“Circumstances do not determine a person; they reveal a person”
Reality has always been filled with uncertainty, but I’ve never had more uncertainty in my life than now. Here are just a few of the questions that have been on my mind recently:
• Will we ever get back to relating comfortably with each other again?
• Will my daughter be able to come home for Christmas? When will I see my grandkids (who live in the US) again?
• What if I unknowingly pass Covid on to someone else? If I contract Covid, what impact will it have on me? How about on my family?
• What will the impact of zoom meetings and remote working conditions have on my business long term?
• Will this pandemic ever actually be “over?” And what will the new reality look like? And how will we even know it is “over?”
With my sensitive nervous system and propensity toward worry, I struggle to find strength and peace of mind. Here are seven ways I have found security and inner well-being in the midst of the uncertainty:
1. Separate Security From Safety. Safety is a condition of being protected from harm in order to achieve an acceptable standard of risk. Safety comes from your environment. In its simplest terms, your workplace or relationship is either physically safe or it is physically unsafe. Psychologically, it is either safe for interpersonal risk-taking or it isn’t safe. Security, on the other hand, is a state of confidence that arises from one’s capacity to face the demands of reality. Security comes from within. “Security,” Helen Keller said once, “is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” It is the organization’s responsibility to ensure a safe work environment, but it is an employee’s job to be secure within that environment. The best companies create loyalty through great leadership and culture, not through the illusion of job security. Job security comes from one’s employability, one’s capacity to be employed. Like an employer, it is the responsibility of our public health system to create a safe society. However, the path of security, in the world of a pandemic, is to take responsibility for our own health and well-being – so we’ll have the strongest immune system possible. No one else is going to do that for us.
2. Become Stronger. My father used to say to me, “Don’t pray for life to get easier. Pray, instead, for you to get stronger.” To quote American author, Van Jones, “I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym.” I find it strengthening to regularly workout on the weights and hit the bag. While sustaining and growing physical strength is helpful, what it does to strengthen my mind is even better. You get stronger by doing something difficult. What are you doing every day that’s hard, but you do it anyway? We’ve all heard that self-care is important. But self-care usually isn’t comfortable or easy or painless. Self-care is what you don’t want to do but you know you need to do because of how you feel after you do it. Becoming stronger can be as simple as making your bed every morning. Strength is not about velocity; it’s about direction. What direction are you headed?
3. Build Community. Through this pandemic, I’ve never felt more isolated, and I’ve never felt more connected. We are all in this together. No one is unscathed from the impact of COVID-19. Every day I reach out and deepen my relationship with my community – my handful of trusted confidants. Not only am I using this time to get stronger physically and mentally, I’m using this time to strengthen my relationships with the important people in my life. Every day I share something with someone about my fears, my doubts, my insecurities, and my dreams. I talk about my losses and my grief, my anxiety and my worry, my vision and my intentions. It doesn’t need to go on Facebook, but it does need to be shared with the people who matter most. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
4. Replace Optimism With A Firm Resolve. Admiral Jim Stockdale, who Jim Collins referred to in his classic book, Good To Great, was held captive in a prison camp in Vietnam for seven years. When asked how he did not allow his oppressive circumstances to beat him down, he talked about facing the honest truth of one’s situation. “You have to understand, it was never depressing. Because despite all those circumstances, I never ever wavered in my absolute faith that not only would I prevail – get out of this – but I would also prevail by turning it into the defining event of my life that would make me a stronger and better person…” He also commented on who didn’t make it out of those circumstances: “It was the optimists. They were the ones who always said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ Christmas would come and it would go. And there would be another Christmas. And they died of a broken heart…. You must never, ever, ever confuse the need for absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail despite those constraints, with the need for the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts, whatever they are. We’re not getting out of here by Christmas.” There’s no end in sight to the pandemic and we don’t even know what the end will look like. What we do know is that strength lies in staying present in the present moment and power comes from a firm resolve we will get through this and will be better for it. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so to all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
5. Choose Service over Self-Interest. In my book, Caring Is Everything: Getting To The Heart of Humanity, Leadership, and Life, I discuss the value of expressing our innate generosity as an antidote to most of what ails us. At times, caring happens as a reflex. It isn’t something we think about or “try” to do. It’s the instinctive response of an open heart. Someone slips, our arm goes out. The car in front of us is in an accident and we stop to help. A colleague feels down, and we buy them a cup of coffee. It all seems natural and appropriate. Through caring naturally for one another, we can glimpse an essential quality of our being. We may be sitting alone, lost in self-pity, feeling sorry for ourselves, when the phone rings with a call from a friend who is really depressed. Instinctively, we come out of ourselves and are there for another. It doesn’t matter what is said, but when a little comfort is shared, we hang up and feel a little more content with ourselves. We’re reminded of who we really are and what we can offer one another.
6. Practice Gratitude. In The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom tells of her involvement in the Dutch resistance during World War II, and how she managed to survive Hitler’s concentration camps and afterward travel the world as a public speaker. “Every experience God gives us, every person He puts in our lives, is the perfect preparation for the future only He can see.” The practice of gratitude carried her through the years of torture and the death of her family members. At one point, she even practiced gratitude for the fleas, for they were a part of “all circumstances.” She was a courageous woman who brought to life the precious perspective of seeking the gift in everything. I’ve learned to always make your gratitude bigger than your circumstances. Here’s a quick exercise to try that proves that gratitude can change your outlook. Pick any person you know and ask yourself, what do I appreciate about this person? Try to write down at least ten things. Now observe how your attitude toward that person has shifted. You can even take it a step further and let the person know what’s on your list. Gratitude changes everything. What you appreciate appreciates. Gratitude is like a muscle. Just as it is strengthening, so it has to also be strengthened. It has to be practiced.
7. Find Strength From Within. Whether you call it faith or inner well-being, security ultimately must come from within. I’ve learned this in my work with addictions for the past two decades. To get well, drug addicts and alcoholics have to find some kind of strength beyond their own capacity. They have to come to grips with the brutal facts that there is no security outside of themselves. Alcohol won’t do it. Drugs won’t do it. Food won’t do it. Order and control won’t do it. Fame and money and notoriety won’t do it. Security is an inside job. There is simply not enough stuff in the world to fill the emptiness inside of us. It’s an inside job. William Stafford’s journey with words began most mornings before sunrise. This simple poem, “The Way It Is,” written 26 days before he passed, expresses brilliantly what it means to find an inner place of calm and steadiness in the midst of the vicissitudes of life.
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
Uncertainty is integral to life. Without uncertainty there would be no room for new possibility. In our willingness to accept uncertainty, solutions will spontaneously emerge out of the problem, out of the confusion, disorder, and chaos. The more uncertain things seem to be, the more secure you can feel, because accepting uncertainty is the path to freedom. In the wisdom of uncertainty lies the freedom from our past, from knowing, from the prison of past conditioning. Through the willingness to step wholeheartedly and fully into the unknown, we step into the field of possibility. When we discover both inner well-being and wisdom amid the uncertainty, we find security.
I was lamenting with a colleague about how we all have areas in our lives and our leadership that drive other people crazy, cause damage to the world around us, and hurt the people we care about. And we are blind to them. That’s why we call them blind spots in our leadership development program. So much of what we bring to the world causes harm and requires intentional work to improve our leadership, and yet has become so habitual that we aren’t even aware of it. It all seems fine to us, but we are blind to how destructive it can be.
So it would appear that perhaps the eruption of anger toward inequality and discrimination in our society is a reckoning of our own blind spots around the issue of racism. Professional athletes this week have reminded us all that there is something more important at work here than winning games, making money, and the achievement of goals.
It seems to be human nature to avoid problems and dodge the truth. After all, who wants to look at the financial ledger of our businesses or our lives? It’s easier to procrastinate a visit to the doctor than face lab work results. It’s easier to avoid facing the difficulties in a marriage than confront what’s really going on. Who wants to admit they have an addiction and actually do something about it?
It’s easy to criticize leaders in an organization for not facing reality or confronting brutal facts and acting on the implications. But how many of us do this in our own lives? And it’s easy to judge the racism we see around us, but what about the unacknowledged prejudice within us?
I recently spoke to a high-ranking public service leader who publicly made a statement that there was systemic racism in the culture that she led, and she was taking action to rectify it. She opened herself to much criticism from her employees, but her courage to face reality demonstrated the strength of her character. It also deepened her credibility and the respect of her best employees.
We all have our prejudices. Only when we own up to them and face this reality will we begin to heal the world – and heal our lives. Helping people see their blind spots is a large part of the work we do in our retreats and online programs for developing authentic leaders (see www.irvinestone.com).
There are specific actions you can take to change the world by facing some of your own racism blind spots. Let’s do our part to heal the world by taking personal accountability:
- Speak to someone you know well who is different from you – in gender, race, ethnic background, or sexual orientation – and ask if they have experienced you being prejudiced, disrespectful, judgmental, or insensitive – and how. Say thank you and listen carefully to what they have to say. Be sincerely open to learn from them.
- If the level of honesty about these questions may be in doubt, invite the people you work with to provide the answers to these questions anonymously.
- If they honestly don’t perceive you as prejudiced, then still take time to listen to what they have to say. If something in you gets triggered, resist the human tendency to get defensive and instead use the trigger to open a new door to learn something. It’s important to begin the dialogue.
- Treat all diversity as an opportunity to learn and face the truth. It’s a life-long endeavor, and one worth pursuing – for the sake of a good life and for the sake of the survival of our species.
Last Friday — Black Friday — I delivered the closing address at a conference in the Fantasyland Hotel in Edmonton, then walked through the attached West Edmonton Mall to the food court for lunch.
I was shocked by what I saw: deal-hungry consumers jammed this huge shopping center wall to wall.
I couldn’t help but contrast the frenetic shoppers with the committed group of family and community support services leaders I had just presented to. I realized the mall was too crowded and crazy to enjoy lunch. I ended up, instead, in a quiet restaurant away from the mall with space and peace to reflect on my experience at the conference.
In the quiet I thought about the leaders in my presentation. They exemplified what I would call authentic leadership: men and women who are committed to substance over superficial, character over charisma, and service over self-interest, people whose inner compass guides their daily actions and who inspire trust and confidence by being honest and real. Being with them was such a contrast from my Black Friday experience, a sales bonanza that now marks the start of the holiday season.
My musings led me to reflect on the holidays, a time of demands, expectations, and obligations. But authenticity — the commitment to be piloted by an internal guide rather than solely by the expectations of others — asks us to stop and reflect on the question, “What does this holiday mean to you?”
In response, here’s my list. As you read it, think about what’s on your own list.
1. Renewal. In the dark of winter, the holiday lights are a wonderful reminder to stop and let them brighten us, both literally and emotionally. Even a small moment of noticing can be renewing and sustaining. This is a time of year to s-l-o-w down and find restoration where you can. It’s a time for revitalization, not depletion. What nourishes you? What gives you energy? What replenishes you?
2. Presence. A friend winters in Mexico. I spoke with her shortly after she arrived. “Mexico is so beautiful!” she exclaimed. I wondered if it was Mexico that was beautiful or if she was just noticing the beauty. When my wife, Val, was unpacking Christmas ornaments this week and hanging up her beautiful collection of bells, I stopped for a few moments to be present to the beauty of her joy, which in turn brought joy to me. Life is only lived now. What makes a task valuable and life meaningful is the quality of the attention we give to whatever we are doing in the present moment. Allow this time of year to remind you of that. While presents are appreciated, the best gift we can give is our presence in this moment.
3. Connection. Who do you want to spend time with? Who enriches your life? I plan to share this holiday season with Val, my daughters, my grandchildren, and very close friends. Connection is ultimately about love, and expressing and experiencing love. By being present in the moment, you can feel the love within yourself and those around you. Love is a state of being. You can never lose it, and it cannot leave you. When you share this connection with those you truly care about, you are nourished and fulfilled.
4. Reflection. One of the keys to making the most of your life is developing the ability to reflect. Go back over your day, your week, your month, and your year. Look back through your calendar. Whom did you see? What did they say? What happened? How did you feel? Reflect on your experiences, your choices in the past year. What were your successes and failures? What is there to celebrate? What did you learn? How will you apply those lessons? What are your intentions for the coming year?
5. Service. You will never experience joy if you are perpetually waiting until everything is okay with you, or the rest of the world, to feel thankful. You must catch joy as it presents itself, even in the midst of sorrow or suffering. In the craziness of life, gratitude inspires meaning and joy. The best measure of a person’s character is their capacity for feeling and expressing gratitude. And service awakens us to appreciation. Wherever you go, and whomever you meet, bring them a gift. The gift may be a compliment, a flower, or a prayer. Reach out to someone less fortunate than you. Pay it forward. Service is vital to a life well-lived.
I hope my list has inspired you to articulate what you truly value, and that you will live this season in close alignment with those values, rather than being driven by the tyranny of obligations. Happy holidays.