In 2004, Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.As the founder of the Greenbelt Movement, she mobilized thousands of women to plant millions of trees across Kenya. Besides planting trees, she was instrumental in freeing political prisoners, protecting women’s rights, and creating a more democratic election process.
I knew some of these things about Wangari Maathai, but before I read her biography, Unbowed, I had no idea just how much she’d had to struggle through nearly every step of her journey. For starters, her husband divorced her because she was “too strong-minded for a woman” and he was “unable to control her”. From then on, in a patriarchal society, she was forever branded as obstinate divorced woman who didn’t know her place and shouldn’t be trusted.
That didn’t stop her, though. She felt strongly compelled to work for the environment and for women’s rights and so she stuck with it through multiple imprisonments, repeated death threats, and almost every obstacle possible. For most of her adult life, she was fighting a corrupt government that wanted to silence her. When nobody would rent office space to her organization because they’d become too controversial, she opened her small home to a staff of eighty. When the death threats became too plentiful, she went into hiding but refused to stay silent. When mothers were protesting the unjust imprisonment of their sons, she slept with them in a church for months on end. When the government was fostering conflict between tribes, she met with them in secret to try to bring them back to peace.
What compelled her to do all of that? She had a PhD and a professorship – she could have chosen to live out her days as a mild-mannered professor. Why did she risk her life again and again for what she believed in?
She simply couldn’t see any other way to live.
“Many people assume that I must have been inordinately brave to face down the thugs and police during the campaign for Karura Forest. The truth is that I simply did not understand why anyone would want to violate the rights of others or to ruin the environment… What people see as fearlessness is really persistence. Because I am focused on the solution, I don’t see danger. Because I don’t see danger, I don’t allow my mind to imagine what might happen to me, which is my definition of fear. If you don’t foresee the danger and see only the solution, then you can defy anyone and appear strong and fearless.”
I was thinking about Wangari Maathai this week as I coached my clients. Many of my clients also feel compelled to do hard things. One is preparing to run for politics, even though she knows it will be the hardest thing she’s ever done and she will get beaten up along the way for being an idealistic woman. Another is studying to go into the ministry, even though she’s already butted her head repeatedly against the patriarchal church and faces a double whammy of discrimination as a disabled woman. A third is determined to finish a book that’s taken her twenty years to write, even though she’s over seventy and has every right to take the easy road at this stage of her life. Still others are advocating for human rights, following non-conformist paths into work that nobody understands, and daring to heal from abusive pasts.
What makes these women do what they do even though they know it will be hard? When I ask them this question, they usually just shrug and say “I just feel like I have to. It doesn’t feel like I’ll have a fulfilled life if I don’t at least try.”
For those of us following a path to authenticity and our own calling, there will invariably come a time when we find ourselves compelled to do really hard things. When that time comes, we know that if we don’t make the choice to go through, something inside us will die.
It might be the risk of quitting a job or ending a relationship or walking away from an opportunity or standing up for justice or caring for an autistic child or giving up our material goods or fighting a broken system or protecting the oceans or planting vegetables or writing a book or becoming a poet. The hard things in our lives might not seem like hard things for others, but for us it takes all of our courage to stay the course and face the fallout.
Why do we do it? Because we have no other choice. Because something inside us compels us. Because we don’t want to die unlived lives. Because, like Wangari, we choose to focus on the solution and not the obstacles.
It’s a little like natural childbirth. Once your body decides it’s time to go into labour, you have no choice but to go through. When my second daughter was born, close on the heals of the first, the first labour pain brought back a rush of memory of how hard it had been the first time, and I said out loud “I change my mind. I’m not having this baby!” But I really didn’t have a choice. This baby wanted to be born and my body knew it had to let that happen, no matter how hard it was going to be. And when the labouring has done the work of opening the cervix, and the compulsion to push comes on, there is nothing our minds can do but follow along on the course the body feels compelled to take.
And sometimes we feel that compulsion to do the hard thing even when we know the outcome is almost certain failure. We still have to do what we have to do, or we die. When I was told that my third baby had died in utero, I didn’t know how I’d find the strength to go through what my body had to go through to birth him. How can one go through excruciating pain without knowing there is a hopeful outcome?
And yet… I found the strength. I had to. My body gave me no other choice. And it turned out that what the social worker had told me was right… “The birth will be hard, but there will come a day when you won’t regret going through it, because at least then you will know that that this baby is real and you have a right to grief him.”
Sometimes we do hard things even though we’re pretty sure they’re doomed for failure. Wangari Maathai has been instrumental in planting millions of trees, but in the time those trees were being planted, just as many were being cut down. One might wonder whether the end game was worth the struggle. And yet, she simply knew she had to do it. Because it was the right thing to do.
Another woman who does that in our country is Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party. She knows that, every time she gathers a slate of candidates to run for election, there’s an almost guaranteed certainty that all but one or two will fail. And yet she keeps doing it. Because it’s the right thing to do.
In her book, So Far From Home, Margaret Wheatley talks about those people who just keep doing hard things, even though they know the pain of repeated failure.
“My great teachers these days are people who no longer need hope in order to do their work, even though their projects and organizations began with bright, hope-filled dreams. As ‘the blood-dimmed tide’ of greed, fear, and oppression drowns out their voices and washes away their good work, they become more committed to their work, not because it will succeed, but just because it is right for them to be doing it.”
And so, we strap on our boots and prepare to do the hard work. Because it is right for us to be doing it. And we know that even a painful joy is better than no joy at all.
Note: If you are seeking your path through the hard things, you might find some support in The Spiral Path which starts on Monday.
“I’m trying not to take it personally, but…” Those are the opening words to many stories I hear from my coaching clients. They’re usually sharing something that has been spiralling through their mind – something that caused a wound, brought up fear, or blocked them from doing something they really wanted to do. They’re not only taking it personally, they’re carrying shame that they can’t simply brush it off.
My response to them is always the same.
Go ahead and take it personally.
Allow yourself to feel the hurt. Allow yourself to cry. Allow yourself to be angry, fearful, frustrated, sad, wounded, etc. Don’t shut down the feelings because of some ancient script that’s telling you that you’re weak if you take things personally.
Do not be ashamed of being a big-hearted, big-feeling person.
I’m not suggesting you should get stuck there, but that’s a good place to start. Healing starts in a heart that’s open, a heart that’s not afraid to feel, a heart that doesn’t try to stuff things away.
I often takes things personally. And I am no longer ashamed of that fact.
As my work becomes more and more public, I occasionally (though thankfully not frequently), get emails criticizing something I’ve said or done or not said or not done on my blog, in my courses, etc.. I used to tell myself “brush it off – this comes with the territory”. But that kind of self-talk was never helpful. I realized that, in trying to stuff the wound away, I was short-circuiting my ability to grow and learn from the wound.
When we bury the wound, we deny it the opportunity to teach us something.
Now, when an email or comment wounds me, the first thing I do is step away from the computer and find a cozy place where I can feel what I need to feel. I might make myself a cup of tea, wrap myself in my favourite blanket or prayer shawl, or head out to the woods where the trees don’t judge me for crying.
The second thing I do is to grab my journal. Journal writing (and mandala-journaling) has always been my way of processing the world. I sit down, and start writing all of the feelings – the hurt, the shame, the anger, the unworthiness, etc.. I don’t censor myself. I just let the pain show up on the page. Sometimes that’s all I need. The simple act of releasing it onto the page can be enough to shift how I feel about it.
If I need more work on it, I let my pen expand my heart as I stretch myself beyond the pain into the learning. I ask myself a few questions and try to answer them as honestly as possible:
Why is this triggering me? What old stories is it bringing up? (ie. Do I have stories of unworthiness, failure, shame, etc.?)
What is the deeper healing this wound is inviting me to?
What truth, even though it’s painful, do I need to receive from what’s been said and what do I need to change as a result?
Which parts of what’s been said do I need to let go of, recognizing that whatever’s been said is rooted in the other person’s stories, fears, etc.?
What new stories and new courage might this experience help me step into?
If things still feel unresolved after the journaling, walking, tea-drinking, crying, etc., I consult a trusted friend who will hold space for me while I talk my way through it. The right friend will help me gain perspective on it by asking good questions and offering other ways of interpreting it. She/he will never judge me for feeling the way I feel. (The ones who do make us feel judged are not the right friends to trust at that time.)
After I’ve done my personal work and talked with a friend, I do some discernment about what kind of response is required of me. My response usually depends on the relationship.
If it’s someone with whom I have an ongoing relationship that I want to maintain, I will invest time and energy in trying to engage in a meaningful conversation that will help us both move past this wound. I try to be as honest as possible in admitting how it made me feel (and maybe why it made me feel that way), receiving what I think is valuable in the criticism, and then expressing which part I don’t think is mine to carry forward (releasing, not blaming). I might also ask them to further explain their perspective, if I need deeper understanding.
I love what Brene Brown says in Rising Strong about engaging someone in a conversation after you’ve felt wounded by them. Instead of laying blame, she starts with “the story I’m making up is…” In other words, “I admit to interpreting this through the lens of my own past hurts, self-esteem, etc., and I want to give you a chance to offer a different story if I misinterpreted.”
If the email that hurt me is from a stranger with whom I have no relationship, I decide whether it’s worth it or not to invest in a reply. (Some people are simply complainers or trolls who have earned no right to that amount of my energy.) If it’s worth investing in, I usually respond with a much shorter email (remembering that I don’t have to over-explain myself), expressing gratitude for whatever I gained in the exchange and releasing what isn’t mine to carry. I may or may not invite them to engage further, depending on how much it’s worth to me.
Doing this kind of work when I feel wounded isn’t easy, but it’s necessary if I want to continue to grow and be in healthy relationships with people.
The best thing is that each time I do the work, it heals me a little more and makes me stronger for the next time I face something that has the potential to wound me. Some of the things that wounded me ten years ago no longer have that kind of power over me because I did the work to heal them. And some of the things that wound me now will no longer have power over me in ten years. That’s what doing my personal work healing is all about. It’s never over – it just goes deeper.
“You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability. You can choose comfort or you can choose courage. You can’t choose both. Courage is uncomfortable. That is why it’s rare. Being courageous is more important to me, as a value, than succeeding.” ~ Brené Brown
Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection. I send out weekly newsletters and updates on my work.
I have seen too many wounded women.
I have watched them lose the light in their eyes when the shadows overcame them.
I have heard a thousand reasons why they no longer give themselves permission to live truthfully.
I have seen too many wild hearts tamed.
I have witnessed the loss of courage when it’s just too hard to keep being an edgewalker in a world that values conformists.
I’ve recognized the fear as they take tiny brave steps, hoping and praying the direction is right.
“I feel guilty whenever I indulge in my passions. It feels selfish and irresponsible.”
“My husband doesn’t like it when I talk about feminine wisdom, so I keep it to myself.”
“If I write the things that are burning in my heart, it will freak people out. So I remain silent.” “I used to love wandering in the woods, but I never have time for it anymore.”
“I just want to have a real conversation for a change. I want to feel safe to speak my heart.”
“My job makes me feel dead inside, but I don’t know what else I can do.”
“People expect me to be strong and hide my feelings now that I’m in leadership. I feel like I have too much bottled up inside that I can’t share with anyone.”
“Sometimes I think there must be something wrong with me. I just don’t fit in.”
“There is so much longing in the world. I get lost in that longing and don’t know how to sit with it.”
“I wanted to be a painter, but I needed a real career. I haven’t painted in years.”
“People think I’m strange when I share my ideas, so I’ve learned to keep them to myself.”
“I can’t go to church anymore. I don’t feel understood there. But I haven’t found another place where I can find community, so I often feel lonely.” “There’s a restless energy inside me that wants to be free. I long to be free.”
So much woundedness has been laid tenderly on the ground at my feet.
So many women want their stories validated. Their fears held gently. Their tiny bits of courage honoured. I hear them whisper “please hear me” through clenched teeth.
I see the tears threaten to overflow out of stoic eyes.
I recognize the longing.
I know the brokenness.
I feel the ache of silenced dreams.
They come to me because they know I have been broken too.
They trust me with their whispers because I am acquainted with fear.
They look to me for courage and understanding because they witness my own long and painful journey back to my wild heart.
I see you.
I know you.
I honour you.
I love you.
You are beautiful.
You are courageous.
You are okay.
You can be wild again.
You can trust your heart. She will not lie to you.
You can live more fully in your body. She will welcome you back.
You can go home to that part of you that feels like it’s been lost.
You can find a circle of people who will understand you.
You can step back into courage.
You have permission to be an edgewalker.
You have permission to speak the things that you’re longing to say.
You have permission to be truly yourself.
You have permission to step away from your responsibilities for awhile.
You have permission to wander in the woods.
You also have permission to be afraid.
And to wait for the right time.
And to sit quietly while you build up your courage. You don’t need to do this all alone.
And you don’t need to do it all at once.
You don’t need to shout before you’re ready to whisper.
You don’t need to dance before you’ve tried simply swaying to the music.
You can give your woundedness time to heal.
Take a small step back into your self.
Move a little closer to your wild heart.
Pause and touch the wounded places in you.
Just breathe… slowly and deeply.
And when you’re ready, we can do this together.
If this post resonates, please consider the following:
2. I’m creating a new online program called Lead with Your Wild Heart (related to the themes in this post) that feels like a coming together of a thousand ideas that have filled my head in recent years. Add your name to my email list (top right) to be the first to hear about it and to receive a discount.
In just 45 days, I will turn 45. It doesn’t really scare me, or depress me. In fact, I feel quite good about it. I’m enjoying my 40s. It’s a beautiful middle ground. You’re old enough to be taken seriously, but young enough to be forgiven for still making foolish mistakes.
I’m more relaxed in my skin, comfortable with who I am, and confident in my own wisdom than I ever was in my 20s or 30s. I’m no longer dealing with the stress of early parenthood or all of that self-doubt when you just can’t figure out what you want to be when you grow up. (Not that I’ve mastered either of those things, but rather that I’m more comfortable with the not-knowing).
Just before I turned 40, I wrote a post called “40 days ’til 40” (on my old blog) about the ways that I wanted to spend 40 days in preparation for my 40s intentionally seeking out more opportunities for contemplation, creativity, spirituality, and physical activity. I’m happy to say that those 40 days helped set the tone for this decade – I’ve done more of all of those things (and been more intentional about them) in my 40s than I ever did before.
After those 40 days of preparation, I did two big things to mark my 40th birthday – I got my nose pierced and I went skydiving. Those two things ushered in a more fearless decade than I’ve ever had (as you saw in the last post). Jumping out of a plane made me feel like I was capable of doing almost anything. (Incidentally, for my last birthday, I had a bra-burning party to celebrate my breast reduction surgery. I have this thing for marking major milestones.)
Now that it’s 45 days until my 45th birthday, I’m contemplating how I should mark the midway point in this decade. Once again, I want to do something that challenges my fear and teaches me new lessons in my current theme… letting go of the ground. (By the way, I hope to release my e-course by that name on my birthday!)
That’s where YOU come in.
I’m hoping to come up with 45 ways of turning 45. In other words… 45 ways of being fearless, 45 ways of letting go of the ground, or 45 ways of embracing my feminine wisdom and growing my creativity.
Can you help me? Leave your suggestions (on any of those themes, or come up with a way to combine them ALL) in the comments or email me. I’m not saying I’ll do them all, but I’ll at least do one or two that feel like a good fit.
Keep in mind that our finances are not abundant right now (as I struggle to build a new business) so if your idea is expensive, you’ll also have to come up with an idea for financing it.
Give it your best shot… how can I become a more FEARLESS 45?
p.s. one of my plans is to run my first half-marathon a few weeks after my birthday.
Recently, I finished the first draft of my book. It’s a book I’ve resisted writing for ten years because there are parts of it that are just so darn scary, I was much more comfortable shoving those memories and ideas into a closet than bringing them into the light of day. And yet, that book just kept insisting it wanted to be written. And now that it’s written (at least the first draft), it won’t leave me alone until I share it. Pesky book.
After I finished it though, it felt like a great big boulder had been lifted off me. A boulder of fear and resistance that was keeping me from growing into the next phase of my life.
Shortly after closing the file, something told me I should go back and watch the video I created two years ago. In 2009, I chose “fearless” as my word for the year, and in honour of that choice, I created this video…
After watching it, I sat back in stunned amazement. In just over two years, I’ve done almost all of the things I committed to in that video!
– I’ve taken not just one, but THREE art classes. I have fallen in love with painting AND I’m even teaching an art journal workshop at 21 Secrets! How cool is that?!
– I wrote the book that was scaring the pants off me, rather than the book that seemed like the safe choice (and a publisher was interested in).
– I got breast reduction surgery and consequently stopped wearing ill-fitting clothing.
– I’ve dared to reach out and be vulnerable and have developed some truly amazing friendships.
– I’ve taken chances with my writing and shared a lot of personal stories on my blog. I dropped my “fumbling for words” blog because it was time to step into a more confident writer voice.
– I took up yoga and loved it. And then I took up running and loved it even more.
– I quit my job without a master plan or security blanket. I jumped into the abyss not knowing where the ground would be.
– I started Sophia Leadership and have connected with a lot of amazing people through what has emerged here.
– I started teaching a writing course at the university. I fell in love with teaching. And I dream of the next courses I want to teach.
– I released my first e-book. I took a risk and asked a lot of smart people to contribute, and they DID! Over 500 copies were downloaded in just two weeks.
– I followed my heart to a few world-changing events and met some truly amazing world-changing people.
– I put out a proposal to ALIA to do some promotional work for their Summer Institute, and they took me up on it.
As soon as I realized that I’d done all of those things I’d dreamed of having enough fearlessness to do, I knew it was time to make a new video. If one little video can have so much impact, perhaps I need to do a new one every couple of years.
tree of hope
AND this time I decided it was time to make a truly bold commitment, and paint my intentions on the wall. In the video, you’ll see the creation of the dream-filled artwork that now greets me when I walk into my little basement studio (alongside the one by my daughter Maddy).
While we were painting, Maddy joked that if all of those swirls represented my daughters (as they have in other paintings, when I’ve painted only three), I must want to have a LOT of children. I told her that this time, they represent my dreams. Her response? “If you have that many dreams, you’d better get busy and make them happen, because your life is half over!”