Simplicity on the other side of complexity

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity. – Oliver Wendell Holmes

I have watched the buzz around Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 campaign with interest. It was my teenage daughter who first alerted me to it. Like many teenagers all over the world, she was pumped up about it and wanted to wear the bracelet, hang the posters, and know that she was part of a movement that was stopping an evil man and fixing problems for the children he’d brutalized.

I validated her passion, and then I suggested that, if she really wanted to know how to help people in Uganda, she should speak to people who’ve grown up there – like my friend Nestar – and find out more about what the issues are and how a teenager in Canada can support them.

The last thing I want to do is pour cold water on my daughter’s passion… but… there are many complexities that KONY 2012 ignores. Complexities like… What are the root causes of war? What have people in Uganda already done to try to resolve the situation? How might a campaign like this feed into the dangerous colonialism that North Americans too frequently fall prone to when it comes to the way we want to “fix” problems in other countries? What if the world isn’t really as black and white as the film would have us believe and we can’t simply resolve problems by doing away with bad guys?

The problem is, complexity doesn’t trend on Twitter. You can’t fit it onto a bracelet and sell it to millions of teenagers.

Complexity involves time and effort and frustration and commitment and chaos and depth and… a whole lot of things that make it tough to fit into a marketing plan.

This is an issue I’ve struggled with for a long time, starting with my work as a communicator for a non-profit organization working with partners all over the world to respond to hunger. It’s not easy to explain the complexities around why people are hungry. There is no simple cause and effect that can be fixed by throwing a few dollars at it or sending a letter to the government or wearing a t-shirt. Hunger is about conflict and HIV/AIDS and gender and politics and corruption and… the list goes on and on. To make any long term difference so that people are able to access food on a regular basis instead of becoming reliant on aid agencies, you have to dive into the complexity and dare to get your hands dirty.

Try as I might, I just couldn’t boil those complex messages down to a simple catch phrase. It wasn’t for lack of trying, though – I made several videos when I was working there, and none of them went viral. They didn’t have cute, cherubic children in them, and I didn’t promise an African child I would stop the bad guys who killed his brother.

As anyone in n0n-profit will tell you, though, it’s the simple “give money and you can fix a problem” messages that get the donations and support. “Sponsor a child” or “buy a goat”  or “stop a bad guy” paint simple problems with simple solutions and they bring in money. People want to know that their $30 donation will mean that a child can sit down to a meal every day, or that evil will be arrested. Send out a photo of that child whose life has been “fixed”, and it’s an easy sell.

But none of this is simple. You can’t fix all of the complex problems that children face – marginalization, conflict, lack of education, etc. – with your $30 donation (and I’m not suggesting that those organizations who use this type of marketing would ever make such a claim). I wish it were so, but it’s not.

It’s not much different in the work I now do in personal development, facilitation, and teaching. On a regular basis, students ask me for simple answers – templates to ensure they’ll get top grades, rules for writing, etc.. “It’s not that simple,” I say. “This is not a black and white world.”

If I could sell simple, my business probably would have taken off like wildfire. But I can’t sell simple any more than I could create simple videos about how hunger can be resolved. I live in a complex world, and I can’t authentically tell you that anything I offer will fix your life or your community or workplace. I live in a world where babies die, where loved ones attempt suicide, where people loose their jobs, where fathers get killed by tractors, where people who love each other sometimes hurt each other, and where dreams don’t always come true.

I don’t sell magic. I sell hard work and deep dives and surrender and journeys through chaos – nothing that fits into a 140 character tweet. My work is to invite you on the journey through complexity.

Fortunately, though, I believe, as Oliver Wendell Holmes says in the quote at the top of this article, that there is a deeper kind of simplicity on the other side of complexity.

That simplicity is the place where God resides.

It’s about Love – the simplest (and yet most complex) concept in the world.

It’s about the kind of love that “passes understanding”. It’s love that’s been through the battlefield of complexity and lived to tell the tale. It’s love that knows that there is no black or white, but just a lot of shades of grey. It’s love that recognizes that to really help people who are hurting we have to sit in the hurt with them and not try to fix it. It’s love that dares to get messy and dares to forgive.

It’s also about surrender. And trust. And forgiveness. And community. All of those are simple words, but none of them are simplistic. They don’t exist without the complexity.

I have had the honour of doing mandala sessions with several people who, after working their way through the mandala discovery process, have found a path through complexity to a new place of simplicity. I get to witness the a-ha moments as something new arrives that brings them closer to their centre, closer to Spirit, closer to truth, closer to simplicity. It might not make me millions, but I wouldn’t trade this kind of work for anything that fits cleanly on a marketing plan or is easy to sell in 140 characters or less.

This is the hero’s journey we’re talking about – Theseus’ path through the labyrinth, hanging onto a thread. It’s not simple. And yet it takes us to the deeper simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Angelina Atyam, an amazing woman whose daughter was abducted, along with her schoolmates, several years ago by Joseph Kony’s army in Uganda. Atyam joined together with other mothers to form Concerned Parents Association and began lobbying for the return of their children. They challenged the government to reconsider its strategy against the LRA. At one point, she even had the opportunity to meet with the President of Uganda.

Clearly feeling threatened by the work of CPA, the LRA sent a message to Atyam that they would return her daughter if she would stop her public relations campaign against them. Atyam countered with an offer to do so if all the girls from St. Mary’s were freed, but the LRA refused it. Her family was appalled that she had turned down the offer, but as she wrote in Marie Claire, “getting my child back would be absolutely wonderful, but if I accepted the offer, I would be turning my back on all the other families. I’d destroy the new community spirit we had created–the hope of getting all the boys and girls back.”

Eventually, her daughter was found and returned to Atyam. By then, the daughter had given birth to two children fathered by the commander of the army. One son went missing in the raid that rescued Atyam’s daughter, but a few weeks later, after he’d wandered in the bush alone with no food for weeks, he was found. Atyam began raising her grandchildren so that her daughter could go to school.

The part of the story that sticks with me the most is what Atyam shared about forgiveness. At one point she realized that she was full of bitterness and that she could not work effectively for peace if she didn’t first experience forgiveness. Working hard to forgive her daughter’s captors, she went to the village where the mother of the commander of the army lived. She told the other women that she did not hold her personally responsible for what had happened to her daughter. She said she forgave the woman and her son for the horrible things that had been done to her family.

That, my friends, is complexity. It’s messy and uncomfortable and courageous.

That’s the kind of complexity that is missing from the KONY 2012 video. Uganda’s challenges will not be resolved by a lot of well-meaning white people wearing wristbands. Uganda’s challenges will be resolved by mothers standing up to evil and then digging deep into their hearts for forgiveness and love.

That love that Angelina Atyam extended to the mother of her daughter’s abductor and that helped her raise the grandchildren who’d been fathered by a murderer? That’s the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Along the path: a story of rape, birth, and redemption

I don’t know what compelled me to leave the beaten path on the way to my meeting, but almost before I knew it, I was wandering along a rough, ungroomed trail by the river close to downtown. People tend to avoid this trail for fear of encountering the homeless people who normally frequent it.

As soon as I stepped off the pavement, the tight feeling in my chest reminded me why I haven’t taken that trail in over twenty years.

It was almost certainly the trail that my rapist used to get to the window of my basement apartment.

That apartment building was along the river, just up the path from where I entered, and a person could easily sneak in from behind without arousing any suspicion from the street or sidewalk in front of the building. Nobody noticed him slip into my window and take my innocence away.

That path is not a place where good things happen. It’s not a place where respectable people wander. It’s a place where homeless people find shelter from bad weather under concrete overhangs and fallen trees. It’s a place where substance abusers hide from the prying eyes of the police.

Why then was I on the path and why didn’t I turn back? I’m not sure. Something compelled me. Perhaps it was a search for redemption, or a curiosity about what my response would be now, more than twenty years later.

As I got deeper into the path and further from the safety of the street, my throat began to close around my breath. What if I encountered someone who looked like my rapist, in this place where few people would here me scream? What if I stumbled across a crime in process?

At one point I passed a concrete overhang where flattened cardboard boxes and tattered blankets told the story of its inhabitants. “Did my rapist live here?” I wondered.

In some places the path was so muddy from recent flooding that it was nearly impassable. A flip-flop wearing young woman in front of me (the only other person on the trail) slipped and got her foot stuck in the mud. In my sturdier runners and from my place of somewhat more solid ground, I reached out my hand and pulled her out of the mud.

Almost to my destination, I emerged from the path back onto the street. There in front of me was a health centre that was once the hospital where my first daughter was born fifteen years ago. It was only a block from the apartment where I’d been raped nine years before that.

As I walked to my board meeting, I was suddenly overcome by the layers of personal stories that this one city block held for me. First a rape in my early womanhood, then the happy birth that made me a mother, and now, in that same block, a meeting of the board I sit on for thefeminist organization that is working to empower marginalized women.

All of these stories coming together in one place. Stories of hurt, happiness, and redemption. Stories of violence, transformation, and fulfilment. Women’s stories, all of them. My stories. The layers of me – from hurt young woman, to excited young mom, to maturing adult ready to use those stories to help other women.

In the end, it was the moment that I stopped to pull the young woman out of the mud that stood out most for me. That was the lesson that I was meant to learn from my wander along the riverbank.

Though I was once the victim of crime, now I was the one who pulled other women out of the mud. The strength of my more sturdy position and appropriate footwear meant that I could reach over and offer others a lifeline.

And that’s what leadership is about – reaching a place on the path where our somewhat more sturdy footing gives us opportunity to offer support and balance to those on less solid ground and less prepared for the situation at hand. We’re still on the path with them, avoiding the muddy patches ourselves, wondering where the path will lead us, worried about the dangers along the way, and yet our life experience and wisdom gives us something to offer other sojourners along the way.

It is both as simple and challenging as that.

Here’s a video I took along the trail.

Note: It seems appropriate that this experience occurred yesterday, just before I leave for my week at ALIA, a place where I will be challenged and encouraged in my leadership journey. This image, of pulling the woman out of the mud, will sit with me as I contemplate where the journey is about to take me.

What the young feminists taught me

Before and after the leadership workshop that made me cry (and laugh) I got to hang out with a bunch of young feminists this past weekend. I was too old to participate in the ReBelles gathering, but I could at least volunteer and be inspired by their energy and passion.  I worked at the registration desk and the merch table and I served some delicious vegetarian chilli to a bunch of hungry (and wet) feminists who’d come out of the rain after marching on the streets.

I was there for three reasons.

1. I wanted to be inspired by their passion and commitment and was hoping that some of their energy would rub off on me. I think we all have a lot to learn from those younger than us and I was open to the learning.

2. I feel a calling to be a mentor and supporter of young women leaders in the next generation and I want to do what I can to encourage them as they step into their own leadership and power.

3. I know some of the organizers and I am quite fond of them.

Though I wasn’t allowed in the workshops or plenary sessions (they were quite intentional about maintaining the space for women under 35 and I respect that choice), I got what I wanted out of the experience and I’m glad I went.

The truth is, I’ve been discouraged lately by what our generation is doing with feminism and I think it’s time to turn things around again.

As I said when I created Sophia Leadership, on my “About Sophia Leadership” page, the feminist revolution opened doors for women – doors that lead us into the houses of power. We became leaders and politicians and educators and business owners, but to do that, we had to learn to think and lead like men.

The post-feminist movement helped women tap into our sources of power – our spirituality, our creativity, and our intuition – but we didn’t take those things into the houses of power with us. We were mostly busy making the connection between our heads, hearts, and bodies in our own spaces for our own benefits.

We so enjoyed the freedom that the feminist revolution earned for us that we started spending most of our time focused on ourselves, buying all the self-help books we could find, going to all the yoga and spiritual retreats we could afford, and justifying all the choices we made to pamper ourselves instead of being in positions of servitude as our mothers had been.

What we forgot, however, is that along with freedom comes great responsibility.

I firmly believe that it’s time for the next step in the women’s movement. Now it’s time to merge what we learned in both the feminist and post-feminist eras and make some BIG changes. I suspect that it might be the next generation who will do the bulk of the work of ushering in a new era of feminine wisdom, and so I want to support it where I can.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we – the over 40 crowd – have an excuse to go back to our insular world of self-care and self-focused spirituality. Our young leaders may be the ones with energy and they may be the ones to do the turning, but they need us, their mentors, wise women, sages, and crones.

They need us and we need them. I was so glad to be part of a mutual benefit society this weekend.

And here are a few of the things the young feminists taught me:

1. Make your work, retreats, and gatherings accessible to everyone. Instead of gathering with only the elite who can afford spiritual retreat centres, find ways to prepare simple meals, host people in homes, charge on a sliding scale, and make sure the emerging leaders from poor and marginalized groups can afford to participate.

2. Be intentional about including only ethically produced and purchased food and products – things that are gentle on the earth and that weren’t produced by under-paid labourers in faraway factories.

3. Combine art and body movement workshops with political/advocacy workshops. Find ways of blending them in ways that are uniquely feminine.

4. Dare to be passionate. March in the streets. Write manifestos. If things need to be shaken up, SHAKE THEM AND DON’T APOLOGIZE!

5. Be intentional about creating spaces for those you’ve gathered, and don’t apologize to those you’ve excluded. But then honour those who support you from outside that circle and hold a feast for all to celebrate together.

6. Bring in wise women as elders, honour them and let them advise you, but do not let them run the show if you have people in your group quite capable of organizing gatherings.

7. Make the space as safe as you can for emerging leaders, by doing small things like asking the rental facility to ensure the guards on duty while you gather are all women.

8. Don’t leave until you have some clear action items and then follow up to make sure there is MOVEMENT. Don’t let people simply go back to their homes with warm fuzzies forgetting their commitments to positive change.

In the presence of warriors – leaders who’ve inspired me

The word “warrior” keeps popping up in my life lately. It started last month when I referred to myself as a warrior when I served as Marcel’s advocate as we navigated the dysfunctional health care system. A few weeks later, when I registered for ALIA (where I’ll be next week!), I signed up for the workshop “Leader as Shambala Warrior”. Intrigued with the concept of the Shambala warrior (and somewhat amused by how this was following my own self-definition as warrior), I started doing some advance reading for the workshop. The reading only increased the intrigue.

To be a warrior in Shambala tradition, you must be strong, peace-loving, bold, gentle, compassionate, and forgiving. It’s not about going to war, the way we in the West would tend to think about warriorship. It’s about striving for goodness in the world in which we live. Thankfully, It doesn’t require of me that I give up my pacifist roots and go to war.

I’ve been thinking about which leaders I have witnessed that I would say embody the concept of the Shambala warrior. Many of them, it turns out, are women who work tirelessly (and usually very quietly and humbly) for peace, justice, and equality in the developing countries they call home. They may be quiet, but they are also bold and know when to call a spade a spade. I have heard many of them make rather scathing comments about what they have witnessed in our North American culture. Here are a few of my inspirations:

Elizabeth was just 23 when I met her in Ethiopia, but she has wisdom and strength beyond her years. She has committed her life to serving the cause of justice for those who are poor. She gave up her home in  Addis Ababa to move to a remote village in the Afar desert to help a nomadic community build a water diversion project so that they can move beyond the hunger that has plagued them for a number of years (since the climate has changed and drought comes more frequently). Arriving in a Muslim community, Elizabeth was told “this project will never work if it’s lead by a woman”, but she persevered and a few years later, dramatic changes have occured. Not only do they have abundant crops where nothing once grew, but there are more children going to school because families do not have to uproot themselves in search of water.  The most exciting change is that gradually, women are being allowed to hold leadership positions in local governance, because the community witnessed what Elizabeth was capable of.

When I met Fidelis, I couldn’t help but notice the fierce energy burning in her eyes, despite the quiet calm of her face. It didn’t take long to find out that my first impressions were dead on. This was a women who would stand up to almost anyone without flinching (she had the nerve to tell Jeffrey Sachs he might be wrong on some of his thoughts on the Green Revolution for Africa and encouraged him to listen to more Africans), but still had the grace and compassion to make everyone in her presence feel valued. One of the most striking things she said in her visit to Canada was “Why do you people in the West always think you need to FIX everything?” She was working tirelessly in her native Kenya to help farmers learn more sustainable agriculture practices. I remember a story she told about how they’d learned to give goats and chickens in some villages because then they were more assured that the women and children would eat (men were too proud to eat that lowly meat and preferred beef). Sadly, Fidelis passed away last year. A bright light too soon gone.

Mary Beth left a career in teaching to work in agricultural development because she witnessed marginalized tribes during times of conflict not having enough food to eat and it awakened a driving passion in her to do something about it. She was quickly promoted to leadership and now serves as Chief Functionary/Secretary for the Rural Women’s Upliftment Society (RWUS) in a remote area of India. When she visited Canada, she could not believe how much waste was accepted in our culture. “I visited a potato farm,” she said, “and saw so many potatoes that were left on the field to rot after the machines had finished the harvest. I couldn’t help but think of all the people those potatoes might feed.”

Victoria is the first woman to serve as General Secretary of the Association of Evangelicals of Liberia (AEL).  AEL is active in resettling refugees from the many years of civil war, including helping many farmers to successfully return to their land. As a single parent who provides a home for not only her own children, but her nieces and nephews (who she is supporting through school), she was struck by the self-centredness of Western culture. “When we have a surplus, we give it to someone around who does not have enough food.  There are always people around who need food.”

Shama carries herself with poise and strength. There is little doubt when you meet her that you are meeting a leader. She works in program management for Church World Service in her native Pakistan. As a woman in a leadership position in a male-dominated world, she often has to assert herself or choose to ignore the prejudice she’s subjected to. Some of the projects Shama manages help families who’ve been displaced because of conflict gain access to food. It is clear she loves her country and she longs for a day when more of the young girls she meets in rural areas have access to education. Sadly, though, even where there are schools, she fears that young people are not being taught to think creatively. “They are taught by rote,” she says. “Questions are frowned upon. I’d like to see that changed.”

I wish I’d had more time to spend with Kabita on the tiny island in the Sundarbans in India where she lives. My first impression of this young schoolteacher was that she had great respect (and expected the same) for the children under her guidance who danced for us when we first arrived on the island. She took my hand and gently guided me around her village, helping me aboard the bicycle transport, protecting me from tree branches along the path, and making sure I was comfortable. With pride, she introduced me to the place she calls home where she works tirelessly to bring education to children from marginalized tribes. I have never felt so comfortable holding another woman’s hand, but there was a special bond between Kabita and I right from the start. There were tears in both of our eyes when we parted.

As I prepare to go to ALIA, I will carry the legacy of these women with me. They are the lights along my path toward my own authentic leadership and warriorship.

One of my heroes


“Women can’t think.” That’s what Elizabeth Milton was told the first time she visited the Afar Region. She’d been recently hired by Support for Sustainable Development, a non-profit organization with a mission to help the Afar people build more sustainable livelihoods in the drought-prone Afar region of Ethiopia by building water diversion projects to irrigate newly developed farmland. The Afar people are traditionally nomadic people who follow their livestock from one grazing area to the next. With drought occurring increasingly more frequently, however, and more and more people and livestock competing for the same forage space, their livelihoods are becoming less viable every year.

The men of the local village had gathered to meet with Elizabeth to discuss the development of canals and irrigation systems. She asked to hear from the women, but was told in no uncertain terms that here in the Afar, women could not be trusted to have opinions or thoughts on important issues such as water resources. They could be relied on to do much of the manual labour, like hauling water, building houses, herding livestock, and providing food for their families, but they could not think. Men did the thinking for them.

“That’s why I decided to stay,” Elizabeth told me when I asked her what had motivated her to spend the last three years in a remote camp, far from her family and friends, in harsh desert conditions. “I had to prove to them that women really can think.” There was a twinkle in her eye when she said it.

At the base camp in the Afar region, Elizabeth leads a staff that varies from 50 to 80 people, depending on the stage of the project they’re working on. In addition to the paid staff, who fill roles such as agronomists, engineers, and construction site supervisors, there are hundreds of local labourers who dig ditches and build dams in exchange for food to feed their families. The project is impressive in its scale and it’s difficult to imagine what it would take to lead such an operation.

Elizabeth and staff

Elizabeth is not what you’d expect when you think of a bold female leader out to change the world. She’s petite and shy, with an easy smile on her attractive face. When we visited her and her team, at first glance she could easily have been mistaken for one of the kitchen staff. Demanding no special attention or honour as “the boss”, she quietly went about ensuring that we had cold beverages to refresh us after our journey, and could later be found grinding coffee and washing our dishes.

She’s only twenty-four years old, but already she’s done more to change the world than many people do in a lifetime. “I love my country,” she told me, when I asked why she’d pursued a career in development. “I know we are capable of great things. But we must first ensure that our people have enough to eat. If Ethiopia has any hope for the future, it has to be in its own people.”

Though she’s clearly passionate about her work, Elizabeth’s three years in the Afar have been fraught with challenges. There were multiple counts against her, in those early days. Not only was she a woman, she was young and seemingly inexperienced. In addition, she’s a Christian in a predominately Muslim region. Building trust among the locals took a considerable amount of energy and commitment. “It was very hard at the beginning,” she said. “Nobody really believed I could do it. I often felt like I was in over my head, and I was lonely. And I didn’t always believe it would work.” Plus, coming from another region of Ethiopia, she didn’t know the local language. In order to work with the Afar people, she had to first learn their language.

Despite the challenges, the marks of success of Elizabeth’s three years of leadership are not hard to find. First of all, there are the obvious signs, like an impressive water diversion system which consists of a well engineered water weir that redirects the water from the river, as well as miles and miles of irrigation ditches. All of this has been dug by manual labour. Where the water has been diverted and the crops have been planted, there are lush gardens that would be the envy of any gardener. While we were there, they’d just harvested some of the biggest red onions I’ve ever seen. There were also juicy tomatoes, spicy red peppers, and acres and acres of maize and grain.


The real success, however, goes much deeper than the harvest from the fertile, freshly watered soil. While we toured the gardens, we were introduced to two women who are members of the local water-users committee, which is now one of the most important governing bodies in the region. To understand how remarkable it is to have women playing these roles, you have to realize that before Elizabeth’s arrival, no woman had ever served in a leadership role in this region before.

Women in water users committee

“I like to think I influenced the people here,” says Elizabeth, who’s almost too modest to admit she’s changing the world. “They now believe that women can think. Before I came, they didn’t trust their women. But now that they see their bountiful crops, and they realize that this is partly because a woman lead them in this endeavour, they have begun to trust their wives and sisters to serve in leadership roles.”

Another sign of succes is the new village that’s recently sprung up around the SSD base camp. It’s a sign of trust and acceptance that the Afar people choose to be near the staff who brought change to their region. Often wary of Christians, particularly those who come from other regions of the country, these people have made a leap of faith moving in next door. New business has already begun to emerge as well. In a tiny shop in front of a woman’s home, you can now by fabric, candles, and various other household items. Another important sign of positive change is the increased enrolment in school. When SSD first began working in the region, only one child attended the local school. Now there are nearly fifty.

In the evening, after we’d visited the canals and field that had all been developed under Elizabeth’s leadership, we were invited to the village school where a group of young women and men gathered to perform their local dance. While we watched, several young school children clustered around Elizabeth. Affectionately, she put her arms around one of the young girls. It was a simple gesture, but to me it was the picture of hope.

In many ways that they don’t understand yet, the future looks much brighter for these young girls than it did before Elizabeth Milton arrived in their village. Some day, Elizabeth will be only a distant memory, but when they have opportunities to take on more and more leadership roles, they will have her to thank.

Elizabeth 2

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