it all

Parker Palmer writes that “The only way to become whole is to put our arms lovingly around everything we’ve shown ourselves to be”. 

Today, I’m seeing this in a new light, discovering with more depth that I am loving and infuriating, disciplined and irresponsible, caring and wounding to others, easy-going and obsessive, thoughtful and forgetful. I can be vibrant, hurtful, boring, confusing, maddening, inspiring, unbelievably annoying, wildly unreasonable, spiteful, deceitful, trusting, dedicated, principled, forgetful, fierce, loving, lazy, generous. I can act with deep intelligence and astonishing stupidity, even when I am most dedicated to taking care of others, and of life.

Some years ago the idea that I needed to be perfect and always good started to undo (I wrote about that here, a year ago). Now, what seems to be crumbling is a project, often hidden to myself, that has me imagine I can always make sure people are ok around me. And as this crumbles I can see more clearly that my very being alive means that I cannot control how others around me will experience me or the things I do. People will be brought to life, inspired, but also frequently hurt and disappointed around me – simply because I am, and often as a direct consequence of what is most deeply loving and most fully alive in me.

The more I see and welcome about myself – my light and my darkness, my brokenness and my imperfection – the more here and whole I seem to be. The less ashamed. The less afraid. The more able to take responsibility and care for others. The less in denial about who and what I am. And, I hope, the more able to be with others in their broken, imperfect, wild and beautiful wholeness too.

I’m seeing what I can do to live with my arms wrapped around all of it.

Chapter titles


“In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in the dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.”

— Dante, The Inferno

We often don’t know which chapter or season of life we’re living in while we’re living in it. And yet we give it a name, or a title – perhaps silently – all the same.

Every name disposes us to particular kinds of judgements, and particular kinds of action.

And so much of our difficulty, and our suffering, comes from mis-naming.

We imagine that this chapter is called ‘failure (meant to have made it by now)’ when it would be more accurate, more compassionate, and more possibility-filled to name it ‘still learning’.

We call this chapter ‘stuck’ when it would be more accurate to name it ‘seeds germinating, deep under ground’.

Or we name this chapter ‘lost my way’ when it would be more accurate to call it ‘first steps on a new path’.

Often we can only accurately name a chapter after it is done.

But perhaps we would give ourselves much greater capacity to live, and to flourish, if we took up the practice of reimagining, and renaming, as we go.

With thanks to Jamie, who gave me the idea for this in a recent conversation.


I’ve just had the longest unplanned interruption in publishing since I started this writing project over two years ago. My commitment to write and publish every day…. vanished. And there does not seem to be an obvious reason that I can make easy sense of. Nothing significant changed in my schedule and yet, when it came to writing, nothing.

I notice how quickly the parts of me that are into comparison and self-criticism can get going in such circumstances. First a vague unease, a sinking feeling, a confusion that gradually shifts into despair. At the heart of all of this a comparison: I should be able to do better than this, I’m letting myself and others down. And an assessment: it’s my fault, I’m clearly not dedicated enough.

I’m saying this here not because I think there’s anything unusual about me – this constant stream of inner comparison with its harshness and its capacity to produce shame seem to be to be shared widely amongst us humans.

But there is another part of me, more settled, wiser, with a much more expansive view of time, that says this is a season.

It reminds me that I am not a robot, nor a machine, but alive. It reminds me that like all living beings I have summers and winters, autumns and springs – fallow times and generative times, hopeful times and despairing times, sadness and joy, gratitude and frustration, sorrow and love. It reminds me that the seasons of my own life – of all of our lives – are not, largely, under our control.

And it reminds me that sometimes, often, the wisest move is to know that seasons come and go all by themselves, and to stop worrying, forcing, or trying to have it be any other way.

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Irritating or Irritated?

Your team weren’t nearly as excited as you wanted them to be about your proposal.

Your colleagues didn’t deliver the report you were relying on.

The company changed its plans and now some of the work you did isn’t needed.

There were 300 mails in your inbox this morning.

The shoes aren’t lined up neatly in the hall.

You’re leaving the house in a hurry and you can’t find your keys.

The train was three minutes late.

An accident ahead of you held you up on the way to work.

You got ill and had to stop everything for a while.

Isn’t the world supremely irritating at times? Sometimes it’s downright exasperating. And there are times – perhaps often – when you just know that everybody and everything is out to get you.

A huge move, that will free up so much, is to begin to distinguish between what’sobservable in the world, and what’s your assessment of it. What’s observable is what you could bank on others being able to see too, even those with very different personality or preferences to you. And your assessment is the interpretation that you bring to bear on it.

You can start to see just what a powerful role your assessments have by considering how other people would be in the same situation.

Stuck in the car, in traffic, you might rage at the frustration, the unfairness, the sheer wilfulness of others to get in your way. All of which does much to stir you up and little to address the situation. Or perhaps you’ll take the jam to be part of a much bigger picture that’s far beyond your control, and figure out how to use the time for something that’s genuinely of value.

When your team didn’t go for your proposal, you could blame them, judge them for their incompetence and laziness, and let them have the full force of your disapproval – all of which is likely to stir up judgement, blame and resentment in them too. Or you can get curious. Find out what your part is in it all (perhaps you didn’t make your original request skilfully) and what’s going on for them that had them take up something else they felt was important.

When the shoes aren’t lined up neatly in the hall, you can strop and strut and despair that nobody in your family seems to care about the home you live in, or start to look for the myriad other ways they’re already expressing their love and commitment to family life.

In every case, start to see that it’s not the world that is irritating, but that it’s you who is irritated. The arrangement of the world (observable). Your irritation (an assessment).

When you can own your assessments as yours, you can find out that there are assessments that bind you up tight and others that free you to act. And when you have your assessments rather than being had by them, you’ll find you’re way more flexible and powerful in moving the world than you’ve realised so far.

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Convergent and Divergent

Convergent problems are the kind for which diligent, patient and repeated efforts produce answers we can trust. Many problems in mathematics, for example are convergent, as are the vast majority of engineering problems. Such problems are convergent because a suitable methodology and sufficient effort allow us to converge on a single, practical, true answer to the question at hand.

Convergent problems lend themselves to solution by technique and process. And once we know what to do with a convergent problem, we can repeat the technique and expect to find a reliable answer, every time.

Divergent problems are those for which, with diligent, patient and repeated efforts, we could expect to find many different answers. For example, in sentencing someone who has committed a crime, is justice or mercy more appropriate? Or, in the midst of many competing financial pressures, should we centralise our operation, seizing control of all the details, or should we decentralise, allowing the people with the most local expertise the opportunity to bring their own insights to bear? Is discipline or love more important in learning to do something well? Should we dedicate ourselves to conserving tradition, or supporting change? And in organising a society, is freedom to do what we each want most important, or responsibility to the wellbeing of others?

Divergent problems are divergent precisely because it is possible to hold so many different perspectives. The more we inquire – if we are prepared to do so with sincerity and rigour – the more possible responses we discover. And such problems are inherently the problems of living systems in general, and human circumstances in particular – circumstances in which our consciousness, values, commitments, cares and many interpretations enter the fray.

Divergent problems do not lend themselves to easy answers, to platitudes, or technique. Instead, divergent problems require us to make a transcendent move, in which we step out of the easy polarities of right or wrong, and good or bad. Such a move, which is clearly a developmental move in the sense that I have described previously, calls to the fore our capacity to live in the middle of polarities and complexity, uncertainty and fluidity. In the case of justice and mercy, this move might well be called wisdom. 

We run into enormous difficulty whenever we treat divergent problems as if they were convergent – as if there were some reliable process, however complex and sophisticated, by which to arrive at a correct answer. When we do this, we treat human situations as if they were mathematical or machine-like. And we strip ourselves of the possibility of cultivating discernment and genuine wisdom, reducing ourselves to rule-followers and automatons.

It can never be justice alone – for strict justice is harsh, and unforgiving, and has no concern for the particulars of a human life. And it can never be mercy alone – for mercy’s kindness without justice can be cruel and damaging to many in its wish to take care of the few. And it is never sufficient to say ‘well, it must be mercy and justice’ as if there were some simple, easy to understand combination or position between the two.

And all of this is why paying attention to development matters so much, because cultivating the capacity to respond with wisdom to the many divergent problems of our times must, surely, be an ethical responsibility for all of us.

On being a disclosive space

Have you noticed that there are people around whom things get said that matter?

It’s as if their way of being in the world is a huge invitation to speak, to say what’s true. People like this offer us safe ground on which to stand, and space into which to articulate what’s important, without fear of judgement or rejection.

They make it possible for us to say what we didn’t know even needed saying, and in the process to discover much about who we are and what we’re up to.

You could say that people like this are a disclosive space for others.

It is possible to cultivate this way of being over time, if you wish. It takes attending to the discipline of listening, of course. And beyond that it takes working on:

presence – the capacity to be here, in this moment, and nowhere else, even in the midst of strong emotions

compassion – the commitment to understand and respond to others’ worlds, even if radically different from your own

attunement – the ability to discern what other people are feeling, and how they’re orienting to the world, which may be very different to what they’re saying

Of course, there are also people who, simply by their way of being with others, close down the possibility of speaking. Their defendedness, their judgement, or their distraction speaks volumes to us about what’s possible in their presence. Around such people the truth of what’s happening gets covered over, hidden away.

So being a disclosive space for others is foundational for leadership. It makes it possible for people to make their most important, most creative and truest contribution. And it’s foundational for being in relationship, for parenting, for teaching, for coaching.

Are you even working on this yet?

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Life as the bottom line

What could become possible, I wonder, if we treated life and aliveness with as much seriousness as the bottom line, key performance indicators, and productivity measures? And what kind of world do we create when life is treated as a mere secondary consideration, or not at all?

Two wonderful and provocative pieces of writing on this topic to share with you, both by George Monbiot.

The first, Amputating Life Close to Its Base, on the way corporate cultures can narrow our creativity – our very aliveness – in the pursuit of predictability.

The second, Work-Force, on “a life-denying, love-denying mindset” in our culture, “informed not by joy or contentment, but by an ambition that is both desperate and pointless, for it cannot compensate for what it displaces: childhood, family life, the joys of summer, meaningful and productive work, a sense of arrival”

Monbiot’s writing is powerful in its ability to point out what’s just out of view, shaping our understanding of ourselves and what’s possible for us. And important, because many organisations exist in a self-sealing world in which serious engagement with these topics is not possible because it’s considered ‘touchy feely’ or ‘anti-business’.

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Naming the game

‘What game are we playing?’ can be a powerful and fruitful question, especially in organisational life. Because what we think we’re doing, and what the game is, are often not the same.

Meetings, for example.

Is being in meetings, back to back, day in and day out, actually productive? Does it help you to make better decisions? Does it help you do the work, the work that matters, what really needs to be done (to make a difference, to be of service, to create something new)?

Or are meetings, mostly, a game we play to give us a sense of participation, of being important, of being inclusive, of being busy, and of feeling safe?

Or planning. Do the predictions in your forecasts often come to pass? Or are they a game in which you and others get to soothe your anxiety and feel like you’re taking action, rather than facing how unpredictable the world can be?

One of my games, I’m starting to see more clearly, is asking for help then secretly doing it myself. It’s a game in which I get to feel righteous, inclusive and democratic, and simultaneously hold on to control.

And, like many games, it is one which I play at quite some cost to myself and others, and which rarely produces the results I really long for.

Naming the game is risky, difficult, and takes some courage. Mostly we do not like to have the mythology of our personal and collective games punctured.

But sometimes it’s what’s called for in order to free us to do what we really came to do.

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