All that has come before is preparation

If you were parachuted into your life from outside – into your life and body as it is today – you might start to see what’s there through new eyes.

Perhaps you’d be more immediately grateful for the people around you, for the love, support and attention they bring you that you had to do nothing to earn. And perhaps you’d see the difficulties in your life for what they are – difficulties to be worked with, rather than confirmations of your inadequacy.

Enormous possibilities and freedom to act might come from inhabiting this world in which you’re both supported and have problems towards which you can bring the fulness of your mind, body and heart.

Being parachuted into your life might put an end to self-pity, because you’d come to see how the body you inhabit has been training, practicing all these years building skills, strength and an understanding of the life it’s been living and the difficulties it’s been facing. Maybe you’d see that you are precisely the one best equipped to deal with the detail and intricacy of this particular life. And perhaps you’d discover a way to look honestly at your situation and the resolve to deal with it, step by patient step.

Maybe if you were parachuted into your very own life, you’d understand that everything that has happened to you – so far – is not a shameful failure but the exact preparation you need for living today, tomorrow, and for the years to come.

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Remembering

In the Jewish world today it is Yom Hashoah, or the day of remembering the Holocaust.

Last night I joined a beautiful ceremony at the community which I call home. At one end of the room, a table filled with the shining light of tens of memorial candles. And in front of it, one by one, the testimonies of survivors and their families, woven together with prayers and with music composed by those who lived and died in the ghettoes and camps.

Already in the 1930s, one of the speakers who was a child survivor of Auschwitz reminded us, the seeds of dehumanisation were being planted in public discourse, and in law, in countries across Europe. By the time the genocide and its unspeakable horrors began in earnest there had been years of acclimatisation in language, and in speech, and in shifts in public culture. The Holocaust, as Marcus Zusak reminds us in his extraordinary novel The Book Thief, was built on words.

This year, perhaps more than any other I can remember, I was deeply moved by what I saw and heard. Something is cracking open within me. A certain turning away from the world, a well-practiced semblance of ‘being ok’ is dissolving. I felt, and feel, more open, more tender, more raw, more available, and more touched than I have done for a long time.

I’m grateful for this because, as I listened to the accounts of the people speaking with us, I was reminded once again how our turning away, our avoidance of life, is not so far from our capacity to dehumanise, to blind ourselves to the sacredness of the other, and to absolve ourselves of the responsibilities that come with our own goodness. And when we turn that way, collectively, it’s not as hard as we might think to turn towards the shallow rewards of exercising power over others, bringing back into the centre our apparently bottomless capacity for cruelty, disdain, destruction and death.

In this time when fear seems to have such a grip on the world, in Europe and the US in particular, I hope that remembering what’s come before can help us find out what we’re avoiding paying attention in us and around us. And I hope it can help us remember our own goodness, compassion and capacity to be of service – all of which are vital in steering a course together that points us towards life.

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Fear is easy

Fear is easy.

Really easy.

It spreads, like wildfire – my fear becoming your fear becoming their fear becoming my fear again.

It makes us feel special – if I’m so afraid, there must be important things to do, like saving myself or saving the company or saving the country. At last, because of fear, I have a role to play.

It makes things look simple – there is no choice here, no nuance, no time to talk together or think together about what’s really called for, or if we’re doing the right thing, or what the consequences over time might be. There is just action, this action, my action, and now.

It helps us look right – how dare you suggest another way, a different way? Can’t you see what’s at stake here? How risky this is? How much we have to lose?

It saves us from having to listen to one another – if you’re not with me you’re against me, and if you’re against me you must be wrong, and it’s because you’re wrong and all of those others of you who are wrong that we’re in this terrifying mess in the first place.

It saves us from having to think – that there might be another way to see this, that your point of view might have merit, or integrity, or something to offer.

It saves us from shame – at the ways I’m hurting you, or hurting myself, or hurting those who will come after us.

It sells – the idea that I’m the best, that my way is the right way, that we’re the chosen ones, that they’re out to get us, that you have to work harder, that you must never stop, that our values are under threat, that we have to do this vital but terrible thing, that after all it’s only business or politics or necessity.

It allows us to justify – these punishing targets, our culture of hyper-activity, my monitoring of your every move, the hours I expect you to work, our obsession with measurement and deliverables, my not listening, our race to the lowest common denominator, your being available at every moment, our treating others as objects.

Of course, fear works best when it doesn’t display itself as fear. It’s at its most potent when dressed up as civility, and best practice, and just-doing-business, and competency frameworks, and HR policy, and micro-management, and ‘smart’ goals, and this-is-work-not-a-playground-don’t-you-know.

Fear is easy, and fear is cheap, but it’s dignity that sets the human spirit free to contribute, and create, and address our difficulties, and listen, and change things, and improve our situation. And dignity takes work, and courage, and honesty, and sincerity, and integrity, and wisdom and compassion and humility and love.

Yes, love. Not a much-respected word in many organisations or in politics, and easily dismissed by the easy politics and business of fear. But it is indeed love that reminds us how brilliant human beings can be, how capable, how varied, how much there is to marvel at in our situation and our capacity, and how much we need all of this right now, just as we always have done.

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Secret superpower

Many of the most courageous people I know are also the most afraid.

Living with such an intense inner experience of fear – and surviving it – cultivates within them extraordinary capacities to keep going, to face things as they are, to take action when it’s called for, and to be present with others who are afraid.

I know how much I value having such a person by my side when there’s something genuinely terrifying to face. Someone who knows fear intimately. Someone who has found ways to work with it. Someone who already knows what to do.

Many of the most courageous people I know hardly see themselves as courageous at all.

They relate to their fear as a defect, a failing, a reason to judge themselves, as fuel for the harshest inner criticism. That they are afraid obscures the view, so that they’re blinded to the gifts they bring.

They do not see that the part of themselves they most wish to banish is the very source of blessings, the source of their secret superpower.

So it is in the best superhero origin stories, and so it is with all of us.

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Missing

Aside from our projections (the aspects of ourselves we see in others when they are actually present in ourselves) we also miss the truth about other people when we hold on too tightly to our memories of them.

We so readily fill in the gaps in our experience with that we think we already know. But our stories are necessarily incomplete, and our memories are in many ways unreliable. And, added to that, people keep on changing, so that our certainty about others quickly becomes a way to have them be familiar to us rather than a way of meeting them. Often even a well-worn difficulty feels more inviting than the uncertainty and openness of not knowing.

And it may even be the case that the child, the friend, or the partner you said goodbye to this morning is not the same as the person who is walking back in through the door this evening.

Responding to this is not at all easy. We’d rather hang on to our stories than take the risk of being surprised, with all that could bring. It takes courage to set all that aside. But learning to see people more accurately (and with more kindness) might be our best source of hope for healing our relationships and finding the goodness in ourselves and others that we so urgently need.

With thanks to Jason for our recent conversation that brought this into view.

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Poetry of the Storm

storm

Yes, there might well be a storm brewing. An economic storm. A social storm. A storm which will call on us to rethink ourselves, to undo ideas and categories we’ve become attached to. A storm that will at times have us be afraid. That will sometimes throw us apart from one another and at other times bring us in close.

We’re probably already in the storm.

In one way or another we’ve always been in it, even when life seemed calmer, more straightforward. Even when we were turned in the other direction.

It’s easy to understand the upending energy of the storm as an entirely negative or malevolent force. But as Rainer Maria Rilke writes in The Man Watching, the more turbulent and uncertain times in our lives are precisely when our concepts and sense of ourselves are most open to being reconfigured. In the storm, that which we thought had a solid name can become un-named, and from here we can find better names – more accurate, more compassionate, more useful – for what’s around us. And in learning that we are not omnipotent, in some sense by being defeated by the storm, there’s the possibility that we emerge limping but strengthened, more in touch with our essential qualities, capacities and inherent goodness.

Mary Oliver’s poem Hurricane concurs. When we find we can’t control the world any longer (could we ever?) it can feel as if the leaves are being stripped from the trees, as if all we know is bending. The back of the hand to everything. But it’s so often the case that if we turn towards what needs doing, if we turn towards one another, and if we tend to things, then the leaf-stripped trees push out their tiny buds even in the wrong season. They may look ‘like telephone poles’, as Oliver says, but they really don’t care. And after the leaves come blossoms. For some things there are no wrong seasons.

We can get so afraid facing the unknown not because we don’t know what will happen but because we are secretly sure we do know what will happen. The world will be worse. We will be unable to cope. That’s an under-interpretation of current events right when creative over-interpretation is called for. When we’re sure how things will go, and paralysed by our certainty, we need abundance of stories about what the future might hold and who we could be in it.

And Mary Oliver and Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems are a wonderful place to start.

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A conversation

What is the truth that must be spoken that you’ve holding back? From whom? For how long?

Can you tell who your withholding serves? Are you sure that you’re protecting anyone apart from yourself? And if you’re only protecting yourself, what from?

What healing would speaking bring? What new possibility?

This then is courage: the conversation you offer as a gift to another even when you’re afraid of how it might turn out for you.

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What’s needed

“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”
David W Orr

This morning I simply want to share this with you, a quote from David Orr, who thinks and writes deeply about design as the primary activity of human beings, and about how the way in which we think about design profoundly affects our engagement with the wider world of which we’re a part, how we educate ourselves and our children, and how we live.

I’m so glad to have come across his work for the first time this week, particularly as what he says here expresses so clearly what I’ve become committed to in the coaching work that I do, what I’m teaching when I teach others to be coaches, and what the organisation development projects I get involved in are really for.

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A life without troubles

It’s tempting to try and live a life without troubles. After all, it’s what we’ve been promised by endless advertising, by fairytales and by the myth of our own omnipotence.

In difficulty? There’s a product that promises to heal your ills, grant you happiness, soothe your pain. Sometimes we think that we’d find it, if only we were more together, more intelligent, richer, had a different job or a different partner, lived in a different country, were born to different parents.

But life isn’t shaped that way. It’s complex, mysterious, chaotic and surprising, whatever your circumstances. And whether you deny it or not you have to live as a biological creature in a physical world in which death cohabits with life, illness with vitality, wounds with healing, loss with love.

So the question is not how to live without trouble, because the only way to do that is to deny life itself (and that itself brings no end of difficulty). Instead, you might ask again and again how to live fully in the world. You might look for ways to live with wisdom, and not make things more complicated than they are already.

It might take giving up fighting the way things are, and instead turning at last towards life that you actually have.

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Better off knowing this

Behind all our attempts to manipulate and control the world so it’s just as we’d like it (and behind the pain, frustration, sorrow and disappointment that our inevitable failure brings), we’re just trying to find a way to feel safe and to feel at home. 

I think we’d be better off knowing this.

Then we’d set aside our mission to control what can’t be controlled. And we’d work on how to feel safe and at home in the world as it is – in this ever-changing, surprising, vast and mysterious life in which we find ourselves.

With thanks to Lizzie for pointing this out to me today.

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Leaping onto the wire

You’re standing for the first time on the edge of a platform above a wide and deep canyon, harnessed, checked and secured to a zip wire that descends at a steep angle towards the forest floor below. Many people have gone before you. And yet you hesitate at the edge, feeling both the way this possibility calls to you, and the way it frightens you.

Can you distinguish your anxiety at this moment from your fear? They’re different, in important ways.

Fear is related to the threat to your safety, real or imagined. I’ll die here. The harness will undo. I’ll fall. I’ll go too fast. I won’t slow down in time. Something will go wrong. I’ll never be able to get back again.

Anxiety is related to your freedom to step into this possibility or to step back, and your knowledge that the choice is yours alone. I want to do this, but I don’t. I’ve never done this before. I won’t know how to feel. I won’t know how to be with what I do feel. I won’t be able to deal with how unfamiliar this is going to be, with being changed by the experience. I won’t know how to be with others when I’m done. I won’t know how to be myself. 

Every developmental opportunity in our lives is like this, when we find ourselves standing on the brink of a new opening, a deep, broad vista stretched out before us that we suspect will change us. And while fear can sometimes be addressed with competent support – someone who can show us the equipment, explain how everything works, point out the successful descents that came before, and give us the statistics – anxiety cannot be resolved in this way, because anxiety is to do with what it is to become the one who leaps.

And when we want to travel the wire, or start to see that we simply must do so, what we need most is not people who’ll push us over the edge, nor people who’ll try to pull us back to the familiar world that is no longer serving us, but those who’ll stay with us a while, peer with us into the opening, and explore what we see with compassion, curiosity and wonder until we’re ready to do the work for ourselves that nobody else can do.

 

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Frontiers. 3 years.

On Living and Working is 3 years old today.

Although the boundary between the end of year three and the start of year four is in some ways entirely arbitrary, it reminds me that we always find ourselves standing at a frontier of some sort. Whether we call it an anniversary, or a birthday, or just ‘today’, we’re deep in a conversation between what has come before and what comes next, between the known and the unknown. It’s what it is to be human.

At any frontier we have a profound choice, as Ursula K. Le Guin points out in her wonderful book of essays The Wave in the Mind. We can try to colonise the far side of the frontier with what’s known to us, imposing our already familiar way of being in the world onto it, forcing it to take on our own shape. Or we can be softer, more curious, allowing ourselves to be informed by the unknown, shaped by it, letting it be our teacher.

The colonising path seems so necessary and holds out the promise of freeing us from our fear. But it most often prolongs our anxiety, as it can never bring us what we ask of it. After a while it leaves us hardened and narrowed because it can only be achieved by shielding ourselves progressively from life’s influence, by insisting more and more that we have life our way and on our terms. At some point we find out that we can only appropriate the future in this way by doing violence to ourselves and others, as colonisers the world over have done to the cultures they destroyed or bent to their will.

The other path invites us to become students of the far side of the frontier, apprentices to its mystery. If we’ll allow the unknown to reach us, if we’ll inhabit our uncertainty and anxiety without running, if we’ll allow our love and our difficulty, our wonder and our confusion to touch us, and if we’ll let ourselves be porous and available to the events of our lives, we can start to find out that we are inevitably of life. And who knows what possibilities for a compassionate, wise participation in all of it that might bring?

In this liminal space between three years and four, between now and next, I can see that the second path is the necessary path. That it takes a lot of letting go of things held very tightly. A great deal of courage. And much, much kindness.

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From this place and no other

An unchangeable feature of life is that, at every moment, you find yourself inescapably in some situation or other – perhaps one that you did not choose.

Every situation, however glorious, however unwelcome, has its own possibilities. However magnificent or terrible it is, you are, conclusively, just here, at this moment in the life that you are living. And you have precisely this hand to play in whatever way you can.

No manner of denial (and all the suffering that comes with it) can change that your life continues from this moment, this particular configuration, and not from another.

And so acceptance of life – as opposed to fighting life – is neither ‘putting up with things’, nor pretending to yourself or to others that you are somewhere you’re not, but responding fully from where you are, and knowing that many paths lead from this place.

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Help, truthfulness, kindness

One of the questions I always ask my coaching clients is ‘who is in this with you?’

It’s a way of asking three questions at once –

  • Who’s helping you with this topic you’re working on?
  • Who sees you with enough truthfulness that they can support you in making corrections and adjustments as you go?
  • And who is prepared to see you with the kindness you need to find your own kindness towards yourself?

Help, truthfulness, kindness – three qualities in others that are a vital, life-giving force for us human beings.

We need people around us who’ll be this way if we’re going to flourish.

But so often the answer is ‘nobody‘. There’s nobody in this with me. I’m in this on my own. This is how it’s meant to be. 

We don’t see how crazily we’re trying to be super-heroes, hauling ourselves up in the world with our own muscular strength, propelling ourselves along with inner harshness, and pushing away the heartfelt attempts of others to support us. And that in living this way we live our struggles alone, even when surrounded by others.

It takes some softening and a large dose of letting go – of our own self-concepts and our attempts to control life – to let help, truthfulness and kindness in. But when we admit that we’re neither omnipotent, nor meant to be, we give ourselves our best chance of taking up our place in the web of support that’s around us. And it’s a necessary step if we’re going to play a part in our own flourishing, and quite possibly in the saving of our very lives.

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Question 2 – What to commit to?

Question 2 of 2.

What if instead of asking what job you want to do (when you grow up) you ask what problem or difficulty in the world you want to solve?

What if we asked this of our children?

Perhaps this would be one way of teaching ourselves to look beyond our own wishes to acquire status or advantage or power over others.

And maybe this simple question would be one way we could help ourselves to address what the world really needs from us, rather than what we think we’re entitled to get from it.

With thanks to P who pointed me towards this question.

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Waking or Sleeping?

Both attention and absorption can be cultivated with practice.

Absorption is not so difficult. We are presented with opportunities to practice it at every turn. Entire industries are devoted to selling us an easy, shallow kind of distraction that numbs us, keeps us from ourselves, throws us into self-judgement and comparison with others, and keeps us buying.

But attention – learning to pay sustained, close, awake attention to life – is more tricky and troublesome, and it’s perhaps for this reason that it’s more marginal in our culture.

It can be difficult to practice being awake in life because almost everything that could wake us can also be a path for going to sleep. The revolutionary success of mobile devices such as smartphones, for example, with their unparalleled capacity to connect us to the world, may be in large part attributable to their equal capacity to soothe us, to lull us into a distracted sense of busyness, being needed, and being entertained.

And this dual possibility of waking or turning away is inherent even the rich, deep mindfulness practices developed in many spiritual traditions. These practices, increasingly fashionable in the corporate world, could teach us to be extraordinarily attentive and sensitive to what’s around us, but are frequently presented as new methods for conforming to the status quo without being too troubled by it.

Practice mindfulness and feel calm. Practice mindfulness and find tranquility. Practice mindfulness and you’ll find your stressful job easier to bear. Practice mindfulness and you’ll fit in to where you are with less self-judgement and less complaining. Practice mindfulness and you’ll be less trouble. Practice mindfulness and you’ll be tranquil enough not to ask difficult questions. Practice mindfulness, and go to sleep to yourself.

Far less often do we see that mindfulness practices – a deep, rich, wide-open invitation into life – can help us develop deeper contact with our inner sense of justice and compassion. Rarely are we invited to see how this waking up to ourselves can lead us into to exactly the kind of trouble the world needs as we find ourselves disturbed, shaken, and enlivened by our attentive contact with life.

As we learn to pay more sustained, awake attention to what’s happening, we can find ourselves cultivating our capacity to speak up, to ask for what what we and others need, to stay in relationship as we explore deep and longstanding difficulties and disagreements, to stand out as different, to act on what’s called for rather than just what we like or what’s familiar, and to advocate on behalf of a life that’s bigger than our own personal concerns.

Both attention (waking up) and absorption (going to sleep) can be cultivated with practice.

Which do you think we should choose?

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Standing at the Gate

In a famous story by Franz Kafka, a man who is searching for truth comes to a door, guarded by a powerful gatekeeper.

The two talk for a while, and the man discovers that what he seeks is within. But when he realises that this is only the first in a series of doors guarded by successively fierce and powerful gatekeepers, he decides to sit for a while and work out how he can obtain permission to enter.

The man sits, and he sits, occasionally striking up conversation with the gatekeeper, and the years pass. The man wonders what it will be like to eventually cross through the door, and why nobody else seems to have come by to gain entry.

And as the man finally reaches the end of his life – still waiting – the gatekeeper reaches out for the door. This door, he tells the man, was only for you, and now it is time for me to close it, for ever.

So much of our lives is exactly this way. Faced with a threshold to cross – as happens to each of us innumerable times – we easily hesitate. Waiting on the known side of the door feels so much better, and so much safer, for who knows what succession of trials and dangers awaits on the other side?

There, we will have to face our anxiety and fear, and an uncertain world in which much that we’ve come to rely on can no longer save us.

And while we know that our chances of living fully are much greater if we’re prepared to step in, we can see only how our lives would be safer staying just where we are, where the reassuring contours of the world as we know it can hold us.

And eventually, each of the doors in our life closes, as we knew they always would, and we find out that the safety of staying small, and quiet, and not bothering anyone – the safety of holding the horizons of the world tight and enclosing – was never any genuine safety at all.

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Turning

If you want to be up to something beyond fitting in, settling down or taking up the roles others have made for you, you’re going to have to look closely and seriously at your relationship with tension. And ask yourself, when you feel your body tense, which way do you go?

You may not be able to address this question until you spend some time quietly observing yourself. What does tension actually feel like in your body? Where does it show up? What is its quality? How does it move?

The easiest way to interpret tension is as a problem to be resolved. So you move away from it, dissipate it, release it so that it can’t trouble you. You’ll have your own well practiced ways of doing this, and if you continue to observe yourself for a while you might find out what they are.

But know that if your move is away, always away, you’re acting to keep the world exactly as it is. Because tension is stirred at that exquisite moment when difference or possibility present themselves to you. The possibility of speaking with courage, of standing out, of surprising others and yourself, of being known in a new way, of being fully and radically in contact with others, of standing for something – all profound sources of tension.

So take on a bigger, more generous interpretation of what your body is up to. How about tension as an invitation, a doorway, the opening of a new horizon that you’ve never experienced before? Tension as a profound call to throw yourself wholeheartedly in to the riskiness and creativity of being alive.

If you want to be up to something in the world, sooner or later you’re going to have to step in and learn to stay in the midst of what you’ve turned away from for so long.

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Like and Dislike

Our preferences are formed from an early age. And it can be revelatory to find out how much they were formed by who and what was around us as we grew.

Our early family experiences, the time in history and culture into which we were born, who we had as friends, what happened to us at school – all of these were powerful shapers of what we each turned out to like and dislike.

Since our likes and dislikes manifest themselves most strongly and immediately as bodily sensations it quickly becomes invisible to us that we have preferences at all, and that they are just one way of relating to the world. One out of millions of others.

And all of this is a reason why it’s a necessary developmental step, for anyone who would lead or contribute in a profound way, to be able to move beyond doing things because we like them.

It’s our likes that keep us locked in busyness – because we can’t stand the feeling of not having anything to do. It’s our likes that have us pursuing more, more, more – because we can’t tolerate being with just what we have already. It’s our likes that hold us back from saying what’s true, because we don’t like what it feels like to stand out, or to risk, or to be disapproved of. It’s our likes that keep us at the centre of things – because we can’t stand not being needed. And it’s our likes that keep us defended against the world – demanding that we experience life in just the way we want it.

Stepping fully in and genuinely contributing to others requires that we take on a bigger possibility for ourselves. Which in turn means giving up engaging with the world as if what we liked and disliked were the primary way of deciding what’s worth doing.

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Muted

Because we are story-telling beings, we humans have a million ways of avoiding being present to what is right in front of us – people, projects, possibilities, suffering – and what is within us – thoughts, feelings, and the sensations and wisdom arising in our bodies.

We so easily spin stories, throw ourselves into guilt and reminiscence about the past, worry about and try to anticipate the future. And while each of these have their place, they so easily distract us from what we’re most directly in the midst of.

Missing what and who is here robs us of the opportunity to experience life in its richness as we go.

More importantly for everyone else, it denies us the opportunity to bring ourselves at our fullest. Because in our distraction, we respond not to the needs of the moment, but to the needs of our fear, or to our wish to not have to face the world as it is.

Our deepest possibilities for connection and contribution are muted – whenever here is not where we are, and now is not what we’re responding to.

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Solo or duet?

When your relationship with someone is proving difficult, when you’re sure that they are acting against you or judging you, and just when you’re sure that nothing can be done, the most helpful and most powerful move is to start making requests.

Your certainty that nothing can happen from talking makes your powerlessness self-perpetuating. You’re silent, because you think nothing can happen. You’re silent, so nothing can happen. And you remain silent, because nothing is happening.

It may well be that the other person is trapped in the same cycle, holding back from making the requests that would connect the two of you again. Your silence turns you into solo players.

In the space between you – and in the stories that fill the quiet – difficulties multiply.

So start asking for what you want. Encourage them to do the same.

You may well discover that what is happening is quite different to what you imagined. That the other person has a quite different motive to what you thought. And that a conversation in which you raise your requests and concerns, listening deeply to the response – and in which they do the same – shifts things profoundly for both of you.

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Despair and Hope

Inspired by the author David Grossman whose eloquent and beautiful work takes on many important topics – most recently grief in his book ‘Falling Out of Time‘:

There are often so many reasons to despair. All that we want to bring about that is beyond us, all that seems it cannot change, all that we do not have the power or wherewithal to address.

But, despair itself brings about despair, and hopelessness brings hopelessness, because they draw our attention most strongly to what is despairing and what is hopeless in our worlds.

For Grossman, if you despair ‘you declare that you are a victim of the situation, that you have no control over circumstances, that you are at the mercy of the behaviour of your opponents, that you are totally trapped and motionless.’

And for this reason it is important to hope. Because it is the act of hoping itself that points us towards what is possible, in any situation, for us to do.

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Feet and Hearts

It’s easy to be afraid.

There is, after all, so much to be afraid about – for all of us.

So much to lose.

We walk our lives, afraid and hiding it, looking strong, looking good, denying how lost we can feel. We pretend we’re not afraid because we can’t imagine that anyone else could be quite as scared as we are. And because we have no idea where to look for support.

But what about our feet, that carry us through a million more steps in each year of our life? The simple everydayness of feet, bestowed upon us by generations of ancestors we never knew. They support us. Perhaps when we’re most scared we could simply, with humility, be thankful for our feet.

And our hearts, pumping the blood that keeps us alive, beating some 100,000 times per day, tens of millions of beats a year, billions in a lifetime. We did nothing – nothing at all – to receive our hearts. They are a gift to us from life itself, the legacy that stretches back more than 520 million years (to Fuxianhuia protensa, the earliest known creature with a cardiovascular system) and beyond.

Perhaps when we’re feeling afraid and lost we can, in a very simple and straightforward way, turn our attention and gratitude to our feet and our hearts. And from there, wonder at everything else we’ve been given that supports us without us even having to do anything, moment to moment in the chaotic, uncertain, always provisional circumstances of our very human lives.

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To trust is to risk

Trust is easy to misunderstand.

The most common mistake is to say “I’ll only trust when I know you’re trustworthy”. But this is trust without risk. Trust without putting yourself on the line. Trust as a demand. Trust without trust.

Genuine trust does not come about this way. Instead, it’s brought into being by your courage, openness, and willingness to risk that things won’t work out the way you hoped. Genuine trust requires you to not know how things are going to go. It can never be a demand, but must be an invitation to act, and an invitation to keep talking when things don’t work out as you’d hoped. More than anything else, genuine trust is an invitation into a relationship that you’re committed to even when things go wrong.

When you offer trust, but only on condition that nothing is placed at risk, can you say that you’re really inviting trust at all?

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All the dead ends

All the dead ends, the missed opportunities, the failings, the distractions – yes, these could be proof of your inadequacy. Yes, you could be right that your judgement is poor, you’ve missed your moment, and that it’s time to accept you’ll never be somebody.

But perhaps you could allow yourself to consider another possibility – that the life you think you’re meant to be living is not your life at all. That the dead ends, the missed opportunities, the failings and the distractions were all what it took to get you exactly here, right where you’re supposed to be. That your definitions of what it is to be somebody are only your definitions, not an enduring truth about what it is to be of value. And that what you’re here to do is really not yours to decide, but to listen for.

The world is whispering its call to you always.

When will you give up your pursuit of somebody else’s life, the life that never was nor could be, and turn towards the life that only you have been given and that only you can live?

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Commotion

How is it that we developed such a tolerance for mediocrity?

We’ll sit in endless meetings that, we suspect quietly, nobody wanted to join in the first place.

We’ll dedicate ourselves to hours of distraction, or chase after alluring but trivial goals (such as having an empty email inbox) instead of turning to someone else in truthful conversation, or inventing something new, or committing ourselves to changing a situation that matters.

We’ll satisfy ourselves with a flip-chart page filled with empty tasks that nobody intends to take on, and applaud how action-oriented we’ve been (all the while avoiding what really needs addressing).

We’ll say “it’s just the way things are”, when it’s clearly not.

We’ll avoid contact with ourselves and others by perpetuating the myth that ‘feelings have no place at work’, when feelings are exactly what connects us to what we most care about.

We’ll blame what ‘they’ do – they made me do it, they don’t understand, they will never change, they don’t listen.

In the end, we develop tolerance for this simply because we’re human.

It’s human to go to sleep to ourselves and our situation. It’s human for what we’re doing to fade into the background and be replaced by unquestioned habit. It’s human to be afraid of what others will think, and to be afraid of our fear. It’s human to fall back into the crowd. And it’s human to distract ourselves from what would most trouble us.

But it’s also human to make a commotion; to commit to something of worth; to risk ourselves in pursuit of what has meaning and integrity; to undo all of the stories we have about how things are and how things should be, and to write new ones.

It’s human to take a stand.

And consequently it’s human to be prepared to stand out on behalf of what really matters.

 

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Becoming human

Four ways of dealing with the anxious feeling that you’re not completely in control of your organisation:

give someone a poor appraisal (blame someone else instead of facing that there are limits to own your power)

invent some targets for people to hit (if you can think of something measurable you might be able to avoid talking about all the uncertain, difficult to understand aspects of your work)

restructure (much easier than actually talking deeply to people about what’s going on, from which who knows what trouble might happen?)

or go the other way and try to do it all yourself (keeps your heroic image going and allows you to show people how much you suffer for your role)

Or perhaps you could give up ‘looking good’ – which gives rise to all of the above – as the primary task of leadership.

Owning up to your uncertainty and your anxiety, and to your limitations, allows you at last to become a human being to those around you, so that they in turn can be human themselves.

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Business and personal

This week, to mark the first anniversary of this project, I am republishing favourite posts from each month of the first year of On Living and Working.
This is from August 2013.

Many business difficulties are, at root, personal difficulties…

… conversations we’re not bold enough to have, motives we hide and dress up as reason, emotions we don’t know how to deal with, resentments we fuel, imagination constrained by blame and the fear of shame, judgements of people who are different from us, fear and anxiety we won’t name, scapegoating, saving face, projections of what’s in our shadow, self-pity, self-aggrandisement.

But we’ve convinced ourselves (since the start of the industrial age) that businesses are machines rather than collections of people. It conveniently leads us to try to engineer our way out of difficulty – a detached move that saves us from having to own up to our own part in what’s going on.

And so when faced with what seems unsolvable, we turn to

restructures (a recurring favourite)
competency frameworks
mergers and acquisitions
leadership frameworks
the latest update to company policy
changing what’s measured
charts of acceptable behaviours
training programmes

rather than do the apparently more difficult, more unpredictable, more messy work of turning to one another with sincerity and curiosity, and being truthful about what’s going on.

So many difficulties can be solved by talking about what’s happening, both within us and between us. But mostly we allow ourselves to take up the convenient story that this is irrelevant to business, out of place at work.

We even call it ‘soft’.

Addressing the personal, emotional, relational part of our business difficulties is anything but soft. It’s the hardest, most important, most rewarding and most practical problem solving arena of all.

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A monster calls

“I didn’t mean it,” Conor said.
You did, the monster said, but you also did not.

Humans are complicated beasts, the monster said. How can a queen be both a good witch and a bad witch? How can a prince be a murderer and a saviour? How can a person be wrong-thinking but good thinking? … The answer is that it does not matter what you think, the monster said, because your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day … Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for both.

From ‘A Monster Calls’, by Patrick Ness, a short, haunting, beautiful tale about human complexity and longing that’s far bigger in scope and reach than its ‘children’s fiction’ label might suggest.

It’s a story about love, and our longing and fear of being seen for who we are. And it’s about the innumerable ways we’ll twist ourselves out of shape in order to avoid saying what’s most true, because we’re scared of being judged, and ashamed at our own contradictions. And what might be possible when we nevertheless summon the necessary kindness and courage to speak.

And a hymn, to those moments in life when a fearsome choice is to be made between turning away from truth, or turning towards it – which are also moments where we choose between turning away from or towards ourselves, and the people around us.

It reminded me how often we prefer the illusory security of holding back, even at great consequence to our lives, rather than the vulnerability of speaking up.

And just how much of our lives, and how many of our institutions, can be elaborate constructions for distancing ourselves, right when we most need – and most fear – turning towards one another.

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Alice Herz-Sommer

piano

Alice Herz-Sommer, who I wrote about in August, died this week, aged 110.

A survivor of the Holocaust, she cultivated a commitment to see beauty everywhere, and a deep interest in the lives of others. In the midst of our ordinary, everyday worries perhaps the memory of this woman – who knew such difficulties and brought such grace and gratitude to her life – can help us to see our lives, our work, and our frustrations with new, and more hopeful, eyes.

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