The right time to hope

There are a million ways to be. But we hold on tightly to the way of being that is most familiar to us – the one each of us thinks is who we are.

And so when we’re in trouble – or stressed, or feeling held back by the world or by ourselves, when we’re longing, wishing, wanting, despairing – we tend to do more of what we already know to do. What we always do.

Even when it hurts us.

Even when by doing this, we keep the world the same as it has been for so long.

We choose familiarity over our own growth, because familiarity seems to save us from risk. At least we know the world when it’s this size, this shape.

At least we won’t be surprised.

And, because of this, just when our habit is to rush to do something, it’s often just the right time to wait. When we’re certain we have to be certain, the right time to be curious. When we’re most familiar with holding back, it can be the time to act. When we’re sure we have to be strong, the right time to be vulnerable. When we’re most ready to judge can be time to suspend judgement. When we’re most harsh on ourselves it’s the time, instead, to be exquisitely kind.

And, when we’re most despairing, it’s often just the right time to hope.

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Cell walls

Human beings are not infinitely extensible.

We cannot keep on taking on more, saying yes to more, stretching our efforts into the late hours, getting up early, piling it on, squeezing it in, pushing ourselves harder and harder, without soon hitting limits.

First, perhaps, we reach the outer limits of what our relationships can take. But we say to ourselves that it’s not too bad, that it’s just the way life is, and we push on.

Later we encounter the limits that our bodies and minds can take, and we return home first ragged and exhausted, then increasingly unwell. We’re adaptable though. It doesn’t take us long to get used to be stretched as thin as we can go. And before long we carry with us lasting damage from the stress hormones coursing through our bodies.

And even though this kind of yes-to-everything is endemic in our culture and in many organisations, it’s largely there because we have not yet learned how powerful ‘no’ can be.

‘No’ is a boundary-making move. It’s a declaration that separates this-from-that. It’s through ‘no’ that we distinguish the important from the unimportant, what matters from what does not, and what we care about from what’s trivial.

We can learn much about this from living systems. In cells, for example, it’s the boundary-making properties of the membrane, that which distinguishes inner from outer, that makes the self-producing and life-generating processes of the cell possible.

A cell without a cell wall is just a splurge of protoplasm and organelles.

And just as there is no outside without inside, there is no proper, genuine, sincere ‘yes’ upon which we can act without the necessary, powerful boundary-making of ‘no’.

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That I would be good

Sometimes we need a simple reminder that behind all our judgements, our self-distrust, our striving to be different from who we are, our perfectionism, our living our lives as a giant and unending self-improvement project, is a basic goodness that we all share. A basic goodness that we quickly forget.

This is a topic Alanis Morissette clearly knows about from the inside. Perhaps, today, this song might be just what you were longing to remember.

Anxiety and fear aren’t the same

Anxiety and fear aren’t the same.

It’s important to see this, because they lead to different places. Anxiety – felt, allowed and responded to – can be an invitation into a new way of relating to the world. But fear so often leads us into actions that cut us off from ourselves, and from others, and from what’s called for.

It’s David Steindl-Rast who makes this distinction in his wonderful interview with Krista Tippett at On Being.

Anxiety, he says, is the feeling of being pressed-in by the world. It comes from the linguistic root anguere meaning ‘choke’ or ‘squeeze’. The first experience of it in our lives, the primal experience of anxiety, is that of being born. We all enter the world through a very uncomfortable occurence in which we are squeezed and pushed and all there is to do is go along with it. In a very real sense going with the experience is what makes it possible to be born into life in the first place.

And though we’re born through an experience of anxiety, Steindl-Rast tells us, at that moment we do it fearlessly. Because fear is exactly what comes when we resist feeling anxiety, when we try to deny it or push it away. Anxiety can bring us into birth, while fear – our denial, our resistance to what we’re experiencing – is a different move altogether: life-destroying, a totally different direction for our minds and bodies to take.

“And that is why”, he says, “anxiety is not optional in life. It’s part of life. We come into life through anxiety. And we look at it, and remember it, and say to ourselves, we made it. We got through it. We made it. In fact, the worst anxieties and the worst tight spots in our life, often, years later, when you look back at them, reveal themselves as the beginning of something completely new, a completely new life.”

And what, he says, makes the biggest difference between anxiety and fear is learning to trust – trusting life, trusting the capacity of our own hearts, trusting others.

We live in times that give many of us good cause for anxiety. But instead of collapsing and narrowing ourselves with fear we can choose to feel, and choose to practice trust. One step, and another step. And perhaps this way we can allow to be born in us a capacity to respond to our difficulties without turning away, and a greater ability to live without choking off our own lives or the lives of others.

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Undoing the spiral

We discover early in life what the people around us expect from us. And we find ways of doing just that. Even if we’ve completely misunderstood what was being asked.

Meeting these expectations becomes, before long, central to our identity. We know ourselves as this or that kind of person, and then actively work to keep the identity we’ve established going. It feels familiar and comfortable to keep having people around us respond to us in the way to which we’ve become accustomed.

I learned early on to be the peacekeeper: the pursuer of harmony, making sure I and everyone around me remained undisturbed and untroubled; listening, supporting, staying quiet, defusing conflict, avoiding anger (my own and other people’s).

All these ways of being seemed, unquestionably, to be me.

And of course they affected and shaped what was possible in any kind of relationship with me. Peacekeeping can be a great gift to the world, but also stifling and frustrating for others when anything genuine and troubling and sharp needs to be said.

Other people around me took on other kinds of identity – the helper, making sure everyone is cared for and nobody is left out; the achiever, getting ahead and making things happen, knowing themselves through the outward signs of success; the challenger, being sure to be in control, using assertiveness and power to have things happen.

We have powerful inner forces that keep us inside the bounds we’ve established – among them the inner critic, and shame. For years, if I would be ashamed – mortified – if I said anything that I thought might hurt or upset another. And I’d be eaten up by my inner critic if anyone dared express anger towards me.

This is such an important topic because most of the time we can’t tell that this is what we’re doing – manipulating the world so it’s just so – not too hot, not too cold, but just as we expect it to be.

And this is why we all need people around us who can see through our strategies and habits, who can see who we are beyond the tight spiral these identities produce in us – a spiral which keeps the horizons of the world smaller than we imagine, and smaller than we need.

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Art that helps

On a trip to Madrid to visit my friend Robert Poynton, he hands me this.

“It’s a robot*,” he says, “You carry it with you. It offers you outrageous compliments.”

(*one of over 27,000 made by Gary Hirsch)

What a gift for each of us to hold – a crazy joyful robot that offers us outrageous compliments. It’s such a contrast to the outrageous criticism that so many of us bring everywhere within us – the part that demands that we be perfect, go faster, get loved, get appreciated, be better. The part that’s sure we’re not, ever, enough.

As Robert writes, the gift of the robot is that it ‘knows that you are not the imposter,
that the real imposters are the shadows you chase’.

Perhaps my little robot can remind me of my own goodness more often, and help to question what the critic stands for, whether it helps, and if it’s now time to do without the suffering and holding back that is its ‘gift’ to each of us.

And perhaps you might just make one you can carry yourself.

Three myths to give up on if we want to grow up

At the times when the world has shrunk to its smallest horizons, when I have been most despairing, desperate, or alone, or when I have found myself working and pushing much too hard, it usually turns out that I have been living in thrall to one or more protective myths about life that I have carried from childhood.

Myth 1 – I’m not like other people

In this account I’m not really a person, while other people are. Others’ lives are complete in ways that mine is not. Other people know where they’re going, while I am lost. Other people made the right choices, while I stumbled. Other people aren’t as confused as I am. Other people don’t suffer as I do.

Underpinning this myth is a great deal of negative self-judgement, which fuels a sense of deflation, self-diminishment or self-pity. But it can equally be worn as a mask of grandiosity, in which I puff myself up with certainty and arrogance. Sometimes I bounce between the two poles, from deflation to grandiosity and back again.

Myth 2 – Death has nothing to do with me

Somehow I’m separate enough from the real world that death is not an issue for me in the way it is for others. It’s frightening but far-off, a rumour, something that happens to other people. Consequently, I need pay it little real attention. I can ignore what my body tells me, and what my heart tells me. I’m protected from seeing that my time is finite and that I have to decide in which relationship to life I wish to stand.

Myth 3 – A saviour is coming

If I’m good enough, popular enough, loved enough, successful enough, recognised enough, powerful enough, rich enough, famous enough, caring enough… then I’ll be saved. Someone – one of the grown-ups in the world – will see me and, recognising my goodness, rescue me from my troubles

And then I won’t have to face them any more.

This myth keeps me working really hard. Sometimes it has me try to save others in the very same way that I am desperate to be saved.

I know these are not myths I carry alone.

Growing up calls on us to see how these myths of childhood keep us as children, and to find that the that the protection they offer is little protection at all:

Myth 1 is the myth of specialness. It boosts our self esteem by giving us a reason for all the difficulty we’re experiencing. And protects us from feeling the suffering of others by keeping us out of reciprocal relationship with them.

Myth 2 is the myth of no consequence. It saves us from the burden of having to choose, or face the outcomes of our choices.

Myth 3 is the myth of dependency. By rendering us helpless it keeps us from taking on the full responsibility (and possibility) of our own adulthood.

I think we cling onto these myths because, as well as the explanations they give us, we’re afraid that if we face the true situation of our lives (we’re not so special, we’ll die, there’s nobody to save us) then our troubles will be magnified. But, as with any turning away from the truth, they come at an enormous cost. In particular they keep both our dependency and our hopelessness going.

And when we can learn to see through them, we can also start to learn how to grow up. We can find that the world has much less to stand on than we thought, and that we nevertheless have enormous ability to stand. We can discover deep sources of hope, courage and compassion which which we had been out of touch. And as we allow ourselves to step out of hiding and into relationship, we can discover that our capacity to help others – and to be helped by them in return – is far greater than we could possibly have imagined.

Going to sleep to ourselves

Sometimes, in the midst of our busyness and our fixation on having things work out just the way we want them, we forget that we’re alive.

This forgetfulness, it seems to me, is an inevitable part of our human condition. I like very much Martin Heidegger’s phrase for this – that we get ‘scattered into everydayness’. In our everyday coping with all that comes our way, we go to sleep to ourselves and what we’re really up to in our lives.

When our forgetfulness goes on for too long, and if we don’t take steps to remember our aliveness, it starts to colour everything we’re doing. Workplaces in which people have forgotten they’re alive become places that pursue profit or targets with no sense of what they’re for. Families who have forgotten they’re alive lose sight of the preciousness and sacredness of the relationships between their members. There is always the washing-up to do, of course, but it can be a humdrum task to be endured or, when we’re awake to what being in a family is for, an expression of a much bigger commitment to the care of one another and the life that we share.

All of this is why it is vital that we have practices for remembering ourselves – practices that connect us to one another, to our aliveness, and to our relationship with all of life. Many of us have no such practices and those that we do have to deal with our scatteredness serve to numb us rather than bring us more fully to life.

One of the reasons this is difficult for many of us is that as we’ve pursued individualism we’ve abandoned so many of the shared rituals that come from being part of community: singing together; retelling shared stories, especially the founding myths of our families or culture; eating together; turning towards one another in appreciation and recognition. And we’ve been sold the line that entertainment will do all of this for us, but it mostly can’t reach deeply enough into our lives or into the lives of the people around us to wake us up to ourselves.

Writing is, for me, a powerful experience of self-remembering – a way in which I catch on to my aliveness. And that you are reading is part of it – though we may never have met we’re bound, you and I, for a moment. Reading – novels, poetry, philosophy, science. Walking too. Music. Meditation. Art. But nothing is as powerful a force for my own self-remembering as the web of Jewish practice that is woven through my life and which binds me in time, in place, and in a community. It has very little if anything to do with belief, and very much to do with what I’ve been talking about here – practices that remind me again and again of the feeling of being alive and connected to others in a vast universe of which I am, we are, a part.

Please understand that I’m not making an argument here for anyone to take up the forms of self-remembering that I’ve found so life-giving. But I am arguing for taking self-remembering seriously – that discovering and taking up practices that bring us to life again and again is foundational to a life well lived and good work well done.

Otherwise we’re just sleep-walking through.

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Frost

The roofs of nearby houses and the straight lines of the fences are frosty this morning, a welcome cold that counters December’s unseasonal warmth. They catch the early sun’s rising light, and I find myself in an inward smile.

And I see how easy it is for me to not be attentive, appreciative. How easily and often I slip into negative comparison – between a grey day and remembered morning like this, between what I fear will happen and some remembered happiness, between the time I have had and the lesser time I have left, between unreasonable utopian hopes and life simply as it is.

In this dawn glimpse of joy I see again how my familiar comparing blinds me, mutes me, freezes me, saddens me. How small, within it, my horizons become. And I remember the possibility of, step by step, giving up comparing and, instead, taking up welcoming the world.

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On being whole

Life calls on us to be whole, which in turn calls on us to embrace the parts of ourselves that we’ve hidden away or denied – all the parts of being human that we’re sure are nothing to do with us.

The alternative is one-sidedness, in which we are gripped by a single end of each of life’s great polarities. We come to strongly prefer – or perhaps demand – perfection over mess, control over uncertainty, doubt over trust, going it alone over requesting help, peace over disagreement, success over sincerity, and so on.

We become convinced that the side we’ve chosen is the truth. And we come to see ourselves in a similarly one-sided way – perfect, or broken.

Being whole requires us to choose the middle path that includes both sides. Not easy, and probably not pretty either, because it calls on us to take responsibility for the darkness within us as well as the light.

But if we’re going to find a way to lead, teach and inspire others – and seize the chance for a fulfilling life while we’re at it – it’s vital work for each of us.

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The human function curve

This is the human function curve, the model which underlies what I wrote about our sense of unbreakability yesterday.

Performance (the capacity to act effectively on what we intend) is shown on the vertical axis. The horizontal axis shows what happens as stress or bodily arousal increases.

Some features of this graph that are worth noticing.

(1) The anabolic phase

Up until the inflection point in the middle of the graph, performance increases as stress increases. Some people call this ‘good stress’. It’s a function of our active engagement, our awakeness to what we’re doing, and our care.

In straightforward terms, the more we care and the more engaged and active we get, the more our capacity to act effectively increases. In this phase the body is in an anabolic state, actively supporting its own growth, energy, and self-maintenance.

And with sufficient attention to cycles of self-care, rest, exercise, and support – which help us stay towards the left side of the curve – it can be possible to remain in the anabolic phase over long periods.

(2) The catabolic phase

But there is a certain level of stress and activity, which differs for each of us, when the body’s response changes. In this catabolic or over-extended phase, the body starts to break down its own structure in order to supply the energy that’s required.

Just past the inflection point – if we notice – it’s still possible to restore ourselves by stopping and taking exquisite care. Sleep, appropriate and nourishing food, rest, and attention from others can return us to our self-generating capacities.

(3) Tipping past exhaustion

Because we’ve experienced increasing performance with increasing effort, and because we live in a culture which pays the body scant attention and seriously underestimates the need for renewing practices, we readily misinterpret what’s going on in the catabolic phase.

We think that our shrinking capacity is because we’re not trying hard enough – and our extra efforts push us to the right on the graph, exactly the direction that will cause us most harm

What works in the anabolic phase is totally inappropriate for the catabolic phase. Here, the more we try the more we damage ourselves and the more our capacity decreases. 

The appropriate move at this stage is to stop. Completely. 

But stopping, admitting we are not perfect, letting on to our vulnerability, asking for help – all of these are considered undesirable or impossible by so many of us.

Just when we most need to get on to our own humanity and physical limits, just when recovery without serious damage is still possible, we push on.

(4) Towards ill-health and breakdown

But they need me. But I’ll fail my performance review. But everyone is working this hard. But it’s the end of the quarter. But that project is about to ship. But it’s not possible to stop. 

But I’ll be letting them down.

But you don’t understand.

If we continue, as so many of us do, our bodies cannot cope any more. We get struck with a fever, an infection, or a much much more serious condition.

In this phase, let’s be clear, we put our ongoing capacity – and our lives – at profound risk. Though it rarely feels that way because, let’s face it, I’ve been ok so far.

And even though it’s abundantly clear that what’s required is taking care of ourselves, and insisting those around us take care of themselves too, so many of us continue to tell ourselves that it’s a luxury, an indulgence, and something we’ll get to only someday.

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Unbreakable

For a long while, we think we’re unbreakable. We convince ourselves that what we’re doing – how we’re working, how we’re living – has no impact on us, really.

And for a while, as we try to do more, our level of stress goes up and our performance (or capacity to do what we’re intending) goes up too. We conclude that the move to make when things aren’t working out the way we intend is to push harder. And, for a while, it brings us exactly what we’re looking for.

But only for a while.

There comes a point where, for each of us, the body’s capacity begins to fray. It loses its ability to renew itself, to retain its coherence, to store energy and regenerate. Beyond this breakdown point, more effort not only results in less capacity, but in the breakdown of bodily systems themselves.  We get exhausted. We get ill. Our bodies show us what we have been committed to hiding from ourselves.

All too often, right at this moment where rest, recuperation, support and self-care are the only way back, we conclude that our dropping performance is because we’re not doing enough. And as we scramble to address the shortfall between what we’re able to do and what we think we should be able to do, we make things worse.

Much worse.

This is no trivial matter. Study after study has established the link between sustained stress and heart attacks and other serious and life threatening illnesses. And yet in so much of work, and our lives, we act as if we’re invincible, even when the signs are right in front of us that we’re not.

It’s time we took our bodies seriously. And it’s time we considered rest, renewal, and support from others as a fundamental requirement to do anything well. Not an optional extra. Not a nice-to-have. And not some silly distraction from the ‘real work’ of business, or leadership, or parenting, or making a contribution.

For much more on this topic see Science of the Heart: Exploring the Role of the Heart in Human Performance

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One step, and then one step

I have long loved the hopefulness of the Jewish tradition – the way it roots itself in the realness and responsibility of this momentunderstanding that the life we are living is the only one we can be sure of, that it’s vanishingly short, that there is much yet to do be done, and that each of us has the possibility of contributing.

And I appreciate very much how this hopefulness is informed by realism about what’s possible.

It is not your duty to complete the work [of improving the world]…‘, writes Rabbi Tarfon, a 2nd century sage, ‘…but neither are you free to desist from it‘.

There it is. What needs doing in the world is so much bigger than any one of us can muster – a realisation that could so easily be a source of despair. But in Tarfon’s hands it’s a call to possibility and responsibility. We have to begin, even though we may not quite understand what we are beginning, even though the results of our labours may only benefit those who come long after us, who we will never know. And when we find ourselves in the darkness, when nothing seems possible, when we are overwhelmed by the magnitude of things and floored by our smallness – one step.

And then one step.

And then one step.

But at the same time, we can lay a trap for ourselves with hope, which the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus understands well. Hope, particularly in the form of desire, he says, can be a source of great suffering. It can leave us permanently dissatisfied with the life we’re living, even when we have reason to be grateful.

Do not spoil what you have‘, he says, ‘by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.

What you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.

We know how that goes. We imagine a new car will make us happy, only to find a few days into owning it that we have our eye on a newer model. We imagine that power, or position, or a house, or a new relationship, or a change of government, or more money in our pocket will be the answer, only to find ourselves with the same emptiness and longing transposed to a new situation.

We so easily find our lives consumed by an endless and insatiable comparison between what is and what we imagine could be.

Epicurus’ own solution to this difficulty was a kind of radical simplicity and acceptance. He was an advocate of the virtues of living a life of obscurity – not trying to change too much, nor having dreams that are too big, so that we can appreciate and be genuinely grateful for what is already in front of us.

It seems to me that to be human is to inhabit the tension between Epicurus and Tarfon – learning to cherish the gifts we have, and at the same time hoping for and working towards something much better both for ourselves and for those around us. And it is, as far as I can tell from my own life, a genuine tension for many of us – pulled as we are between our deepest, most heartfelt unmet longings and our wish to feel happy or at least fulfilled right where we are.

It can be a confusing and painful place to be, particularly when we get caught up in the anguish of knowing we can’t have the world be just the way we want it. Or when our hope and acceptance are extinguished and smothered by resentment, fear, and despair at our inability to control things.

Perhaps the work of a human life is to learn to inhabit the tension between is and could be or, more fully, to be a bridge that unites both poles. Here maybe we can learn the craft of living in the world as it is, knowing we don’t have to save it, and at the same time being the ones who commit ourselves to the one next, hopeful, step.

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On practice

All the world’s great religious traditions know the value of practices, the daily acts of repetition and dedication that can so profoundly shape who we become. In our day to day lives we’ve mostly forgotten this – leaning towards tools or goals instead. Both have value, but without practice we miss something very important. 

The idea of practice is, at its heart, very simple. They’re rehearsals of a quality or way of being in the world that we wish to cultivate. Done regularly and with purposeful intent, they gradually shape and reshape our relationship to ourselves and to the world.

In this way practices are so very different to techniques or tools – which are intended to bring about some immediate shift or change in the world. And they’re different again to goals – ways in which we’ve got committed to bringing about a particular state of affairs that we wish for. 

The wonderful possibility in good practices is that we take them up primarily for their own sake, not to change things in a hurry, nor to compare ourselves with standards we might never reach. We taken them up because doing them has its own intrinsic value, and because we flower and flourish in unexpected ways by being people who are practicing.

And the other wonderful possibility in practice is that we can take it day at a time. Practice now, today. Be scrupulously kind to ourselves when we miss it or forget tomorrow. And begin, again, the next day.

We’re all practicing already, whether we know it or not, in the daily routines by which we live our days. And so we can all ask ourselves whether the practices we’re in the middle of now have us be in life in the way we wish for or value, or whether it’s time, at last, to find a way to practice something new.

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Stories to live up to, to live in to, to let go to

As 2016 begins, two kinds of stories are on my mind.

Stories I try to live up to. And stories that I might start allowing myself to live into.

The live up to stories are the ones that keep going because they’re how I’m known by others, or because they’re a familiar way for me to know myself, or because they boost my self esteem. Some of them I created. Some of them were handed to me in the ongoing dance of relating to one another that is a given of human life.

Among the live up to stories: being the thoughtful (or deep thinking) one, the mysterious one, the one who has more important things to do than pay close attention to time, the intelligent one, the diligent one, the sensitive one, the one who cares, the one who knows about things.

It’s not that these stories are false. But when I take them up because they’re familiar, or because I think they’re expected, they easily become something of an act – a way of acting like someone who is like the way I’m known to myself and others. They become a proxy, a cover story. They reflect and refract much that is true, but they’re not me, myself. They’re neither who nor what I am.

Trying to live up to familiar stories is quite different to opening myself so that I can live into new stories – stories that might breathe life and possibility into the world.

And this is quite different again from letting go of how I know myself so that unfamiliar stories – stories I can barely imagine – can begin their work of living themselves into me.