When we lose something precious, do we always want to find it again? This isn’t as absurd as it sounds, believe me!
The first time we really faced this question was years after Steve’s ME diagnosis, following a Mozambique trip in 1994. Having lived through the years of loss – of health, job and relationships – we recognised that we no longer knew what normal would be. It wasn’t Steve in his mid-30s that we wanted back, but for him to be fully healthy now, along with his silver streaks and wisdom.
We didn’t want to spend time mourning what might have been. However, we also don’t want to suppress the pain and miss out on reaching for the best now.
It’s just so easy to settle. To accommodate, to make excuses for ourselves and others. And to put limits on our expectations. We don’t have to open ourselves to potential disappointment. Numbing the fear that we might be doing something that cuts us off from who we might be. Fully.
So we skirted around it for a while, only gradually plucking up the courage to grasp it. Like reaching for the proverbial smoldering stick.
We’re still working on it. It’s not an easy path, but sometimes we’re driven to it. Propelled forward because we can’t live with what we might have given away.
I’m reflecting on this now because over the last few weeks I’ve also realised that I’ve lost more of my voice than I’d thought.
So what happened?
Our voice, fundamentally, is the expression of who we are. Yes, it changes over time. And in different seasons of our life, it might have different tones.
But essentially it is us. ‘Me’ most fully. Not necessarily the ‘me’ I’d like to be – that’s a work of grace in progress. But it has a depth and resonance. When we ‘speak’ we recognise it’s us and it should make us smile.
In listening to myself: I wasn’t smiling. I was stumbling when I should have been confident and fluid. The connection between my inside and my outside wasn’t working.
I’m not talking about being nervous or apprehensive in an unfamiliar setting. No, I realised that what I was hearing – whether I was speaking to myself or others – was a thin imitation. Sue, yes, but with a lot missing. Walking with a limp.
The mental, emotional and physical rollercoaster that’s been my recent past has obviously had an impact. I was far more affected than I’d realised.
But strangely it was giving myself permission to look at me kindly, through the lens of recent experience, that brought the bigger missing piece to light.
Facing the ultimate reality – even if it’s happening to someone else – causes a shift in how we view what’s important. Amplify it by a potentially life-changing diagnosis and major surgery, and what’s ephemeral falls away. Like discarded husks.
So I knew that just continuing in this ‘not quite there’ stage – waiting for something to happen – had to stop. I had to ‘pick a lane’. But I also knew that this isn’t about me. That this season of my life is about growing others.
Shedding the overcoat
But what was stopping me, what was this vague force holding me back?
I recognised that more had been taken – and I had acquiesced far more than I realised – over the last decade. In particular, I had let go of my leadership identity and let others plaster over their views of who I am.
Talking and teaching about leadership isn’t the same as exercising it. And although a number of people naturally looked to me in a variety of settings – I got to the place where this surprised me!
So why was this?
Having been beaten up so badly in my last CEO job, I was more wrecked than I had realised. But I didn’t have the environment to really deal with it. So it got buried along with the toxic experience of semi-public humiliation that I “wasn’t doing it right.”
Then layers of doubt and further lack of affirmation reinforced the growing sense that I wasn’t any good. That I’d been out of my depth (yes, but I am a good swimmer) and this was a just outcome.
Given where I was, this was easier to believe than challenge. After all, I was pretty shattered and hadn’t dealt with the grieving process.
As our family circumstances shrank my world, I became incredibly isolated – physically, socially, spiritually and emotionally.
What a recipe for a mask of ‘less than’ in a culture that has a narrow and controlling definition of leadership. It was easier to retreat, lose my voice, than put myself out there, in vulnerability again.
And when I saw myself struggle to think and articulate in a way I knew I could, it finally dawned on me that something significant was missing…
If you have ever sung or played an instrument, you know that practice is required to regain your capabilities. The basics never really leave you and the intuitive flow does return, but you need to intentionally exercise.
One step at a time.
For me, this is reinstating good habits of thinking and feeling like a leader, not just a facilitator. Summoning courage and generosity in the service of others.
Being prepared to put good work out there that might help other quiet disruptors – who may not have good role models or conducive environments – to be brave and follow their insights. To stir up their courage to make a difference in their world, about the things they really care about. In a way that is congruent for them.
To water seeds that have already been planted in hearts that are receptive.
So I have a choice. Do I have the courage to nurture a tribe? To step up and lead with my voice and not hide behind another’s? To find people who will share in this movement and get it started?
I choose to respond by offering you a poem quoted by Elle Luna at this year’s Do Lectures.
Go to the limits of your longing
God speaks to each of us as God makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its intensity.
Give me your hand.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours, I 59 (translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, with minor adjustments by Elle Luna)
Where does your longing take you?
Photo note: Literally in the brook higher up in our valley in South West Wales. My iPhone 7 partially submerged as I wanted to capture what it looks and feels like being in the flow, not just observing it.
Earlier pieces on the theme of losing and finding our voice include: