When Maddy was little, I took her to see Monsters vs. Aliens on the 3D screen. She sat on the edge of her seat in wonder, wearing her 3D glasses and trying to grab the things that came flying off the screen at her.
At one point, she turned to me and said with some exasperation “you’ve gotta reach out, Mom! It’s way more fun this way!” So I did. I sat there with her, near the front of the theatre where everyone could see us, our arms stretched out in front of us, grinning from ear to ear. We didn’t catch anything, but we sure tried. (Or maybe we did catch something and just didn’t know how to carry it home.)
Today I remember her wisdom, and once again, I do my best to reach out, though I’m sitting at the front of the theatre again and people may laugh at me for my childish wonder. I reach out because I know it’s more fun. I reach out because it’s the only way I know how to live. I reach out because it keeps me from drowning in this sea of despair.
I reach out to my friend across the waters who’s doing a brave thing in the way she rises out of her story of abuse and who needs to know there’s someone with a virtual hand on her back.
I reach out to my sisters across the border who are weeping for the loss of young black lives and the loss of the idealism that told them tomorrow would be better.
I reach out to new friends who, like me, have no idea how to live in the centre of their privilege when so many without privilege are hurting.
I reach out to the lovers and the givers who have let go of the hope that their work will radically change the world but they do it anyway because they need to.
I reach out to my Indigenous brothers and sister who continue to guard the earth they love even when the bulldozers tear her apart, because her blood is their blood and if she dies, they die.
I reach out to those who hang onto every bit of strength they have as their bodies fill with cancer or their loved ones fall by their side.
I reach out and I offer my hand, I offer my voice, and I offer whatever little bits of courage I can muster. But mostly I offer my silence. Because I don’t know what to say that will make a difference. I don’t have any words that will re-shape their world. I don’t have wisdom that will stem the tide threatening to consume us all.
My hand and my silence. That’s all I have. But I reach out anyway. Because it’s more fun. Because my daughter needs me to. Because it’s the only way to teach her how to live in a world where too many things are flying at us.
Because it’s easier to stay above the waves when I’m holding someone else’s hand.
“We are not going in circles, we are going upwards. The path is a spiral; we have already climbed many steps.” — Hermann Hesse (Siddhartha)
**Trigger warning. What is shared in this post may be disturbing to some.**
I hardly know where to begin. I want to write a blog post about the complexity and beauty and challenge that this Fall has been for me, but some of the things going on in my heart and my mind are too big, too complicated, and too unresolved for words.
On the one hand, it has been beautiful beyond words. My work is growing and I am being stretched and challenged and invited into a deeper and deeper understanding of the core of what I teach. I’ve hosted a storytelling circle in a corporate environment, I’ve led women into the hills for a lament ritual, I’ve taught a workshop on women’s power at a gentle retreat for women, I’ve gathered people in a virtual openhearted writing circle, I’ve taught The Circle Way to church leaders, I’ve delivered a keynote speech on the labyrinth, the mandala, and The Circle Way as creative practices for self care at a women’s wellness workshop, I’ve hosted an online seminar on Lessons from the Labyrinth, and I’ve launched a course called The Spiral Path: A Woman’s Journey to Herself.
Wow. All of that in only 2 months. No wonder I’m waking up slowly this morning, with my head spinning full of the goodness of the people I’ve met, the joy of doing the work I love, the excitement of what is still to come, and the humble astonishment that people are trusting me to have enough wisdom to teach them these big and sometimes hard things.
But there’s been something else going on under the surface that is also worth talking about. Something that challenges all of this work I’ve been doing and, in the hardest moments, makes me want to throw up my hands in despair.
I have been triggered. Again and again. In sometimes familiar and sometimes surprising ways. And I have gotten angry. And I’ve wept. And I’ve curled up in a ball in my room not wanting to face the world.
It started with the vigil for Tina Fontaine, the young woman whose body was found in the Red River in my city. I wept for her innocence, wept for girls like her who continue to be exploited by sexual predators, and wept for the many murdered and missing Indigenous women in our country whose lives don’t matter to those in positions of political power in our country.
I took that weeping to the hills of South Dakota. I invited other women to walk the hills with me, weeping and holding ceremony for the grief we carry from centuries of wounded, exploited, abused, and silenced women. We resolved nothing, but we gave ourselves permission to feel the weight of the sadness. We clung to the belief that releasing our tears opens a doorway to our collective healing.
But then, not many weeks later, our country was rocked by a story of another kind – a story that was both dramatically different and yet eerily connected to the Tina Fontaine story.
One of the most famous media personalities in our country, a man we all wanted to trust because he was smart and savvy and asked intelligent questions and had even taken women’s studies in university, was fired from our public broadcaster. We were in collective shock and many of us rushed to defend his right to make choices in the bedroom that we ourselves wouldn’t make. But then the truth exploded in our faces. He had a long history of being a sexual predator, of perpetrating violent acts toward women (and some men) without their consent, of harassing young female employees and getting away with it, and of using his celebrity status to walk away from everything despicable act like the Teflon Don.
Suddenly the world erupted with hundreds, maybe thousands of stories of women who’d been subjected to the kind of treatment that this man was being accused of and had never reported it. (Check the hashtag #beenrapedneverreported on social media) Every time I checked my Facebook stream and nearly every time I turned on the radio there were stories of sexual harassment, date rape, abuse of power, etc.
Two things happened to me in the middle of all of this. Firstly, I became rather obsessed with reading everything that appeared, wanting to understand this horrible story of how someone so popular and well-loved had gotten away with such heinous behaviour, and wanting to hold space for all of the women who’d been treated horribly by this man and others.
Secondly, I was triggered.
A flood of memories came back to me and I was in the middle of my own stories. I remembered the times when, as a young woman, I worked in male-dominated environments (a trucking company and a construction company) where it was almost a daily occurrence to have a man lean over me at my desk, ostensibly to talk to me about what I was working on but obviously to look down my blouse. I remember how it felt to put up with this behaviour because I needed the money and because sometimes the bosses were the perpetrators and there was nowhere to turn to and nobody who would take me seriously.
And I remembered how it felt to be part of a sexual harassment investigation against one of the senior managers in the government department I worked in early in my career, how it seemed strange to be talking honestly about how he treated women to investigators when I’d looked up to him as my boss just weeks before, and then how it felt a little like we needed to carry some guilt when he died just months after being removed from his job.
And then came the worst memory of all.
I remembered how it felt to lay on my bed after a man had climbed through my window and was brandishing a pair of scissors over my head threatening to kill me if I didn’t have sex with him. And I remembered the violation of his hands and penis on my naked body and the smell of him stuck to my skin.
And then the accompanying memory of how it felt to have my body poked and prodded by a doctor and nurse looking for clues that might have been left behind by the perpetrator. And how they shamed me for having taken a bath to wash the stink of him off my skin before coming to the hospital, because I’d probably washed off all the evidence.
And how it felt to have the two male police officers tell me that I should think long and hard about whether I wanted to formally report this as a crime, because I would be dragged through the courts and probably be made to feel shame for sleeping with my window open on a stiflingly hot day and for living in a neighbourhood that decent girls shouldn’t live in. And then how it felt to sit in the back seat of their police cruiser and listen to them tell racist jokes while they drove me back to my apartment to gather my bedsheet and the scissors he’d brandished above my head as evidence.
And how it felt the next day, to have to give up the triathlon I’d been training for, because I was shaking from trauma and my neck was stiff from when he’d tried to choke me to death.
Yes, I was triggered. And I was angry.
I was angry that there are still so many sexual predators who prey on young women in their beds, in their workplaces, and in the universities they attend. I was angry that so many of them get away with it because the victims recognize that it will be harder to report it and live through what the justice system puts them through than to go away quietly and focus instead on their own healing.
I was angry at the abuse women were taking in social media because they dared to step forward and call out a sexual predator who happened to be a well-loved celebrity.
And then another story emerged and I got even more angry. Two politicians were suspended for harassment toward women.
And suddenly I felt overwhelmed with how much women still have to put up with, with how much my daughters are still at risk, and with the ways that harassment and sexual misconduct of all kinds is swept under the rug not only in trucking companies, but in the halls of power in our country.
That’s when I began to feel despair. Is anything really changing? Is there really any reason for hope?
We want to believe that women have more rights and protection than they once did, but is the patriarchy just going underground and becoming more insidious in its way of undermining women’s power?
Just a few weeks ago, I taught a workshop on women’s power, and now suddenly I found myself wondering whether any of that was really going to make any difference. Sure it’s good to help women step into their power, but will they really be able to access it if the patriarchy beats them down again and again and weakens them by making fun of them when they stand up for what they believe in and ignoring them when they’ve been violated?
Is all of my work just a bandaid solution when the real disease is so very big and insidious and powerfully abusive?
I don’t know the answer to this huge problem. I don’t know the remedy to my despair. I don’t know if all of the teaching I’ll ever do in my life will ever make one iota of difference in a world that seems to be getting worse every day.
I don’t know how to ensure that the world will be more gentle to my daughters than it was to me.
And that’s when I returned to the teachings of Margaret Wheatley. Four and a half years ago, I participated in a workshop she was teaching and at the time she was grappling with her own despair. She kept asking herself what her efforts were worth when the world seemed to be getting worse day after day. In the time since then, she’s written a book about just that, and she’s come to the conclusion that it is best to give up hope of making change, and simply commit to the work because it is the right thing to do.
“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.”
I re-read that, and once again, I lift my head out of my despair and I turn toward the work that is calling me. Because it’s all I know how to do and it’s all that I have to cling to.
Because I believe that gathering people into circles is the best way to shift the imbalance of power in the world and to bring women and men into spaces where they can speak about hard things and find healing together.
Because I believe the labyrinth teaches us that the whole journey is important – the hard parts that bring us far from centre and the gentle parts that circle closer to Source.
Because I believe that storytelling has the capacity to shift us away from blame and shame into deeper listening and more openhearted understanding.
Because I believe that we each have to do our inner work of healing and growth so that we can show up as warriors in a world that needs us to be courageous.
Because I believe that even if none of this causes the world to shift, it will at least shift the world for me and the people I sit in circle with and that is what matters right now.
Because I know that I couldn’t have healed from the wounds that man inflicted on me in my bedroom if I hadn’t found the kind of personal practices (journal-writing, mandala-making, mindful wandering, etc.) that I now teach others to embrace.
“Let us walk away from that mountain of despair-inducing failures and focus instead on the people in front of us, our colleagues, communities, and families. Let us work together to embody the values that we treasure, and not worry about creating successful models that will transform other people. Let us focus on transforming ourselves to be little islands of good caring people, doing right work, assisting where we can, maintaining peace and sanity, people who have learned how to be gentle, decent, and brave as the dark ocean that has emerged continues to storm around us.” – Margaret Wheatley
And so I invite you, once again, to commit with me, to gather in circle for storytelling and tears and healing, to have real conversations about hard things without shame, and to heal from all of these wounds one tiny bit at a time.
Because it’s the right thing to do.
Hardly a week goes by that I don’t get an email with words like “How do you get through the rough spots in life?” Or “I feel lost. What should I do?” Or “What do you do when you are in despair?”
Some people are looking for coaching, some are simply asking for advice, and some have read a blog post about my own personal rough spots and think that I might have some wisdom to share. “You seem to know how to walk through the rough spots with strength and resilience,” the emails often say. “I want to know how to do that.”
Depending on the situation and the depth of the despair, I might take them on as clients, I might offer them a story or some encouragement, or I might recommend they see someone else who’s better qualified for the particular challenge the person is going through.
Hardly ever do I feel qualified to give them advice. Most of the time when I get these emails, my first reaction is “But… I’m not an expert in navigating despair. All I do is muddle through. And sometimes I feel so completely mired in it, I feel like I’m drowning. How could I possibly be of service to others?”
Last week was one of those times when I doubted my own ability to offer anything of value. Not that I was in a particular place of despair myself, but rather that I saw so much of it in the world around me that I felt completely inadequate.
Three of those emails came within the span of three days. I put off answering them, weighing my words and wanting to offer what was of the most value. Wanting, most of all, to leave these people feeling like they were not alone and that there is some tiny point of light in their darkness.
Before I had a chance to respond to any of them, I found out that an old friend (who’d been my roommate when I was 19 and entering the minefield of adulthood and independent living) was killed in a tragic car accident and had left behind three daughters just a little older than my daughters. I haven’t kept in touch with her much in recent years, so it wasn’t so much that I felt a huge hole in my own life, but I kept thinking about the people – her daughters, husband, parents, siblings, etc. – who do have huge holes in their lives. How can it be fair that three young daughters now have to navigate adulthood, parenthood, and all of the other things that are coming in their future, without their mother? Why did she have to die only a week after celebrating her daughter’s marriage?
And then I extended those thoughts and that grief to my own story and all of it felt too overwhelming. What if I lose my brother? What if my niece and nephew lose their dad just as they’re moving into adulthood? What if my sister-in-law has to learn to walk in the world as a widow?
I came home from the memorial service feeling completely raw and spent. My well was empty. I had nothing to offer, no resources to draw on. I snapped at my kids when they argued and was abrupt with my husband when he asked for something. I didn’t want to be the grown-up in any situation, much less the coach or teacher that people turned to while trying to navigate the darkness.
After a good night’s sleep, I woke up feeling a little more able to be an adult. After driving the girls to school (without any snapping), I sat down to scan Facebook, and someone had shared a TED talk by Andrew Solomon about how the worst moments in our lives make us who we are. The timing couldn’t be more perfect. Solomon talks about how we forge meaning out of the difficulty in our life, and that meaning shapes our identity.
Ah yes. We forge meaning. That’s one of the most important things that I know about the times of despair. It may be almost impossible to see it when you are in the middle of the darkness, but when you emerge, you begin to make something meaningful out of all the broken pieces of your shattered life. And as your strength grows, you realize that you are who you are partly because you survived the darkness.
After having a stillborn son, for example, I knew that that experience had been a spiritual turning point for me. Nothing before in my life had left me more awakened and hungry for a deeper faith and spirituality. And nothing else had ever made it more clear to me that I needed to follow the path of my own calling rather than trying to conform to what was expected of me. My priorities became suddenly crystal clear. My life is vastly different than it might have been if I hadn’t landed in the hospital for the final three weeks of my pregnancy and then left the hospital with empty arms. I am wiser, stronger, more clear about who I am, and more spiritually awake.
Once you’ve picked yourself up and figured out how to make something meaningful out of the mess, a few things happen:
- You realize you are stronger than you thought you were. You look back at the darkness and realize that it didn’t conquer you. You have reserves of courage and strength you didn’t know you had.
- You begin to tell different stories about yourself. You are no longer a victim. You are no longer lost. You are a survivor.
- The next time you are faced with a challenge, you face it with a little more courage than you did the last one, because you know you are capable of surviving. You know the darkness can’t conquer you. You might still get knocked off your feet, but you have a little more faith that you’ll be able to get back up again.
In the book David & Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell shares a story of the air raids on London during the Second World War. Anticipating mass hysteria and intense anxiety, the government at the time built psychiatric hospitals in preparation. But the hospitals didn’t fill up. People were much less anxious than they’d expected. Why? Because they survived. Because the first time the bombs fell, they walked away from it and realized that they were still alive and could go on. Each time the bombs fell, they got a little stronger and more able to keep on going without being paralyzed by fear.
In Pathfinder and in many of my coaching sessions, I tell people to carry a basket of courage stories with them. “Write down the stories of times when you had courage,” I say, “and then when you need a reminder, go back into that basket, pull out the stories, and remember that you are a courageous person and you can survive the darkness.”
After watching the TED talk, I finally opened my email, determined to offer the best response I could to those who were reaching out, not because I was an expert, but because I was a survivor. I’ve been through the dark – many times. I know how to look for the points of light. I know how to take tentative steps even when my feet feel mired in clay.
As I began crafting my responses, I was reminded of one of my favourite quotes from George Bernard Shaw.
“I’m not a teacher: only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead – ahead of myself as well as you.”
I don’t claim any expertise in despair navigation. I am not a psychologist or therapist. I am only a fellow traveler who has been through the darkness many times. Surviving rape, the death of my son, the suicide attempts of my husband, the death of my mom and dad, and many other challenges, didn’t make me an expert, but they taught me to survive and to forge meaning. And that makes me not an expert, but “a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way.”
If you are in despair, I offer you these small pieces of wisdom on navigating in the dark:
1. Believe that it will one day be better than this. Nobody stays in the darkness forever. There is an ebb and flow to every life. We walk through it all and none of it lasts forever. You may not see light today, but perhaps tomorrow, perhaps next week or next month, the light will poke through.
2. Make something. There’s something about the act of production that helps make the darkness a little lighter. Bake a cake, draw a picture, make a model airplane – it doesn’t really matter what you make but it does matter that you get your hands busy and create something. One tiny act of productivity and one simple thing made by your own hands can shift a spiral of negative stories going on in your head. When my husband was in despair in the psychiatric ward, the only time I saw light in his eyes was when he was making a model airplane in the art room.
3. Move your body. Get active. Run, dance, walk, swim – do something to get your muscles moving, your heart rate up, and your adrenalin flowing again. A little dopamine flowing in your brain can help you see the points of light in the darkness. Start with something simple – walk around the block.
4. Pray. Even if you don’t have a particular faith, prayer helps. Reach out to the God of your understanding, your Higher Power, even if the only word you say is “Help!” Look outside yourself for some source of hope. As Andrew W.K. says in this article, “‘Getting down on your knees’ is not about lowering your power or being a weakling, it’s about showing respect for the size and grandeur of what we call existence — it’s about being humble in the presence of the vastness of life, space, and sensation, and acknowledging our extremely limited understanding of what it all really means.” (If prayer is unfamiliar to you, or you need some prompts, Prayer Stones might help.)
5. Talk to someone. You’re not meant to survive this time of despair alone. We are social animals – we’re meant to live in community. There is no shame in asking for support. Start with a friend, family member, or someone you trust. Or reach out to your doctor, find a therapist, or look into grief coaching. If you need someone to help you find a place to start, you can contact me. I don’t have the answers for everything, but I know a lot of people working in helping professions – one of them might be the right person for you.
6. Get outside. Stand in the sunshine. Get fresh air. Lean on a tree. Nature heals. Breathe in the oxygen the trees offer as a gift, watch the seasons change, and remind yourself of the way the earth regenerates herself, moving from death to life and back again. Spring comes back every year. Life returns to the landscape that lies dormant under the snow.
One of the people who’d emailed me earlier had made a special request of me. It wasn’t advice or coaching she was looking for – she simply wanted me to pray and make a prayer mandala for her. And so I did, because – like it says above – prayer helps, and making something helps. I made it for her and I made it for myself and I made it for all of the other people around me who are currently in despair.
With my house full of stones these days, I decided to make a prayer mandala out of stones. I started at the centre, choosing a few Prayer Stones.
The mandala grew, and at the outer edges I added Intention Stones that reflected the meaning that I have forged out of my own times of despair and that I wish for those still in it.
The act of making the mandala, even without any words coming out of my mouth, was my prayer, my offering up of those things that are outside of my control and outside of my understanding, and my way of catalyzing the overwhelm and feeling of inadequacy.
May you find your way through whatever challenge you find yourself in and will you know peace and grace. And may the meaning that you make of it all become the gift you offer the world.
Prayer Stones and Intention Stones are available in my Etsy Shop. And if you’re interested in being part of a coaching circle that will help you find your way, check out Pathfinder Circle, starting again on September 30th.