I sit in the darkness, watching my daughter and her friends singing, dancing and performing with such joy and exuberance in a local musical production, and right when I could release myself into joy and wonder a dark, coiled-upon itself part of me claws repeatedly – ‘You should be able to do that’, it says.
On a gloriously sunny May Thursday, I’m hosting a conversation about leadership with a group of thoughtful, principled people who run a large hospital. Right when I could be at my most curious, open and available, there’s a part of me that tells tugs, hard – ‘You should be better at this’, it says, ‘You should be like them.’
In my living room, a long afternoon of freedom available to me, I’m reading Robert McFarlane’s beautiful book ‘Underland’, and I find myself checking the time again and again. ‘You shouldn’t be here’, it says and, more perniciously, its tendrils of shame that I haven’t published a book, that I don’t know what to say, that I’m not famous, slip through the gaps in my thoughts and wrap themselves around my heart.
On the tube, in the shower, watching a film, holding my loved ones and, more than anywhere else, in the dark of the night, the endless voice of comparison keeps speaking its poison. Its promise is alluring enough – salvation. If I’m equal to or better than the ideas it has about me, or the people it measures me against, I’ll be saved. Once I’m well known enough, or have made a world-changing contribution, I’ll be safe. If I make sure never to annoy anyone else, or disappoint them, if I keep up an image of gentleness or responsibility, everything will be OK.
As my dear friend and colleague Lizzie Winn says, all of this has us ‘pretzel ourselves’ into ever more distortions. And as the poet Naomi Shihab Nye reminds us in her poem Famous, there’s a more straightforward way to be in the world, one filled with dignity and aliveness which recognises the uniqueness of the being we already are,
… famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do
It may seem like a paradox, but it’s often when we give up our crazed attempts to be what we’re not that we have the greatest chance of flourishing and unfolding fully into what we are. It’s when, as Lizzie says, we can inhabit our qualities wholeheartedly, that we find the deep reserves of kindness or courage, wisdom or attentiveness, that allow us to meet the world.
Naomi Shihab Nye shows us early in her poem that all our attempts to save ourselves by holding ourselves in the grip of a comparison (such as with fame) are inevitably doomed by the transience of everything:
The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.
As Simon Seligman so beautifully writes, in response to those lines:
‘We are but a moment, and all around us nature and time, and the silence that came before us, are unfolding as they must. And so our voice, our moment, can only speak for itself, now, as we find it, and should let go of any hope that we will silence the silence.
It is always there, it should always be there, and without it we would not be able to hear our own voice anyway, just as light has no meaning without the dark. The silence does not need us to confer upon it any meaning or purpose; it knows it will inherit the earth.
We get to dance within and upon it for our span; it allows (indulges?!) us in this, and lets us witter on as if we were in control. But the water will close over our heads, the gravestone will be subsumed into the earth, and our one job is to accept and embrace both our living span, and its end, in time.’
Our one job – to accept and embrace both our living and its end. I know when I can do this, I can sit in the dark and watch my daughter, and let myself be overcome by joy and love and sheer wonder that she is here. I can work with a group of very capable leaders with curiosity and openness and truthfulness, without holding back and without closing down. I can love and speak and listen and create without holding onto a myth of safety or salvation. I can much more readily give up the demand for safe passage and instead participate, turning towards life with a whole-heartedness and playfulness that’s robbed from me when I’m caught in comparison with how I am supposed to be, or how things are supposed to be. I stop pretzeling myself to try to get life to go my way.
The poem, Lizzie and Simon’s wonderful words, and everything I’ve expressed here came from conversations in and around the Turning Towards Life project. You can hear the episode that includes Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, and much else, on our website here, and on our podcast.