I’m a statistic. I’m one of the women Sheryl Sandburg and others talk about who don’t, in their opinion, help the cause of feminism. I made it all the way to the glass ceiling, peered through the cracks, decided I didn’t like what I saw, and walked out. I’m a “walk out who walked on.”
There’s a pretty good chance I would have made it through that glass ceiling if I’d “leaned in” long enough. I had all of the credentials and was an ambitious up-and-comer at the time. I took the fast track through the ranks of the public service, had the title “director” added to my name, got the office right next to the corner office, and was making more money than I’d ever dreamed I could.
On top of the career, I had a good feminist husband who carried his share of the household and parenting responsibilities, a couple of beautiful daughters, a house in the suburbs, a minivan, a trailer at the lake, and a boat. You could say I had it all – the feminist’s dream.
And now? I still have the husband and daughters (with an extra one since those days), but I no longer have the trailer at the lake, the boat, the comfortable paycheck or the title of “director” attached to my name. Instead, I have a tiny office in my basement without a window and a fledgling career as a teacher, coach, facilitator and writer.
Some might call me a failed feminist. I let go of the dream that my foremothers fought for. I quit the corporate climb on the wrong side of the glass ceiling. Instead I now spend a good portion of my days creating mandalas with Sharpie markers, hosting story circles, and inviting retreat participants to stitch together quilt squares – not exactly the things a traditional feminist would take pride in.
Why did I walk away from the corporate career and the frequent flyer points in favour of Sharpie markers, quilt squares, and women’s retreats?
There are a few reasons.
- At the height of my career, I had a stillborn son whose presence in my life reminded me that my priorities are not wealth, work, or prestige but rather family, community, and space for spirituality.
- I wanted to find happiness. I knew that the corner office wasn’t my path to happiness.
- I became convinced that it’s time for feminism to grow into something new, and I was pretty sure that I could serve a greater role in helping to birth the new wave of feminism from outside a corporate structure.
It’s that last point that I want to talk about in this article. Instead of a “failed feminist”, I like to think of myself as an “emergent feminist”.
It’s time, I believe, for women to change the world. That won’t happen simply by getting into CEO positions and taking more seats at the boardroom tables. Women will change the world only if we CHANGE LEADERSHIP.
When I was in formal leadership, on my way to the top, I thrived because I learned to think like a man. I listened to the voices of mentors who told me that “feelings have nothing to do with leadership and you should leave them out of the boardroom”, I shut down my intuition in favour of logic, I left my spirituality and much of my creativity at home, I was careful not to be too wild or passionate, and I even started to believe what I was told once that “relationships get in the way of good programming.”
By the time I broke away from formal leadership to start my own business, ten years after being named a director, I was almost completely burnt out from living in a way that was not authentic to me. I returned to the things that made me feel alive – spiritual practices, art-making, wandering in the woods, and relationships – and when I did I realized that THESE THINGS were exactly what had been missing in my leadership practice. More importantly, they weren’t just absent from my own journey, they were missing from leadership in general.
Instead of leaving them at home, I should have clung to them and brought them into my work. Instead of shutting down my feelings and encouraging my staff to do the same, I should have invited them to bring their vulnerability into conversation circles. Instead of creating strategic plans that rarely evoke any imagination, I should have drawn mandalas that wake up the right brain and invite it to the table. Instead of sitting around energy-killing boardroom tables, I should have held staff retreats in the middle of the woods.
For far too long, we’ve accepted a masculine-dominated leadership paradigm in our government offices, our businesses and even our non-profits that is no longer serving us. As Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze say in Walk Out Walk On, we’ve been relying on the leader-as-hero model, when what we really need now is the leader-as-host. In the words of Tina Turner, “we don’t need another hero”. We need people who can lead from a place in the circle, people who can help heal the brokenness in the world, people who help us feel connected again, and people who can remind us of the importance of our relationship with the earth.
“Leadership is about rearranging the chairs, getting the questions right, putting citizens in front of each other and then knowing what’s worth focusing on. The leadership I’m longing for is the leadership that says my number one job is to bring people together, out of exile, out of isolation, and into connection.” – Peter Block
All around us, we see signs of how disconnected we have become – over-consumption of our resources, terrorist attacks, climate change, extreme poverty, etc. These are the stories of a disconnected human race and this disconnection has been fueled by competitive, hierarchical, power-driven leadership that has been allowed to run un-checked.
If the new wave of feminism has a role to play in the world it is not about pushing harder for the corner office, but about bringing us back to a place of connection. Instead of fighting for the top jobs, the power and the prestige, we should be urging our leaders to bring us out of exile and back to community, back to spirituality, back to earth stewardship, and back to ourselves.
Instead of simply fighting to gain entry into the halls of power, we should be working to change the furniture in those halls. It’s time to move the chairs into a circle and open the windows to the world. It’s time to air out the corner office and replace it with conversation spaces. It’s time to replace competitiveness with collaboration, and hierarchy with community.
This is why I decided to walk out and walk on… my role in the world is no longer to fight for power, it’s to help us figure out how to balance power with love. Instead of standing in front of people, I’m sitting beside them and creating space for conversations. Instead of thinking like a man, I’m inviting men to think more like women.
I don’t want the corner office, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see a woman there. I will always fight for her right to be there, and when she gets there, I’ll be standing beside her, helping her to take down the walls of her corner office and invite people in. I will urge her to see the world through balanced eyes, honouring both the feminine and the masculine in the world, and creating space for us all to have meaningful conversations that lead the world into the transformation it needs.
I’m now leading from a place in the circle so that I can help other women (and men) learn to do the same. When we’ve gathered into that circle, we can all lean in and listen to each other.
If you’re looking for a new way of defining leadership, join me on a free call on Re-imagining Leadership for our Time on May 1 at 2 pm. Central.
Today is International Women’s Day.
Not long ago, I was on my way to a coordinating committee meeting for a feminist organization I’m part of, and one of my teenage daughters asked “Do we still need feminist organizations? I thought women already had all the rights they need.”
At first I was rather shocked by her response. How could a daughter of mine, who’s been raised in a home where human rights issues are discussed on a regular basis by a mother who doesn’t hesitate to share stories of the women she’s met in other parts of the world who’ve had their genitals mutilated or have been sold into slavery, not understand that there are still many women who are marginalized, ignored, tortured, raped, sold into slavery, etc., etc.?
After the initial shock, though, I realized that part of the reason she asked the question is precisely because she has been raised in an environment where these conversations are a normal part of her day – where women’s equality and ability to lead is never questioned by either her mom or her dad, where her dad respects her choices and takes responsibility for just as much of the child-rearing and household care as her mom, and where she knows she has as many options for her future as her male cousins and friends. Those are good things, and it gives me hope that young women in her generation will enter a work world where equality is assumed and no longer has to be fought for.
According to Gloria Steinem, though, we still have a long way to go. “The Feminist Revolution is the longest revolution in history. I’m not sure we’re halfway through this process. Maybe only a third. That’s why I say to take it in 100-year stretches. Movements have to last at least a century to be fully absorbed and normalized in culture.”
I am part of two organizations that are honouring International Women’s Day in different yet equally relevant ways.
UNPAC, the organization that I sit on the coordinating committee for, is releasing a gender budget report card on the steps of our provincial parliament building today (at 11:30 if you’re in Winnipeg). We’ve done analysis of how our provincial government has or has not indicated their support for women’s issues by committing funding to it and we’re advocating for change in that regard. We still need change. The government barely got a passing grade.
Gather the Women, another organization I’m connected with, has just today launched its website (that I created, by the way) for its annual gathering called Weaving Wisdom, Renewing Spirit, happening in August in Ontario, Canada in August. The women of this organization are supporting the work of women by gathering in circle and honouring feminine wisdom and what gives us unique strength as women – our spirituality, community, connection, stories, and compassion. (I sure would love to have you join us at the gathering!)
Sometimes I feel a little torn by these two approaches – is it better to spend my time and energy advocating for women’s rights, or sitting in circle and dreaming about and working toward a better world where women’s wisdom is valued?
My answer to that question is – it’s best to do both.
We need to continue to challenge the priorities of our government, stand up for those who are being marginalized and brutalized, point out the inequality in the way women are represented in our media, and empower women to make their own choices. We need to continue striving toward a world where women have access to power, and decisions are not made on our behalf. We need to ensure we live in a true democracy where women’s voices are heard as loudly as men’s.
AND we need to sit in circle; support community-building; honour our spirits, intuition, and feminine wisdom; and continue to strive for a world in which women’s wisdom is no longer considered secondary to men’s. We need to believe that collaboration is important as competition, that communities are as important as teams, that circles are as important as hierarchies, that intuition is as important as strategy, and that art and beauty really are transformative.
There are many ways to silence people. You can brutalize them, overpower them, threaten them, or marginalize them. You can imprison them, take away their rights, kill them, or ignore them.
One of the most insidious ways of silencing people, however, is to convince them that their voices are not important, that what they claim as wisdom is just frivolousness, and that their stories have no relevance. That’s what’s been happening for too long to women all over the world.
Yes, it’s horrible that women are being sold into slavery and that genital mutilation is still happening in parts of the world, but it is also horrible that, even in our “progressive” North American culture, the things that women value and the wisdom that we hold is not being valued in a world that desperately needs us.
As I’ve said before, it’s important that women have access to the halls of power (and that’s what the feminist movement has worked hard to ensure), but it’s ALSO important that we start CHANGING those halls of power. The old systems aren’t working as well as they could – they’re too slanted in one direction and they ignore half of the strength we have in humankind.
We need yin and yang – masculine AND feminine, strategy AND intuition, competition AND collaboration, industry AND community, progress AND simplicity, warriors AND lovers, fierceness AND softness, production AND environmental stewardship. We need to be involved with organizations that advocate AND those that sit in circle and honour spirit. We need to fight and we need to love.
“We’ve learned that women can do what men can do, but we haven’t convinced most of the country that men can do what women can do,” says Gloria Steinem. We can serve the world well if we not only stand in our power as women, but also invite men to experience and honour their own feminine wisdom. This is about moving away from dualism into a world where there is middle ground.
In honour of International Women’s Day, I encourage you to consider the rights of women all over the world AND I encourage you to honour your spirit and your wisdom and believe that it can change the world.
I leave you with this poem, written over a year ago when I first started imagining this work I would do with Sophia Leadership.
How to be a Woman
There may come a time, my friend,
when you have lived too many lives that are not your own,
followed too many rules that broke your spirit,
and mastered the art of imitation.
This will be a time when you’ve forgotten your own shape
and you find that you no longer remember just how to be a woman.
Believe this: you can remember again,
you can fit back into the shape that you were meant to be.
It hasn’t truly gone away.
Start by taking a deep breath, and sit quietly while you
listen to the wisdom written on your heart
by your God/Goddess.
Be kind to yourself
caress your skin, your hair, your breasts,
all the body bits that make you woman.
Gently touch the flabby bits, the too-skinny bits,
the old bits, the not-perfect bits
Stop to kiss Mother Earth, Gaia,
bend your knees, run your fingers through her soil
hug her trees, blow kisses into her wind.
Twirl your skirts, kick up your heels
and dance while you listen to the music nobody else hears.
Then, when you are ready, turn your head in the direction
your own journey calls you and don’t look back
even when you hear the cries
of those who feel betrayed by your leaving.
Stand tall, my friend,
you need to be courageous for this remembering
you need to be ready to break things
shift things, disturb the status quo.
You need to be powerful, and wise, and steadfast,
in this re-birth, because it is what is expected of you
by all of those waiting for you to lead them.
Make no mistake – they ARE waiting for you to lead them
because they are afraid, they are hurting,
and they have lost their way.
They need your strength, your courage,
your beauty, your art, to lead them into this new place.
be gentle, sit quietly,
for you need this time of rest
to prepare you for the journey.
On Thursday, I was one of the lucky participants at TEDx Manitoba. There was so much inspiration packed into one day, I’m going to need to watch the videos once they come out to catch some of the pieces I missed when my brain was busy trying to process what was shared minutes earlier.
Part of my processing happened in my mandala journal. I have always been a doodler, but my doodling has become more focused and more colourful since I started taking my mandala practice more seriously (and taking it public). Most of the time, I simply doodle in the shape of a circle, and throw in whichever words jump out of what the speaker says, or out of my own responses. I totally love this process and highly recommend it. Bring markers with you EVERYWHERE! You never know when you might need to doodle. The other three mandalas I made can be seen here.
I’m sure that there will be pieces of wisdom popping into my head weeks from now that I hadn’t thought of before, but for now I thought I’d put together a few things that struck me at the event.
1. Stories carry transformational wisdom. The presentations that impacted me the most were the ones that had stories at the heart of them. There was the story of the solar house built long before it was trendy, the fruit-lover who created a fruit-picking co-operative to keep the excess fruit from rotting in her community (and beyond), the young man determined to help his peers stay out of gangs in their neighbourhood, and so many more. Stories help us imagine the world differently.
2. Life is messy, but the messes are worth sharing. The presentation that impacted me most was the one made by Wilma Derksen, perhaps because I am a deep believer in turning our pain stories into gifts. Wilma’s daughter Candace was murdered 27 years ago, and just last year the murderer finally stood trial. Wilma shared a deeply personal, messy, honest, painful, and hopeful story of the many emotional journeys she has had to pass through – from rage to forgiveness, from hatred to love. During the trial, she realized that she could not hold both love and justice in her heart in equal measure and had to choose love. Wilma’s presentation is a reminder to me that the messy bits of life are worth sharing, even if we can’t wrap them up in neat little bows and make them look pretty.
3. Art transforms bleak spaces and opens people’s hearts. Grant Barkman talked about using graphic facilitation as a tool to build consensus in group process, and Kale Bonham talked about using art banners to transform a bleak, crime-riddled neighbourhood. Both showed the power of art and design to shift energy and open up new stories. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it also gives more power to those thousand words.
4. Being a story-changer is as important as being a storyteller. Brad Tyler-West spoke about being bold enough to change the stories that no longer serve us and stepping into new stories. Other presenters didn’t overtly say the same thing, but demonstrated it in what they shared. Getty Stewart talked about how she had decided to change her story and made sharing the dominant factor in the way she interacted with her community. Matt Henderson shared how he’d changed the learning experience for his students by letting them co-create what went on in the classroom. Almost every presenter shared some story-changing moment in their lives when they went from complacent bystander to engaged change-maker.
7. What they taught you in Kindergarten still holds true – sharing makes the world a better place. One of the predominant threads running throughout the day was the theme of “sharing your gifts”. For Gem Newman, that meant sharing a passion for science; for Getty, it meant picking fruit that neighbours were letting rot in the back yard and sharing it with a seniors’ home; for TJ Dawe, it meant sharing ideas online. The whole concept of TED really is built on sharing… “ideas worth spreading.” There’s something powerful about being in a room full of people willing to gift others with the wisdom and ideas they’ve gained in their lifetimes.
8. We need to learn from nature and make nature our friend. David Zinger talked about the wisdom we can learn from bees, and how a study of bees might help us re-imagine our corporate structures. Robert L. Peters talked about harnessing the sun’s rays in more effective ways to heat our homes. Both expressed a desire to be present in the natural world and to let it teach and inspire us.
9. The grey is where the wisdom is. Forget dualism, and look for the space between black and white. See failure as a friend instead of a foe. Our dominant culture wants to define the world in terms of clean boxes and definitions. Those are not serving us anymore – we need shades of grey. The grey helps us find out who we truly are.
10. Walkable neighbourhoods are better for everyone. Hazel Borys shared profound truths about how much benefit there is in developing walkable neighbourhoods, and yet how much our current zoning bi-laws prohibit this. One slide that sticks in my mind is the one that shows how much more revenue a well designed walkable neighbourhood brings into the city coffers compared to a big box store. Not only that, but it saves the family a significant amount of money not having to drive to the perimeter for their groceries and family activities. She has proof for something I believed in my heart to be true.
11. The wisdom of the group is greater than the wisdom of the individuals. Again, this is an over-riding theme that TED demonstrates so beautifully. As TJ Dawe said, collective wisdom may be harder to mine, but the riches that we’ll uncover once we’ve done the hard work are worth every bit of the effort. Just like the cardboard city that emerged in my Creative Discovery class last week, we come up with better ideas when we work together than when we work alone.
12. Our children are our future. Linda Cureton said leaders need super powers (an idea that doesn’t really resonate with my belief in everyday leadership, but her ideas had some merit) and our future superhero leaders are currently riding tricycles around the neigbhourhood. Robert J. Sawyer hypothesized that, given the rapid advances in science and health research, the first immortal has probably already been born (again, it felt like a stretch for me, but was interesting none-the-less). Matt Henderson believes in giving youth more autonomy in the classroom so that they will emerge as stronger leaders and thinkers. A common thread was the importance of paying attention to our children.
Recently I was asked to reflect on the greatest learning that I took away from 2011. “Patience and trust are the biggest lessons that showed up,” I said. “They’re lessons I’ve had to relearn a few times in my life.”
It takes a lot of patience to build a creative business, especially if you prefer to follow intuitive pathways and ask a lot of deep questions instead of crafting foolproof business plans. And it takes a lot of trust to believe that the path you’re following is the right one when there are lots of bumps and curves and the destination continues to looks so blurry.
Last year’s word was “joy“, but sometimes, when I’m being honest with myself, I wonder if the word that best defines it might instead be “worry“. I tried to follow joy, but in the process I did a lot of worrying. Did I do the right thing quitting my job? Is this dream really going to pan out? Do people value my work? Are any of my efforts going to pan out? Am I ever going to make enough money?
Recently, a question has popped up in my mind repeatedly when I’ve started to take the worry path.
What if the outcome is not my responsibility?
What if I am only responsible for sharing my gift and not how people respond to that gift?
What if my only duty is to follow my muse and I don’t have to worry about whether or not people like what I produce?
What if the only thing I need to do is be faithful to my calling, show up and do the work, and then trust God to look after the rest?
What if all the striving I do to be a “success” is wasted effort and I should instead invest that effort into being as faithful as I can be to the wisdom and creativity that has been given me to share?
When I take that question seriously, it gives me a great deal of peace. When I let go of the outcome or the sales or the response of other people and focus instead on being faithful to the process and my own commitment to excellency, the knots stop forming in my stomach and I can breathe more deeply.
My mandala practice is helping me learn this lesson. I make mandalas for nobody but myself (even though I’m willing to share them). For me, they are about the process. I show up on the page, pick up the pencils or markers that I feel drawn to, and let whatever needs to emerge on the page. What shows up is almost always about something I need to learn or be reminded of or discover. It’s not about the art. The outcome is not my responsibility.
A few months ago, I was supposed to do a community-building workshop for a leadership learning institute in my city. Only three people registered for it, so they decided to cancel it. I was able to let it go at the time because I was already overbooked and needed the breathing space. They were still interested in the content, though, so they rescheduled it for January 23rd. This time, there are already 14 people registered, ten days before the event. I had to let go of the outcome and trust that, if I was faithful to what I felt called to share, and did my best to let people know, the right people would show up who need to hear what I have to say. The outcome is not my responsibility.
So far, my Creative Discovery class only has 3 registrants, even though I’ve promoted it more broadly than the last class that had much better registration. It doesn’t matter. I feel called to do this class and I know that it will be what those three people (and I) need even if nobody else shows up. The outcome is not my responsibility.
I’m putting the finishing touches on my book and writing a proposal to try to get it into the hands of agents. When I start reading books about how to write a proposal and how to land an agent, I can get my stomach tied in knots over whether I’m doing things the right way, whether I’ll ever be successful, etc., etc. But then I have to pause, take a deep breath, and make a mandala like the one above. It doesn’t matter if I’m a “success”. I feel called to share this book with the world and I will do so even if I have to self-publish it. The outcome is not my responsibility.
Letting go of the outcome doesn’t mean that we should get lazy about the product, or that we shouldn’t work hard to let people know about what we’re doing. But once we’ve worked hard to follow the muse and been diligent in offering the gift to the world, we need to let it go and trust that the people who need to find it will.
I love the principles of Open Space, an Art of Hosting methodology for hosting meaningful conversations.
* Whoever comes are the right people
* Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.
* When it starts is the right time
* When it’s over it’s over
In other words, the outcome is NOT MY RESPONSIBILITY!
And now it’s your turn… what do you need to let go of?
One of the things I love most about the work that I now do and the learning I do to support it, is that I’ve had the opportunity to develop deep and beautiful friendships with many amazing women of all generations. As I wrote in this post, I believe that we must all take responsibility for being conduits of this wisdom work – both receiving support and wisdom from women of older generations, and passing it down to the generations following us.
One of the women who has served as mentor and friend to me (and, truth be told, I have also had the opportunity to return the mentorship, so it’s a mutual benefit thing) is Margaret Sanders. I met her last year at a circle/story workshop, and I was drawn in almost immediately by the warmth and wisdom I saw on her face. She is an amazingly gifted educator, mentor, host, and wisdom-sharer.
It has become increasingly clear to me that we, as middle-aged (and younger) women, need strong role models in the generation ahead of us. We need women like Margaret who have forged a new path for women in leadership to support us, encourage us, and lend us their wisdom. I am grateful that I have Margaret in my corner, believing in what I do and challenging me to continue to move forward.
I asked Margaret to share a bit about her life as she steps into this new stage of “active wisdom”, and this is what she wrote…
I am a woman who turned 65 this year, and it rocked my world! Not just a minor tremor. It’s been a full-scale earthquake.
I believe there is significance in my story for others, because I have come to realize that I am at the front line of a surging crowd of baby boomers who are about to face the same thing.
This is my story from the front line:
I don’t see myself as a senior person, but other people do. The arrival of my Canada Old Age Benefit Card in the mail (seriously – who knew?) confirmed my new status as a person. Over the past year, colleagues who valued my presence in working with them or mentoring them have moved on in their careers, and that has caused me to question what I ever could do – or did know. I have been mired in the ditch of questioning whether and where I have value to contribute to this world.
I left my job as a school principal to care for my mother when my father died. She suffered from dementia, and needed “mothering” until her death a few years ago. I successfully reinvented my professional work to be able to give her the kind of loving attention she gave me all of my life.
It’s startling to realize that I am in this situation as a pioneer; I have no role models in my family history for what it means to be a professional woman. As a woman who has been successful and highly regarded for her expertise, who must re-find her place in the world upon seeing opportunities for paid “work” vanish, coincidentally, as the 65 year mark arrived.
Because I have been a new kind of mother model for my 40ish age children, they are extremely competent and confident professionals, spouses and parents who have no need of mothering. I’ve done myself out of that historical elder role.
I have Wisdom, expertise, energy and good health, and I am not sure what to do with those gifts in the currents of today’s world.
My views are broad, wide and long-term and I have come to see things in the way of Proust’s simplicity on the other side of complexity. Younger professionals are focusing on the absolute necessity of meeting today’s challenges. Their lives are frequently frenetic, and they have little time to “waste. ” [We live on completely different planes, and necessarily so – but my deepest instincts tell me that my wisdom has potential for changing their lives.]
I have lots and lots of things that I want to do to remain stimulated and independent and contributing over the next few years. There is a cost associated with all of these things. I want to continue to be paid for the value that I possess. I am trying to figure out how that might work.
So, I am at the point of reinvention again. Unlike all of the other transition points in my life where things seemed to resolve fairly quickly, it is taking a while to rebuild who I am and what I am about. But the good news today is that I know my experience is going to add up to something significant. And my reason for that today is that we have a new 46 year old premier-elect in Alberta, Canada and for the first time he is a woman. I am one of the shoulders upon which she stands. (Her mother died a few days before her election, and the one person she wanted to call first with the good news was her mother.) Invisibly, from behind this front-line head-line news, my experience and the experiences of the women surging behind me, enabled this new story to begin unfolding.
We baby boomer women have stories to tell, and our stories are changing the world. That may be where I come in …
just a few steps away from the finish line
“Are you sure you don’t want a ride to the camp? You can just skip the rest of the kilometres for the day, rest up, stay off your blisters for awhile, and start fresh tomorrow.”
We heard that often along the 100 km. walk. Well-meaning organizers, volunteers, and medics wanted to help us avoid some of the pain we were experiencing. They wanted to give us short-cuts, assuring us there was no shame in missing a few kilometres.
Every offer only set our resolve deeper, though. It even made us reluctant to visit the medics when the blisters got particularly ugly. We weren’t there to do 87 km – we were there to do 100.
Yes, it was painful. Yes, there were toes on our feet that were hardly recognizable as toes anymore. Yes, there were moments when there didn’t seem to be a single muscle in our body that was exempt from the overwhelming ache.
But we were there to complete the journey. We were there to test the limits of our endurance. We were there to be present in every painful step.
We live in a culture that likes shortcuts, especially when it comes to pain. We try to rush through grief, thinking that we’ll be better off if we can just put a bandaid on it and get back to real life. We over-medicate, thinking a dulling of the pain will help us feel “normal”. We short-circuit the birthing process (both literal and figurative), with unnecessary c-sections and inductions. We over-consume, thinking that shopping therapy will dull the ache of loneliness or heartbreak. We clamour over quick fixes and fill our lives with cheap throw-away solutions to our problems.
We prefer ten easy steps to one thousand painful ones.
But it’s the thousand painful steps that will change us. It takes those thousand painful steps for us to grow into what we’re meant to be at the end of the journey.
In ten easy steps, we can build little more than a house of cards, not the rich, beautiful temple we are meant to become. A strong wind blows away the house of cards, but the temple withstands the storm.
A fascinating thing happened at the end of our three day journey. We three women, walking together every step of the way, always within about 100 steps of each other, all began to menstruate before the end of the day. In just three days, our cycles aligned (though I wasn’t expecting mine for another week and a half and I’m not sure about the others). Interestingly enough, the next day was the full moon.
I’ve lived with enough roommates, daughters, and sisters to know that it is not unusual for women living in community to end up with cycles that are in sync. I’ve never seen it happen in such a short time, though. Three days of sharing an intense, painful experience, and our bodies were in tune with each other.
Extrapolate that story forward, and you have three women, living in community, whose bodies are preparing to go through the pain and glory of childbirth together. It’s a beautiful, poignant story. Expose three women’s bodies to shared pain and they find a way to support each other that goes much deeper than words.
Women, we are amazing vessels. We birth children and carry each other’s pain. Every month, we shed blood – our little painful sacrifice for the beauty we bear within us.
As an added element to this story, it was pain and childbirth that brought these three women together in the first place. Cath’s loss of Juggernaut led her to a place where walking helped her live through the pain. Christina’s deep compassion for her story and sharing of her pain made her want to support Cath on the journey. My own story of the loss of Matthew bonded me to Cath and made me want to be with her for the journey as well. It was pain that bonded us, pain that we journeyed through together, and pain that caused our bodies to align themselves with each other so that we could most fully support each other.
Our bodies carry wisdom that our minds know nothing about.
Our bodies understand the value of pain.
Without the pain, we don’t have the beauty. Without the blood, we don’t have the birth. Without the sacrifice, we don’t have the growth. Without the sharing of agony, we don’t have community.
We can’t shortcut through the pain. It’s not serving any of us. Shortcutting through our own pain makes us careless of other people’s pain. It makes us careless of the pain we cause Mother Earth.
Mark Nepo talks about pain as the tool that carves the holes in our bodies to make us the instruments through which breath blows and beautiful music is made. When we are present in the pain – when we don’t try to take shortcuts through it – our holes are seasoned and polished and the music comes out sweet and rich.
Imagine an orchestra playing on half-finished instruments, with holes that had never been polished and strings that had never been pulled tight. The music would be dull, lifeless, and out of tune.
Pain begets beauty.
Pain shines the edges of the holes through which God breathes.
The next step may be painful, but it must be taken nonetheless.
I only hope that your next painful step will be taken in community and that you will be supported in your pain.
And when the pain subsides and you can stand up straight again, let God breath through you and make your music beautiful.
“In stories and in life, pain is our friend. It’s an unwelcome friend, but a friend nonetheless. The good news is if we make friends with our pain, it won’t stay long and it will leave us with a gift. But if we avoid pain, it will chase us down until we finally accept the gift it has to offer.” – Donald Miller
Note: Full disclosure – I did take a few painkillers along the way, so I don’t want to paint myself as some kind of martyr. AND I do not want to stand in judgement of anyone who accepted a ride – we each must choose our own thresholds for pain and our own values and reasons for completing a particular journey. There is no shame in being supported through the roughest parts of your journey.
Another note: Cath has created a beautiful offering to help you walk through your pain, called Remembering for Good. She is letting her pain be turned into music.