Increasing light

Today, the final day of 2016, is both the seventh day of Christmas and the seventh day of the Jewish festival of Chanukah. The two festivals coincide only about every 30 years or so, when a combination of factors pushes the Jewish year – in which the months turn by the cycles of the moon – later into the Gregorian calendar than usual.

Chanukah always falls in the week with the longest, darkest nights of the year, straddling the new moon that falls close to the winter solstice. As with winter festivals marked by many traditions, it’s concerned with our capacity and responsibility to bring light to the dark.

And so, after starting with one candle last Saturday and adding a candle each night, people all over the world will tonight be lighting eight candles to mark the final night of Chanukah and, coincidentally, the final night of this calendar year.

As the rabbis who shaped Chanukah some 1600 years ago said, it’s our responsibility to gather light, to increase light, and to be light. It’s harder to see this in those times when the world itself seems shining with hope and possibility. But in the darker hours, when the sun is down and even the moon is obscured from view, we see the darkness itself more clearly. And we see how easy it is, when we’re gripped by fear or self-righteousness, to wittingly or unwittingly contribute to its spread.

As we end a calendar year that has seen an upsurge in the politics of division and fear, a new legitimacy given to voices – in Western democracies at least – of prejudice and rage and suspicion of the ‘other’, and the election in the US of a powerful, narcissistic leader with a fragile ego, let’s remember our human responsibility to increase the light around us and between us.

Let’s increase it with art and poetry.

Let’s bring light by being fierce advocates for reason, critical thinking, and science. By learning, ceaselessly. By feeling, fully and truly. By reading, widely. By overcoming our self-diminishment enough to say what’s called for.

Let’s bring light by giving up treating ourselves and others as objects, or commodities, or means-to-an-end. By opening to one another.

Let’s bring light by giving up using language as a way to cover up truth in our organisations, our institutions, our schools, our families. And let’s do it by giving up the cover of ‘it’s only business’, or ‘that’s just the way politics goes’, or ‘it’s my truth’ as a way to gain power over others or to silence them.

Let’s bring light by finding out how to be ones around whom others’ hearts soar, around whom others can find out what’s uniquely theirs to bring and then bring it without shame, or self-reproach.

Let’s do it with song.

Let’s bring light by getting over our self-pity, our resentment, our sense of how unfair it is that our lives are whatever way they are.

Let’s bring light by learning how to listen to, and speak with, ever wider circles of people who have lives, commitments, and beliefs very different to our own. And by standing for kindness, and dignity, being a force for the elevation of life rather than the diminishment of it.

Let’s bring light by dedicating ourselves to projects and commitments that are bigger than our own comfort, and bigger than our own personal gain.

Let’s remember that we can only do this hard and necessary work by being committed to our ongoing development. And that we can be at our most wise and compassionate only when we do all this with the help of one another.

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Those of us who…

Those of us who have any kind of privilege, who don’t have to scrabble in the dirt to make a living or to find food, who don’t have to run from bombs and missiles, who aren’t being beaten down by oppressive systems of government or prejudice… we had better start taking seriously our duty to care for ourselves, as an act of dignity, as a responsibility, as an act of honour towards those whose circumstances prevent them from doing so, and just because we can.

As Parker Palmer writes, Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Any time we can listen to true self, and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves, but for the many lives we touch.’

Self-care and care for everything are one and the same.

To have the privileges of peace, financial resource, economic and political stability, work to do, a dry and warm place to live, is to be in a position of enormous power and influence.

And until we, who can, give up burning ourselves out, until we start treating the sacredness and preciousness of our own bodies as precious and sacred, until we start extending kindness to ourselves, until we learn to care for ourselves and the energy of our lives, we will continue to struggle to take care of others and of our fragile, extraordinary, necessary world.

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Eudaimonia

When we measure effort by results alone – return on investment, percentage growth, money made, units shipped – we easily forget that it’s the nature of human beings to be shaped by what we do. We’re profoundly affected by the actions we take, even if we choose to pretend that’s not the case. We become what we do.

And there are real consequences to our wilful blindness. Pushing ourselves ever harder to hit targets with no consideration of the bodily and emotional costs leaves us drained, anxious, depleted, and unwell. People die emotionally this way. Or our relationships shrivel. Or, frighteningly often, we lose our lives because we’ve attended so little to our own genuine care (in Japanese there is a special word, Karōshi – death from overwork – that names this phenomenon).

We’re equally traumatised and diminished when we repeatedly treat our colleagues or customers as if they are a means to an end, when we treat ourselves as if we’re a means to an end, when we speak corporate jargon that numbs and distances us from the truth of our experience, when we try to shoehorn our human fluidity and agility into rigid job descriptions and lists of corporately-sanctioned behaviour, when we mouth platitudes and sign up to ‘values’ in which we do not believe, when we turn up to meeting after meeting in which we have no role and no intent to contribute, when we abandon our cares and concerns in order to get ahead, when we live as if redemption will come in the future (when we get that promotion, job, car, or house), when we mute our own voice because we’re afraid, when we give up our artistry and integrity to serve a set of aims that are at odds with our own, and when we continually ignore the longing of our own hearts and the signals of our own bodies that we’re living at a remove from ourselves.

And yet all of these are what many of us have been taught is precisely what is required by the world of work. We’ve come to believe that success in these self-harming domains is the success we’re striving for. That productivity must always come ahead of care for ourselves and others. That this is simply what we have to put up with, or even that it’s good and necessary to have work be a means by which we absent ourselves from genuine flourishing. And by taking this to be true we enslave ourselves, willingly, to a convenient but destructive myth that has supported the kind of economy upon which many countries have relied for decades, a myth supported by the Cartesian premise that the human mind is separate from the body (so we don’t need to pay attention to the impact our work is having on us), that human beings are essentially broken (so we have to continually push harder to make up for our inadequacy), and that redemption will come from status or being able to buy more stuff (a premise which, itself, keeps the whole edifice going).

In the midst of all of this, it’s no wonder that so many people feel only half-alive, and that so few of us can imagine that work or life could be any different.

But there are other ways of being available to us, and we know them already.

The ancient Greeks had a word – eudaimonia – for the living and working practices of a life well-lived. It means living in accordance with life’s good spirit, living with a commitment to flourishing as well as to excellence in our endeavours. Specifically it means living in a way that cultivates virtues in ourselves and others – those qualities which themselves bring life into the world. Cultivating virtues cultivates our sensitivity to the needs of life and our capacity to do the pragmatic work needed in order for us to live well.

Indeed for the ancient Greek philosophers it was the very definition of excellence and an ethical responsibility to attend to the kind of human beings we become, even as we pursue our other aims and goals. To attend patiently to our practices, becoming more and more able to cultivate hope, compassion, wisdom, beauty, justice, mercy, patience, enthusiasm, peace, creativity and any number of other of virtues. And as we do so, becoming the kind of presence that makes it more and more possible for others us to do the same.

To actively work on the expression of virtues is to actively work on being an expression of life, which in turn breathes life into the people around us. And it’s not a luxury or an option either – we always need these qualities in the world, in the brightest of times and in the darkest.

Of course, cultivating virtue in ourselves is far from easy. We simultaneously have to work on our willingness to step forward and take risks, to work productively with our own inner demons, shame and self-criticism, to be able to let go of our preferences (giving up doing what we like and instead doing what’s called for), and to develop sensitivity for the needs of others and for the needs of the world. There isn’t much in the world of work for most people that encourages us to do that. Most of the time we’re more comfortable staying small, and afraid, and within the familiar bounds within which we know ourselves. And most of the time the culture we’ve cultivated in our organisations would have us do the same (even while we publicly extol the value of ‘thinking outside the box’ and run corporate wellness programmes that serve to cover up the difficulty we’re in).

Today, as we face a wide range of difficulties and tensions that are tearing at the way we’ve done things so far we could, if we wish, reimagine how we work, and reimagine leadership as we do so. We could define leadership in eudaimonic terms, making the work of ‘cultivating virtue in ourselves and others’ the primary task.

And we could, as we do so, find out how much more able we can be in responding to the world in ways that serve everybody, rather than only a narrow set of concerns shaped by targets, unquestioned growth, or our wish to fit in.

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