Cultivating courage in a time of crisis
Well, I ended my previous letter with a quote from Mary Oliver and I am beginning this one with another of my favourite poets. I wonder if they ever met. How I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall if they did!
In his absolutely astonishing and beautiful book Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, David Whyte says this about Denial:
“Denial…….is an underestimated state of being. Denial is an ever present and even splendid thing when seen in the light of its merciful and elemental powers to cradle and hold an identity until it is ready to move on.”
I read these words to a group of my students in Johannesburg in the last days before lockdown and I thought I knew what David Whyte was talking about then!
Oh! The hubris…..
Little did I know.
In the closing days of April, our wonderful and worn out president, Mr Cyril Ramaphosa. took the podium again to address us as a nation. It is easy to be overwhelmed by what one friend referred to the other day as the Covid-Coaster.
It is equally easy, though, to spot the myriad things that evoke a breath-taking degree of wonder. I have been finding this in the evening sunlight of late, the particular hue of gold the golden hour is of an autumn evening in the Cape.
The magnificent gravitas and courage of the leadership that Covid-19 and having to lead a country into and through Level 5 Lockdown has called forth in Mr Ramaphosa is another thing inspiring awe, and gratitude, in me. May all that there is in the way of genuine support and intelligent guidance be available to him is my prayer.
In this address, on 23rd April, there was one sentence in all the sentences he uttered that seemed to reach out of the screen, right out of the YouTube channel and straight into my psyche: and that was the sentence “we recommend that all people in the “vulnerable” category continue to isolate themselves".
It’s so interesting when something like that happens, and just like that – a layer of denial is not gently dissolved, but rather ripped away, and a reality is laid bare before you, to be faced.
I wrote in my last letter about the challenges of accessing an accurate array of Information. I had the rare opportunity – and by rare I do not mean necessarily that there isn’t a lot of it about, but rare in the way that finding it, and being exposed to it, makes you feel gifted, as if you got lucky to have had the experience – to “e-meet” a man for the first time and to find out a bit about who he is as a leader.
One of the things he said in our “interview” that I immediately loved, and told him I would quote him on, was “I didn’t become a leader until I grew up”.
Well, Covid-19 has been dragging me through a growing up process rather unceremoniously in terms of my relationship to this Component of Information. Wailing about how difficult it is to find the accurate stuff is just not going to cut it if you are having to navigate, just days shy of your 59th birthday, that your life is now being lived inside a whole, brand new identity called vulnerable.
Not knowing what that means, and what its consequences and implications are is just plain dumb.
I knew the impact of Mr Ramaphosa’s words was significant. But the early days of Lockdown have passed, I am finding. The ones that produced that deep dive, for many of us, into a genuinely-so-for-the-first-time-experience of what we mean when we talk about the Component of Ease – offering each other freedom from internalized rush and urgency – Oh! So this is what Ease feels like!
And so I was busy. Teaching Coaching in a Thinking Environment online – filled with rich learning and all the challenges of the virtual space – but made completely astonishing and humbling by the generosity of participants doing everything that it took to co-create a thinking environment in a virtual setting.
I was facilitating my Immunity Booster sessions, which have been these (I think I could even say literally without being too gushy) divine experiences of deep connection and shared restoration and nourishment.
I was preparing to offer a newly designed course on running meetings on line that create environments of genuine experiences of being able to connect and think well together in, as Nancy Kline says, ‘these exigent times’. And so, yes, I was busy. And even though I knew that comment had an arrow-like intensity, I did not notice how deeply it had pierced the veneer of “keep calm and carry on” with which I was fooling myself.
As David Whyte goes on to say in his brilliant vignette on Denial:
“Faced with the depth of loss and disappearance in the average life, a measure of denial is creative, necessary and self-compassionate…………. Refusing to face what we are not yet ripe and ready to face can help us to live in the present."
Thinking Sessions are a profoundly powerful self-development tool. For all that they can look like nothing much is going on, they are tectonic plates shifting in their impact. Between Ramaphosa’s address and the evening of 28th April, I allowed myself, over the course of a few sessions, to face what “we recommend that people in the vulnerable category continue to self isolate” might mean.
And then I faced that I might not see my youngest son, who I dropped off in Pretoria at the end of January, until the end of 2020. As the news about Levels 4 down to 1 emerged, I faced that this “pretend” life of teaching on-line and meeting only virtually with my colleagues, friends and students could actually be my real life.
There are more things I faced. And then I wept. I’m very lucky. I have a wonderfully affectionate and sensitive husband with big arms and an equally big heart. And as Jon Kabatt-Zinn points out in his teachings on how to navigate the full catastrophe of life, if you allow whatever you are experiencing to be what you are experiencing and you breathe deeply, into it, and soften towards it, it changes. Life is an experience of infinite impermanence. David Whyte again: “Denial, fully experienced ……becomes a way of paying attention to and experiencing what is asking to be seen. It is a beautiful, transitional state every human being inhabits before they are emancipated into the next, larger context………”