Handmade clothes my son’s body was dressed in after he was born.
If it hadn’t been for doctors’ errors, I would have a sixteen-year-old son.
Halfway through my third pregnancy, I could sense that something was wrong. My body didn’t feel right. “I feel like I have to re-adjust my hips every time I stand up to avoid the baby dropping from between my legs,” I said to my doctor when I called her. “Something feels too loose down there.”
She sent me to the hospital where an intern taped monitors to my stomach and I lay waiting for the prognosis. “Everything looks normal,” said the intern. “The baby is moving well and the heartbeat is strong. I’ve consulted with your doctor and we’ve decided that there is not enough of an indication of a problem to do an internal exam. At this point in the pregnancy, the risks of that kind of invasiveness don’t seem worth it.”
That was the first mistake. They should have checked my cervix.
A week later, I booked some time off work and visited another hospital for a routine, mid-pregnancy ultrasound. The moment the technician turned the screen away from me, I knew something was wrong. The sudden subdued tone in her voice confirmed my suspicion. An hour later, after an awkward call with my doctor, leaning over the receptionist’s desk and trying not to cry, I was on my way back to the hospital where they would now address the problem that had been missed the week before.
My cervix was open. The signals that my body had sent me were accurate – I WAS too loose down there. I was already four centimetres dilated – four months too soon.
After a variety of doctors visited and asked me the same series of questions over and over again, I finally found myself at a third hospital where I was placed into the hands of the only specialist in the city who had the skill to deal with my problem. That evening, Dr. M. spent nearly two hours explaining the situation to my husband and me.
I had an incompetent cervix. Though it had held firmly through my first two pregnancies, like a rubber band that has lost its elasticity, it no longer had the strength to hold itself closed for the nine months it was required to hold a baby in place. Nobody had an explanation – apparently it just happens sometimes. Because it had been open for awhile, the amniotic sac was bulging out of the gap, which is why I’d been feeling the discomfort a week earlier.
The next morning, after a fitful night that included a panic attack after I listened to the frantic sounds of another mother down the hall giving birth to a dead baby, I was wheeled into the surgical theatre where I was to undergo a cerclage. Like the drawstring of a purse, the doctor would stitch a strong thread through my cervix and then pull it closed, simultaneously pushing the amniotic sac back behind the barrier.
After I was prepped for surgery, Dr. M. entered the room with a young intern. It was a teaching hospital, so I was getting used to students following the teacher around. But I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. Instead of Dr. M., it was the young intern who picked up the needle and stepped between my legs.
Dr. M. read the concern on my face. “Often it’s actually better to have the more experienced doctor watching and guiding rather than doing the stitching,” he reassured me. “It will be okay. She’ll do a fine job.”
That was the second mistake. Minutes later, the faces of both the intern and Dr. M. told me something had gone horribly wrong. “Pull it out,” said Dr. M. “We have to abandon surgery.”
The amniotic sac had been pierced by the needle she was using for the cerclage. My water was now broken. My baby was no longer protected. I would probably go into labour soon and deliver a baby too tiny to survive.
To the surprise of all of the doctors, I didn’t go into labour right away. In fact, hours stretched into days, and the baby seemed to be thriving despite the lack of amniotic fluid or protection from the outside world. Dr. M. watched vigilantly, doing two ultrasounds a day to make sure all of the baby’s organs were functioning properly.
After the failed surgery, I had another fitful night in which I wrestled with the demons that wanted to convince me to point the blame at the doctors. “It’s their fault,” they shrieked in my ear as I fought through the anxiety. “If they had checked you a week ago, or if Dr. M. had done the surgery, you wouldn’t be in this situation, expecting your baby to die at any moment.”
But there was another voice – a quieter voice – underneath the anger and fear. This voice said “You have a choice to make. Blame the doctors and let the bitterness control you, or let it go and choose a more peaceful way through this.” By morning, I had made a choice. I would let it go. Bitterness wouldn’t do me or my baby any good. I wanted to choose life.
The next day, Dr. M. came to see me and at the end of our visit, he paused for a moment. “The intern would like to come see you. She feels horrible about what happened and would like a chance to apologize. Will you see her?”
I took a deep breath. Was I ready to see her?
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll see her.”
A few hours later, she walked into the room. Her eyes filled with tears as she blurted out an awkward apology.
“I know you were doing your best,” I said, “and you made a mistake. I don’t hold that against you. Don’t let this ruin your career as a doctor. Learn from it and keep doing better.”
For much of the next three weeks in the hospital, I felt surprisingly peaceful. I started a gratitude journal and I had many long, luxurious conversations with the friends and family that came to visit. I joked with people who commented on my peaceful appearance that my hospital stay felt a little like being in an ashram – a retreat space away from my busy life that gave me time to reflect on the meaning of my life.
At the end of those three weeks, though, my peaceful state met the crashing waves of despair. I went downstairs for my morning ultrasound visit and discovered that my baby had died during the night. A few hours later, I had to go through the excruciating pain of labour and delivery, knowing the outcome was a dead baby. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done.
As I prepared to go home from the hospital, my breasts filling with milk my son would never drink, I checked in with myself about the choice I’d made three weeks earlier. Now that my baby was dead, could I still forgive the doctors for their mistakes? The stakes were higher – could I make the choice again? Yes, I decided that I could. Choosing not to let go would be to choose bitterness and hatred. I wanted to choose peace and forgiveness. I made that choice again and again in the coming months as the waves of grief came.
This week, I’ve been reading Wilma Derksen’s new book, The Way of Letting Go, about her thirty-two year journey to forgiveness after her thirteen-year-old daughter’s murder. The term forgive, she says, derives from ‘to give’ or ‘to grant,’ as in ‘to give up.’ Forgiveness is the process of letting go. It “isn’t a miracle drug to mend all broken relationships but a process that demands patience, creativity, and faith.”
I’ve known about Wilma since the story of her daughter Candace’s disappearance erupted in the media, five months after I graduated from high school (in 1984). Seven weeks after the disappearance, Candace’s body was found in a shed just a few blocks from her home.
A few years ago, I heard Wilma give a TEDx talk about forgiveness. What stood out about that talk was that, during the trial of the man accused of murdering Candace, Wilma realized that she could not hold both love and justice in her heart in equal measure. Though she longed for justice for Candace’s sake, for the sake of the family that was still with her, she chose love.
After hearing her speak, I reached out to Wilma and we have since become friends. Last year, while she was working on the book, she invited me to lunch to explore the idea of me being a guest speaker at a class she was teaching about forgiveness. Over lunch, she told me about how she had, after more than thirty years of processing her own forgiveness over the murder of her daughter, come to a somewhat different conclusion about forgiveness than what we’d both been taught in our religious upbringing. As she says in the book, it’s a long journey of letting go and making the choice, again and again, to choose love and life, just as I’d done in the hospital. It’s not about denying that you feel anger and hatred or that you want justice, but it’s a conscious choice not to let those things control you.
Toward the end of our lunch date, I decided to share something with Wilma that I’d hesitated to bring up earlier in the conversation – that my marriage had recently ended. I was reluctant to talk about it for two reasons: 1. I didn’t want it to dominate the conversation, especially when the focus was on her course and her work, and 2. since she was an “expert” on forgiveness and I knew her to be a religious person, I was afraid of what she might think of me for having failed at marriage. (I still carried some old shame about the sin of divorce.)
Wilma’s response caught me by surprise. Not only was she compassionate and non-judgemental, but she offered a simple reframing of a story I shared that helped me see even more clearly why the ending of my marriage had become necessary. She held space for me in the beautiful way that only someone who has walked through pain and has learned not to judge herself for her reaction to it can do.
I realized, in that moment, that I had placed Wilma on an impossible pedestal. For more than thirty years, I’d seen the media’s version of this somewhat saintly Christian woman who had some kind of super-human capacity to forgive the most egregious crime against her and her family. But the truth was much more complicated and nuanced (and, in my mind, appealing) than that. She was, just as I was, a very human woman who’d been nearly drowned in intense pain, anger, and fear, and yet she kept swimming back up to the surface in search of the light.
Forgiveness, for her, was not a pie-in-the-sky utopian ideal that meant she could live in peace and harmony with all who’d wronged her. Instead, it was a daily – sometimes hourly – decision to let go of fear, grief, ego, happy endings, guilt, blame, rage, closure, and self-pity.
I didn’t get to raise my son Matthew, but because, like Wilma, I chose forgiveness instead of bitterness, his short life transformed mine and his legacy is present in all of the work I now do. That three week period in the hospital with him was not only a retreat, it was a reconfiguring, sending my life in a whole new direction that lead me to where I am now.
At the end of the book, Wilma admits that her concept and experience of forgiveness are still changing and evolving. I’m with her on that. Life will keep giving us more chances to learn.
Melancholy: a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause
That sounds about right for my state of mind this past week. I hesitate to call it depression, because it doesn’t feel that heavy, but there is definitely “pensive sadness” going on and it has no obvious cause.
When this familiar sense of melancholy comes at this time of year, I usually chalk it up to the end of winter, when I’m a little more sluggish from not taking as many long walks in the woods and not getting as much sunshine as I need. I get a little imbalanced when I lose my connection to the natural world. I’m pretty sure that it will pass soon (Spring always revives me), but for now, my creativity is low, my resilience isn’t what it normally is, my emotions are a little tender, and I feel disconnected. I stare at blank pages when I should be writing, I crawl into bed earlier than usual, I cry unexpectedly, and I watch too much Netflix.
A couple of things happened last week that were quite minor, but because of my state of mind, I took them more personally than I normally would. Though none of the people involved meant any harm, my tenderness left me feeling a little lonely and a little rejected. There was no true rejection involved (I still feel well loved by them), but in the middle of my fragility, it’s always easier to make up stories that align with how I’m experiencing the world. Feelings of disconnection often lead to greater disconnection.
Not long ago, I was on the other side of that story, inadvertently wounding someone who was going through her own state of tenderness. Unaware of her emotional state, I said something that normally would have been received with ease, but instead carried some wounding.
“At two, you’re at abstraction.” That’s a line from a Sara Groves song (that I think she borrowed from someone else, but I can’t find the source) that points to the impossibility of fully understanding another person’s reality. Another person’s pain, joy, love, trauma, history – they’re all just abstract concepts for us because we have never lived inside of them. We can never really “walk a mile in another person’s shoes”.
Despite our best efforts to be compassionate and understanding, our well-meaning words can land the wrong way and leave a person feeling wounded, lonely, misunderstood, defensive, angry, etc. That’s one of the reasons why, in our efforts to hold space for other people, we need to avoid falling into the trap of taking responsibility for their emotional response to our words or actions. Each of us is a sovereign individual with our own stories, our own interpretations, and our own emotions and when we take too much responsibility for another person, we diminish their sovereignty.
At a workshop a few weeks ago, Dr. Gabor Maté talked about how trauma can shape a person’s world and change the way they respond to stimuli. When a person grew up with trauma (either in the form of a traumatic event, or as a result of being raised by caregivers with unresolved trauma) their fight/flight/freeze instincts are heightened and they are inclined to over-react to stimuli that brings them back to their traumatic memories. Unresolved trauma, he said, makes it impossible for us to be in the present moment. “When we’re triggered, the emotions that show up are those of the abandoned child. We don’t react to what happened – we react to our interpretation of what happened based in our traumatic memory.”
Even compassionate people can inadvertently trigger someone’s trauma. Think about the last time you said something to another person that you thought was fairly innocuous and they reacted with defensiveness or anger that seemed out of proportion for the moment. There’s a good chance that there was something in what you said that triggered an old wound that they may not even know they still have. In that instant, that person was not the mature adult you thought you were talking to – they were a scared child relying on an instinctual response for their own protection. While they may need your empathy in that moment, and you might make a mental note to adjust your behaviour in the future to avoid triggering them further, you can’t take their autonomy away by trying to fix their problem for them.
When I used to teach a university-level course in communication, I would always start with the following diagram to help my students understand that, in every communication, there are complexities and potential pitfalls that we can’t fully anticipate or mitigate.
Each of us lives within a unique field of experience that may overlap with other people’s experience, but is never exactly the same. When I want to communicate with you, my intended message is shaped and encoded by my field of experience, which includes factors such as my gender, race, culture, disabilities, lived experiences, language ability, emotional state, etc.
I choose the channel of communication to best offer the message (ie. will I make a phone call, wait until I can talk to you in person, or send an email?). If I am compassionate, I will consider your field of experience when choosing the channel (ie. if you are hearing impaired, a phone call might not be the best method), but I’m limited in how much I can understand your reality so I may make mistakes. On top of that, no matter how carefully I encode the message and how intentional I am about the channel of communication, there is always unexpected noise that can disrupt or distract us at any moment in the process (ie. a child needing attention in the middle of a personal phone call, a disturbing story on the news, a misunderstanding, etc.).
The message crosses over to you and is, in turn, shaped and decoded by your own field of experience and your current circumstance. As I mentioned above, for example, you might be going through a period of tenderness that I had no way of knowing about when I initiated the communication. Even the most well-intentioned communication can go astray, and by the time you’ve decoded it, it may have a very different shape than what I intended. Much of our encoding and decoding processes happen in mere seconds during the course of a conversation, so we aren’t aware of all of what has shaped and reshaped what’s passed between us.
If you choose to engage in two-way communication, you send your own message across the reverse path, back through our fields of experience, risking similar misinterpretation, triggering, etc.
Given the potential complexity of even the simplest conversation, and given the fact that only a small portion of the process is within our control or within our conscious understanding, what can we do to improve the process? How can we be better communicators who wound others less often and receive fewer messages as wounds?
When you are the sender of the message:
• Pay attention to how your message is being shaped by your field of experience.
• Be humble, recognizing the limitation of your understanding of the other person’s field of experience.
• Especially where the differences are vast and there may be power imbalances, do your best to learn about the other person’s field of experience instead of passing judgement (especially if you are the one who holds more power).
• Be aware of the other person’s emotional response and check in when something doesn’t seem to land well, but don’t judge or try to control the emotion.
• Take responsibility for what you’ve said and allow the other person to take responsibility for their response.
• Allow for processing time in the conversation. Pauses may help to alleviate misunderstanding.
When you are the receiver of the message:
• Recognize the limitations that are at play in the sender’s lack of understanding of your field of experience.
• If you trust that the person will honour your current state of mind (ie. if there’s grief, depression, etc. going on), let them know that you may be limited in your capacity to receive.
• If you have a strong emotional response to the message, pause for a moment to check in with yourself. Recognize that the first reaction may be your instinctual desire to protect yourself and may not be fully based in the current situation.
• Hold the other person accountable for their words (especially in the case of harsh or oppressive language) and recognize when it may be in your best interest to stand up for yourself and/or walk away.
• If there is a misunderstanding and the relationship is important to you, reflect back to the person what your interpretation of the message is, based on your field of experience, and offer them an opportunity to reframe it.
• Take the time you need before sending a message back.
• Remember that you have a right to set boundaries and protect yourself.
Each situation is different, and based on how valuable the relationship with the other person is, you may or may not want to invest in the effort it takes to work through misunderstanding. If, for example, you’ve been verbally assaulted by a stranger at a bus stop, you probably won’t have any interest in figuring out how to communicate across your differing fields of experience. If, on the other hand, you love and trust the other person and believe that the relationship will be strengthened by deeper understanding, you’ll want to invest more time and energy in cutting through the noise.
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It’s often said that “cleanliness is next to godliness”, but in my Mennonite upbringing, it was pacifism that held that honoured place.
From early childhood, we understood that that was one of the key things that set us apart. We were the people who didn’t go to war.
Our ancestors believed in pacifism so deeply, that they were willing to risk their lives for it. Rather than be conscripted into armies, they faced torture and, more than once, gave up their countries to move to where they could continue to practice non-resistance. First they fled Europe for Ukraine/Russia, and then, when Russia turned on them, they fled to North and South America.
On my bookshelf is my dad’s copy of Martyrs Mirror. It recounts the many people in our Anabaptist history who were martyred not only for their faith, but for their stance on non-violence. According to Wikipedia (and I believe it to be true), “Next to the Bible, the Martyrs Mirror has historically been held as the most significant and prominent place in Amish and Mennonite homes.” That’s how high we hold our values around pacifism.
Though it’s most obvious during times of war, pacifism is much more all-encompassing than that. It’s a way of being that affects your whole life. If you believe that violence is not the answer on the political stage, you must also believe that it’s not an answer on the personal stage. Peace must be at the core of all of your relationships. Look into non-violent communications courses, peace workers in conflict zones, and conflict resolution organizations and you’ll be surprised at how many of them have Mennonites roots.
Peace-loving runs deep in my bones. At all costs, we were taught, remain non-violent. Turn the other cheek. Be a servant of peace.
Although my faith has shifted and I no longer attend a Mennonite church, I am still, at heart, a pacifist. It’s a belief system that deeply informs my work. In hosting the circle, for example, I work to create spaces where conversations can happen without violence and where conflict can be addressed peacefully. Look closely at my writing and you’ll see that I rarely use the language of battle. (ie. I prefer to talk about “dismantling the patriarchy” rather than “killing it” or “smashing it”, and I prefer “serving justice” rather than “fighting for justice”.)
Sometimes though, I let my pacifism get mixed up with passiveness. But that’s a mistake. They are far from the same thing.
As my ancestors modelled, pacifism actively serves peace. Though it avoids violence, it’s not afraid to disrupt the status quo.
Passiveness, on the other hand, doesn’t disrupt the status quo. By not standing in the way of violence, it allows it to continue.
When I am passive, I let people get away with abuse and oppression. When I am a pacifist, I put my life on the line to stand with those who are abused and oppressed.
When I am passive, I hide my outrage and pretend I am at peace. When I am a pacifist, I harness my outrage for the cause of peace.
When I am passive, I fall victim to oppressive systems and flawed leadership. When I am a pacifist, I offer peaceful alternatives and non-violent leadership models.
When I am passive, I turn a blind eye to people’s pain. When I am a pacifist, I am galvanized by people’s pain.
Pacifism has strength and courage that passiveness lacks. It’s feisty and bold and isn’t afraid to disrupt. It’s not always pleasant and it’s not always gentle. Sometimes it turns over tables and gets in people’s way.
The more I learn about holding space, the more I realize that it is a pacifist act, but it is NOT a passive act.
Because I talk about non-judgement, humility, keeping our egos out of the way, and allowing people to determine their own outcome, people sometimes assume that holding space is passive. When I hold space for someone, they think, I am passive in allowing their circumstances to unfold.
But that is far from the whole truth.
Instead, holding space is about “active pacifism”. It’s non-violent, at its core, AND it’s strong, firm, and not afraid to disrupt.
It’s not about sitting passively and allowing people to walk over us.
In my workshops, I use the visual metaphor of a beautiful, intricate crystal that some friends gave me to represent the person or group of people I’m holding space for. There is much beauty and capacity to reflect light in this crystal. There is also fragility, sharp edges, and shadow. It has to be held tenderly and firmly.
In order to take my crystal with me to workshops, I’ve created the perfect container to hold it – a small wooden box that I have lined with foam that is cut to just the right shape to hold the crystal.
The container holds space for the crystal.
On the inside this container could be considered passive. It’s soft and malleable and doesn’t resist the shape of the crystal. It allows the crystal to show up exactly as it is and it holds that space for it.
But on the outside, this container is far from passive. It has structure and sturdiness. It holds the crystal firmly in place and it resists those forces that might threaten to destroy it.
Like the container, we cannot effectively hold space for people if we are only passive.
If the container were only soft and malleable, the crystal would be easily destroyed if a rough baggage-handler tossed my suitcase onto the conveyor belt. It needs the strong outer shell to protect it.
That strong outer shell provides a form of “active pacifism” for the crystal. It stands firm in the face of violence and oppression. It is courageous and willing to be bruised in order to keep the outside forces from destroying that which it holds space for.
In order to hold space well, we have to be like that container – soft and malleable to hold the fragility, and strong and firm to ward off outside attack. If we are only one without the other, the crystal shatters.
This morning I listened to John Lewis being interviewed on CBC radio about his many years as a civil rights leader. He talked about some of the violence he suffered, including being beaten by a police officer with a club on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
Despite all of the violence and injustice he has seen, John Lewis continues to be committed to non-violence. “There are too many guns,” he said. “We need more peace. We need more love.”
He may be serving peace, but John Lewis is far from passive. “As a child, I was taught not to get in trouble,” he said. “But then Rosa Parks taught me how to get in good trouble. And I’ve been getting in trouble ever since.”
In can be said that John Lewis is holding space for all of those who’ve been oppressed by racism in the U.S. He is an “active pacifist” for the cause, willing to get into the “good kind of trouble” in order to serve justice and peace.
We’re going to need a whole lot more people like John Lewis.
It is my sense, in a world in which Trump is the leader of the most powerful country in the world, that a lot more of us are going to need to learn how to be active pacifists. If we truly believe in peace, justice, and human rights for all, we’ll need to be willing to get into the “good kind of trouble”.
Passiveness is not an option. Passiveness allows oppression to continue.
Either we hold space with both softness and fierceness, or the crystal is destroyed.
I was on a fourteen hour train ride between Brisbane and Sydney the day the U.S. election was sealing the fate of the country for the next four years. I’d chosen train travel over flight because, after the intensity of facilitating two sold out retreats and a one-day workshop in a country far from home, I needed many hours of integration, electronic disconnection, solitude, and staring out the window at the vast countryside. Slow travel offers me self-care in times like those.
For those fourteen hours, I had no access to internet, so I didn’t know who won the election until hours after it had been announced.
I say that I didn’t know, but really… I DID know. Hours before an astonished fellow traveler announced to the rest of us in the railcar what she’d read online, a sudden ominous, panicky feeling engulfed me and I knew intuitively what the outcome was. I had a strong sense of the shadow showing itself in the world. I knew that the world was about to change – and not in a good way. I didn’t want to believe it, but when the woman exclaimed “Has the whole world gone mad?!” my fears were confirmed. A man who is openly misogynistic, racist, narcissistic, and emotionally immature is about to become the leader of arguably the most powerful country in the world.
Yes, I’m Canadian, and my life and the lives of my children may not change dramatically because of this election, but what happens in the U.S. affects the world. What hurts my Muslim, Black, GLBTQ+, Indigenous, and Mexican sisters and brothers hurts me. And this is not an isolated incident – it comes too quickly on the heals of Brexit to not be seen as a global pendulum swing toward protectionism and the far right.
There is good reason for the ominous feelings in the pits of so many of our stomachs. White supremacy and the patriarchy have reared their ugly heads and they appear to be winning this round. The shadow is big and ominous and it demands to be seen.
Just a few days before sitting on that train, I had a similar ominous feeling in the pit of my stomach, but this time it was much more personal and close to home. I was facilitating the second retreat at Welcome to the BIG House when things started to go sideways. No, they were not on the “Trump winning the election” global scale of ominous, but not unlike what’s happening in the U.S., group shadow had showed up at the retreat and was threatening to derail everything we’d worked to build.
I’d known from the start of the retreat that something was slightly out-of-balance. It started with a gut feeling when I walked into the room and it continued when the opening sharing round did not invite as much vulnerability and trust as it normally tends to. The next morning, I was even more certain that there was some stuck energy in the group when a simple exercise fell flat. We were simply trying to walk in a circle together, looking down at the words we’d placed on the floor, but, try as we might, we couldn’t get the circle to move. We were stuck.
It was hard to put a finger on what was going on. There were beautiful, openhearted people in the room who came willing to learn and to engage in meaningful conversation. Nobody was openly disruptive or serving as an “energy-vampire”. When we moved into smaller circles, the energy flowed more easily and intimacy and trust seemed more present, but when we were in the large group, there was a flatness and disconnection that didn’t seem to shift.
I questioned everything. Was the group too big? Had the purpose of the retreat been unclear and so people arrived with differing expectations and intentions? Was I trying to mix together the wrong content? Was my ego getting in the way? Was there some underlying conflict I didn’t know about? Was there a cultural disconnect I didn’t understand? I didn’t have the answer.
On the afternoon of the second last day of the retreat, we started to talk about shadow. I explained how shadow is made up of all of the things that we keep out of sight because we’re afraid to bring them into the light. These are not necessarily all bad things – they are simply the things we fear will make us feel unsafe if we reveal them. Beginning with an exploration on personal shadow before we moved on to group shadow, I invited the group into a guided meditation in which each person explored the messages they’d received in childhood about which parts of their personality and identity they’d learned to keep hidden because it wasn’t safe to reveal them. “Perhaps you learned to keep your voice down because you learned it was unsafe to be too loud. Perhaps you hid your body because revealing it wasn’t safe.”
Before we could move into a conversation about group shadow, the shadow showed up and revealed itself to us. A few people in the room spoke about the shadow that was coming up for them within the container of this retreat. (Giving more specific information would betray confidences, so I will simply say that they were honest about their personal shadow and how it might be contributing to what was happening in the group.) As soon as the words were spoken, it felt like a bomb had been tossed into the room. Suddenly there was something staring us in the face that many of us were afraid to speak of. Some were confused and disoriented by it, and all felt some measure of discomfort.
What should we do now? Everyone looked to me, hoping I could magically make the bomb go away. I knew I couldn’t do that alone and I knew we didn’t have enough time or energy left in the day to fully dismantle it.
With my head spinning in circles like a roulette wheel trying to land on the right number, I reached deep for what my intuition told me was the next right step. “It’s late in the day, we need a meal and a rest, and I don’t believe that we have the space and time to fully address what just happened,” I said. “We need a strong container to hold the shadow that just showed up, and we can’t be strong if we don’t care for ourselves first. I know that, as the circle host, my resources are spent at this point in the day, so I don’t think we’ll serve ourselves well if we stick with this right now. I’m going to suggest that we close with a check-out round, and then we each do what we need to do to care for ourselves throughout the evening. In the morning, when we are refreshed, we will come back into the circle and hold the space for what showed up. I will set aside the teaching exercises I had planned so that we can give as much space for this as we can in the short time we have remaining.”
For the check-out round, I asked the question “what are you curious about?” Most people spoke to their curiosity about what had just happened and how it would be resolved. When everyone had spoken, I read the following poem:
Lost (by David Wagoner)
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree of a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest know
Where you are. You must let it find you.
In closing, I offered this invitation. “Tonight, I invite you to sit with your discomfort. Go sit with the trees, if that helps. Don’t try to resolve it too quickly. Sit with it and ask what it is here to teach you. Because in your discomfort is great opportunity for growth, learning, and transformation.”
By the time I got back to my own room, I could feel the heaviness of what had just happened settling into my body and I could hear the gremlins beginning to offer their displeasure in my head. “Did I do the right thing? Did I fail the group? Should I have been more forceful or decisive? Will I let them down if I don’t teach the parts of the curriculum I’d planned to teach? Will we really be able to resolve this in the morning? What if everyone leaves the retreat dissatisfied? What if I fail?”
I turned to my go-to self-care stress-reducers. First, I climbed into a bathtub full of hot water and epsom salts. I stayed there for nearly two hours – as long as it took to slow my breath, still my brain, ground my body, and give comfort to my heart. Each time the gremlins attacked, I took deep breaths, said a prayer, and repeated a few of my favourite mantras. I also sent out a couple of SOS text messages to dear friends who would hold space for me from afar, and, after my bath, I unpacked what had happened with Georgia, the owner of The BIG House and the guardian of the circle. As we were talking, sitting in darkness in her living room, two creatures showed up in the room – a large frog by the kitchen sink and a bat flying through the open window and fluttering above our heads.
By the time I climbed into bed, I was relaxed and confident that, if I could get my own ego out of the way, the circle would be strong enough to hold the shadow in the morning.
The next morning, I started by asking the group for their permission to clear out the centre of the circle. We’d let it become cluttered with some creative containers we’d made earlier in the retreat as well as other things that didn’t need to be there. “I want to clear out the centre,” I said, “to remind us of the intention that brought us here this weekend. This retreat is called ‘Living with an Open Heart’, and that is what we came here to do. We want to place our intention to be openhearted at the centre of the circle and remind ourselves that, whatever happens in this space, we commit to connecting back to our own open hearts.”
Then I asked the question “How are you arriving?” and passed the talking piece for a check-in round. People were tentative at first, but then there was a gradual opening up and the energy in the room began to shift. It felt like a little light was peeking through a window. Part way through the round, a few people started to open up more than they had before in the large circle.
Once we’d completed a check-in round, I said, “My intuition tells me that we simply need to allow the talking piece to make its way around the circle again and invite people to say whatever they feel needs to be offered into the circle.”
One person asked “aren’t we going to confront the shadow that showed up here yesterday?” I responded with “‘Confront’ isn’t the language I’d like us to use. Instead, let’s do our best to speak with open hearts so that we can reveal and shine light on the shadow that we’ve all brought into the room.”
This time, while the talking piece passed around the room, people cracked open even more, especially those people who’d revealed the shadow the day before. What they offered into the room revealed deep awareness and learning that had happened overnight. Each person was willing to own what she or he had brought into the room.
The energy shift was palpable and people leaned in to the centre in ways they hadn’t before. They were finally beginning to trust the circle to hold their vulnerability and personal shadow. Some profound shifts happened for several people, and one person in particular admitted that this was the very first time she’d ever come to a place where she was safe in a group setting. “When I knew that I was safe to sit with my discomfort and then come back into the room, I felt like I was truly safe with other people for the first time in my life.” She wept and many of us wept with her.
Several people thanked the shadow-bearers. “If you hadn’t spoken what you did into the circle yesterday, we would have walked away with only half of an experience, not knowing what we were missing. This morning was worth every bit of discomfort we felt last night. I am leaving this circle with an open heart.”
We were ending the retreat at noon, so we only had time for a short break and then a check-out round. During check-out, each of us spoke to what we were taking with us from the retreat, and many spoke of life-changing shifts they’d experienced.
“Some of you were uncomfortable giving up the teachings that I had prepared for this morning,” I said, “but if I had pushed through with my curriculum, it would have come from a place of ego and not openheartedness and it would not have served the good of the group. Also, all of the things I had planned would have kept you in your heads, but what happened here this morning brought us all back to our hearts. You have taught each other much more valuable lessons than I could have taught you.”
A few days later, when I was on the train and had received the news of Trump’s election, I thought back to our experience at the retreat and wondered what it had to teach us about the state of the world right now.
Just like at the retreat, there is an underlying shadow in the world that we haven’t always known how to talk about. There have been some brave souls who’ve spoken about it throughout history, but many have been killed, tortured, or ostracized for their efforts and the rest of us have been scared off by what they’ve endured. If I were to give it a name, I would use words like “patriarchy” and “white supremacy”. There are other related words… “consumerism, greed, environmental destruction, protectionism, etc.”
It’s been under the surface for a very long time and, collectively, we’ve tried to ignore it because it brings up shame and fear and makes us feel unsafe to speak of it. But in recent years, it’s been surfacing more and more and there are more and more brave souls willing to speak of it. Many of those brave ones – like those in the Black Lives Matter movement, or those protecting the waters from the Dakota Access Pipeline, or any feminist who dares to face the trolls online – continue to suffer the consequences. The courageous ones continue to do it anyway, because they are called to be the light-bearers.
When you dare to speak of the shadow, it can show up in the room like a bomb that’s been dropped, surprising and disorienting us all. Trump’s presidency is one such bomb dropped into our world, revealing to us the shadow that exists in ALL OF US. We can’t simply blame a few scapegoats – we have to take ownership of this shadow if any real change is to happen.
Just like at the retreat, we need a strong container that can hold space for the shadow. We need people who aren’t afraid to speak of what they hide inside themselves. We need people who will come to the circle with open hearts. We need strong leaders who do not back down in the face of conflict or their own fear. We need people who are willing to sit with their discomfort so that the learning and wisdom can emerge. We need those who will turn to the trees and to the creatures for wisdom and guidance. We need prayer warriors and caregivers. We need those who offer sustenance and shelter. We need warriors and lovers.
We need commitment, courage, compassion, and curiosity.
If there had not been strong and committed people in the room with me at the retreat, there is no way I could have held it alone. The circle would have crumbled and we all would have taken our fear, discomfort, and shadow with us, probably stuffing it further down so that it would emerge in much more destructive ways later on. The shadow doesn’t go away – it just goes underground for awhile until it finds another crack through which to crawl.
This is my challenge to you – can we gather together the people we need to create a container strong enough to hold this shadow? Can we rally our co-leaders, our allies, our prophets, our teachers, our guardians, our disruptors, our light-bearers, our disenfranchised, our marginalized, our priests, our caregivers, our helpers, our prayer warriors – anyone who is willing to hold the rim while we wrestle with the shadow in our midst? Can we sit with our discomfort long enough to let the learning and wisdom sink deep into our hearts? Can we stand firm in the face of those who continue to hide the light?
Can we commit to real change rather than surface platitudes? Can we dare to face our own shadow so that the collective shadow loses strength?
I believe we can. Let us begin.
“Can’t you just give us clear direction so we know what’s expected of us?” That question was asked of me ten years ago by a staff person who was frustrated with my collaborative style of leadership. He didn’t want collaboration – he simply wanted direction and clarity and top-down decision making.
What I read between the lines was this: “It makes me feel more safe when I know what’s expected of me.” And maybe a little of this: “If you’re the one making decisions and giving directions, I don’t have to share any collective responsibility. If anything goes wrong, I can blame the boss and walk away with my reputation intact.”
I didn’t change my leadership style, but it made me curious about what different people want from leadership and why. While that staff person was expressing a desire for more direction, others on my team were asking for more autonomy and decision-making power. It seemed impossible to please everyone.
I’ve been thinking back to that conversation lately as I watch the incredulous rise to power of Donald Trump. No matter how many sexist or racist comments he makes, no matter how many people with disabilities he makes fun of, and no matter how many small business owners he’s cheated, his support base remains remarkably solid. As he himself has said, he “could shoot someone and not lose votes”. (I’m glad I’m no longer teaching a course on public relations, because he’s breaking all of the “rules” I used to teach and getting away with it.)
It seems implausible that this could happen, but this article on Trump’s appeal to authoritarian personalities helps me make sense of it.
“‘Trump’s electoral strength — and his staying power — have been buoyed, above all, by Americans with authoritarian inclinations,’ political scientist Matthew MacWilliams wrote in Politico. In an online poll of 1,800 Americans, conducted in late December, he found an authoritarian mindset — that is, belief in absolute obedience to authority — was the sole ‘statistically significant variable’ that predicted support for Trump.”
“Authoritarians obey,” says the author of the study, “They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened.”
Authoritarians hold strong values around safety, and they expect a leader to give them what they need. They don’t mind following a bully, as long as that bully is serving THEIR needs for security. Hence the popularity of Trump’s proposals to build a wall on the Mexican border and to keep Muslims from entering the country, and the way his supporters cheered when he told security to throw the protestors out of the places where he was campaigning. He makes his supporters feel safe because he won’t hesitate to rough up “the enemy”. They might even put up with some of the bullying directed at people like them (hence the surprising tolerance of Trump’s behaviour among his female supporters) if it means those who threaten them are kept at bay.
Where does an authoritarian mindset come from? According to the article quoted above, there is evidence that it is passed down from one generation to the next. Religious views can also play a strong role. Those who were conditioned by upbringing and religion to obey the authority figures at all cost are more likely to vote for someone who reflects that kind of leadership. If you grew up never allowed to question authority, no matter how illogical or unbalanced it might seem, then you are more likely to have an authoritarian mindset.
There is also a correlation with how fearful a person tends to be. Those who are, due to personality and/or conditioning, frequently motivated by fear, will be more inclined to trust an authoritarian leader because the clear boundaries such a person establishes is what makes them feel more safe.
Also, it cannot be denied that an authoritarian mindset is associated with a lack of emotional and spiritual development. As Richard Rohr says in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, those who still cling to the black and white, right and wrong of authoritarianism are choosing to stay stuck in the first half of life. “In the first half of life, success, security, and containment are almost the only questions. They are the early stages in Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs.’ We all want and need various certitudes, constants, and insurance policies at every stage of life.” Stepping into “second-half-of-life” involves a lot more grey zones and ambiguity, so it’s a more frightening place to be.
Does it matter that some of us prefer authoritarian leadership over other styles? Shouldn’t the rest of us simply adapt a “live and let live” attitude about it and not try to change people? Don’t we all have a right to our own opinions?
Though I am deeply committed to holding space for people in a non-judgemental way (and I tried to create that environment when I was leading the people I mentioned above) I am convinced that it DOES matter. Yes, we should respect and listen without judgement to those who look for authoritarianism, and we should seek to understand their fear, but that doesn’t mean that we should allow their fear and social conditioning to make major decisions about who leads us and how we are lead. That authoritarian mindset is a sign of an immature society and it is holding us back. It must be challenged for the sake of our future.
Around the same time as my staff person asked for more authoritarian leadership from me, I was immersing myself in progressive teachings on leadership such as The Circle Way, The Art of Hosting, and Theory U. These methodologies teach that there is a “leader in ever chair”, that the “wisdom comes from within the circle”, and that “the future is emerging and not under our control”. Though these models can (and do) function within hierarchical structures, they teach us to value the wisdom and leadership at ALL levels of the hierarchy.
Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze (two people I had the pleasure of studying with in my quest for a deeper understanding about leadership), in this article on Leadership in the Age of Complexity and in their book Walk Out Walk On, say that it is time to move from “leader as hero” to “leader as host”.
“For too long, too many of us have been entranced by heroes. Perhaps it’s our desire to be saved, to not have to do the hard work, to rely on someone else to figure things out. Constantly we are barraged by politicians presenting themselves as heroes, the ones who will fix everything and make our problems go away. It’s a seductive image, an enticing promise. And we keep believing it. Somewhere there’s someone who will make it all better. Somewhere, there’s someone who’s visionary, inspiring, brilliant, trustworthy, and we’ll all happily follow him or her.”
This style of leadership may have served humanity during a simpler time, but that time is past. Now we are faced with so much complexity that we cannot rely on an outdated style of leadership.
“Heroic leadership rests on the illusion that someone can be in control. Yet we live in a world of complex systems whose very existence means they are inherently uncontrollable. No one is in charge of our food systems. No one is in charge of our schools. No one is in charge of the environment. No one is in charge of national security. No one is in charge! These systems are emergent phenomena—the result of thousands of small, local actions that converged to create powerful systems with properties that may bear little or no resemblance to the smaller actions that gave rise to them. These are the systems that now dominate our lives; they cannot be changed by working backwards, focusing on only a few simple causes. And certainly they cannot be changed by the boldest visions of our most heroic leaders.”
Instead of heroes, we need hosts. A leader-as-host knows that problems are complex and that in order to understand the full complexity of any issue, all parts of the system need to be invited in to participate and contribute. “These leaders‐as‐hosts are candid enough to admit that they don’t know what to do; they realize that it’s sheer foolishness to rely only on them for answers. But they also know they can trust in other people’s creativity and commitment to get the work done.”
A leader-as-host provides conditions and good group process for people to work together, provides resources, helps protect the boundaries, and offers unequivocal support.
In other words, a host leader holds space for the work to happen, for the issues to be wrestled with, and for the emergence of what is possible from within the circle.
Unlike a host leader, an authoritarian leader hangs onto the past as a model for the future. Consider Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. Instead of holding space for emergence, he knows that his support base clings to the ideal of a simpler, more manageable time. It’s not hard to understand, in this time of complexity, how it can feel more safe to harken back to the past when less was expected of us and the boundaries were more clear (even if that meant more racism and less concern for our environment). Don’t we all, for example, sometimes wish we could be back in our childhood homes when all that was expected of us was that we clean up our toys before bedtime?
But we “can’t go back home again”. The future will emerge with or without us. We can only hope that the right kind of leadership can and will arise (within us and around us) that will help us adapt and grow into it. If not, our planet will suffer, our marginalized people will continue to be disadvantaged, and justice will never be served for those who have been exploited.
In his book, Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer talks about leadership not being about individuals, but about the capacity of the whole system. “The essence of leadership has always been about sensing and actualizing the future. It is about crossing the threshold and stepping into a new territory, into a future that is different from the past. The Indo-European root of the English word leadership, leith, means ‘to go forth,’ ‘to cross a threshold,’ or ‘to die.’ Letting go often feels like dying. This deep process of leadership, of letting go and letting the new and unknown come, of dying and being reborn, probably has not changed much over the course of human history. The German poet Johan Wolfgang von Goethe knew it well when he wrote, ‘And if you don’t know this dying and birth, you are merely a dreary guest on Earth.’”
What he’s talking about is essentially the liminal space that I wrote about in the past. It’s the space between stories, when nobody is in control and the best we can do is to hold space for the emerging future. We, as a global collective, are in that liminal space in more ways than one and we need the leaders who are strong enough to support us there.
With Wheatley and Scharmer, I would argue that an important part of our roles as leaders in this age of complexity is to hospice the death of our old ideas about leadership so that new ideas can be born. Authoritarianism will not serve us in the future. It will not help us address the complexity of climate change. It will not help us address racial or gender inequity.
We need leaders – at ALL levels of our governments, institutions, communities, and families – who can dance with complexity, play with possibility, and sit with their fear. We need leaders who can navigate the darkness. We need leaders who can hold seemingly opposing views and not lose sight of the space in between. We need leaders who know how to hold liminal space.
This is not meant to be a political post, and so I won’t tell you who to vote for (partly because I am Canadian and partly because I’m not sure any candidate in any election I’ve witnessed truly reflects the kind of leadership I’m talking about – they are, after all, products of a system we’ve created which may no longer work for the future).
Instead, I will ask you… how is this style of leadership showing up in your own life? Are you serving as host or hero? Are you holding space for the emerging future? And are you asking it of the leaders that you follow and/or elect? Or are you still clinging to the past and hoping the right hero will ride in on a white horse to save us?
It’s time to stop waiting. There are no heroes who can save us. There is only us.
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Note: If you’re interested in exploring more about what it means to have “a leader in every chair”, consider joining me and my colleague, Sharon Faulds, for a workshop on The Circle Way, November 24-26.
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