'We can be heroes.' (David Bowie)
I’ve known and worked alongside so many heroes that I can hardly begin to list them all. These aren’t famous celebrities, basking in wealth and media limelight. They’re ordinary people who have chosen to live extraordinary lives. I say chosen because they could all have done something different, something more ‘normal’, yet chose – and still choose – to take the road-less-travelled. It’s always a choice, even if it doesn’t always feel like a choice.
There’s Rudi. He’s a social worker in Germany who has committed his life and career to work relentlessly to prevent the social and political conditions that led to the rise of the Nazis. He looks on the rise of the AfD with alarm. And there’s Jasmin. She’s poor and lives among the poorest in the Philippines. She gives every spare peso and moment of her time – with scary degrees of self-sacrifice – to bring love and hope to the most vulnerable people.
Then there’s Sue. She was on the last plane out of Saigon to rescue mixed-race children at the end of the Vietnam war. The plane was riddled with bullets. She and the children lay terrified on the floor as the aircraft fled the runway. She rarely speaks about it now. And there’s Mike. He works with street gangs and drug addicts in the UK, putting his own welfare at risk because he sees potential in people where others only see broken, messed-up lives.
All of these people are ‘followers of Jesus’. They challenge and inspire me and serve as a continual reminder that every moment represents a decision, a choice to live a self-centred life or to serve a higher cause – whether that be God, humanity or nature-environment. I find it easy to get distracted, to slip into pragmatism, expediency, convenience or comfort. Yet I want to live a well-lived life. Who are your heroes and how do they inspire you?
Someone just called me, ‘Nixit’. It made me smile. :) I had posted this piece (below) on Facebook as a direct and deliberate challenge to bitter vitriol, negative stereotyping and harsh demonising on social media of people who voted ‘Leave’ in the UK-EU referendum last week.
I feel a bit nervous because, with frayed tempers running high this weekend, it’s very hard to speak and be heard. I can say, however, that everyone I know who voted ‘Remain’ did so with sincere beliefs and honourable intentions. I hope some will feel able to hear me. I hope I will hear too.
I voted Leave.
‘Leave voters are inward-looking.’
OK. I’ve been to France, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Austria, Italy, Albania, Yugoslavia, Czech Republic, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, West Bank, Uganda, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, Canada, United States. You?
‘Leave voters are ignorant and uneducated.’
OK. I have a first degree with honours, a postgraduate diploma with distinction, a masters degree with distinction. I’m a fellow of a UK professional Institute, have had over 100 articles published in journals and have spoken at various UK and international conferences. You?
‘Leave voters are selfish.’
OK. I’m not Mother Teresa. However, I’ve worked my entire adult life with charities and international NGOs in countries including UK, Germany, Albania, Lebanon, West Bank, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, Canada, United States. I’ve been a lifelong supporter of numerous organisations including Amnesty International and Greenpeace. You?
‘Leave voters are right wing, xenophobic racists.’
OK. I’ve been a lifelong leftist, worked in political/human rights for Latino people in El Salvador/Central America, worked in a Palestinian hospital for Muslim children with disabilities, worked in anti-Nazi projects in Germany, taught English to Vietnamese refugees, taught East European people, worked with African people from vulnerable contexts and people from almost every country in Asia. You?
‘Leave voters are nationalistic fascists.’
I’m pro-European and pro-International; pro-refugee and pro-migration; pro-democracy and pro-human rights. Until 2 years ago, I was passionately pro-EU. I voted Leave because, among other things, I feel desperately concerned about rising nationalism across the EU and beyond which is, in my view, fuelled by EU policies and behaviour.
A lot of good people disagree with me and voted Remain. Respect.
A lot of good people voted Leave too.
We may have more in common than we know. That is my hope.
Ouch! Sooner or later, something hits us in life. It could be a broken relationship, an accident, loss of employment, sudden ill health. It could be anything. But we know it when it hits us. The impact can feel physical like a thud to the chest, a sharp pain that leaves us gasping for breath. It hurts, it aches…and, for a time, it disorientates everything we know, believe, expected or hoped for. It can leave us spinning, angry, scared, numb. We feel vulnerable. We may feel anxiety, despair.
You do know it if you’ve had this experience. You may be having it now. The usual optimism and positive thinking that have served you so well in the past suddenly feel empty, shallow somehow, lacking substance. You reach out for help but if feels like grasping at thin, intangible mist. All you know is a persistent, uneasy, gnawing feeling, deep inside and the light of hope looks hopelessly dim. Family and friends offer support but, in the midst of it you feel – alone. Painfully…alone.
It’s moments like these where existential and spiritual questions may come sharply into view. I’ve know that feeling of falling, sinking, so deep that I thought I would drown. It felt like slipping into deep darkness, overwhelmed by a pain-filled fear. I couldn’t see a way to stay alive. Sitting on a fence in a cold field one night, all I could discern was a feint pin prick of light in the farthest distance. I tried hard to cling on, however weakly. That night, I discovered the light was - Jesus.
I watched at 9 miles as people jogged past looking hopeful, energetic and smiling. Further into the run, the picture looked quite different. Many looked tired, struggling to push onto the end. This was the Milton Keynes marathon this weekend. At 19 miles, I saw a small girl standing beside the track shouting and clapping at everyone who came past: ‘Well done! You’re doing brilliantly! Keep going!’ Pained faces turned to smiles. People who were walking, limping, mustered the strength to start running again. It was amazing to observe. The power of a child. The gift of encouragement.
It brought tears to my eyes. I wasn’t running but it energised me too. Previously, I had been waiting for a friend, Adrian, to run past so that I could encourage him, catch a photo. Now I found myself clapping, cheering, shouting words of encouragement to everyone. To strangers. To people I have never seen and will never see again. The girl’s effect was infectious. Magical. I decided to stay until the end, to clap and cheer, to project belief and hope into tired minds and bodies. It felt like such a privilege. Exhausted runners breathed, ‘thank you’, gave a thumbs up and offered a weak smile.
This girl struck me as such an incredible life symbol. How to inject belief, hope, encouragement into people’s lives , especially people who feel at the end of themselves, of their situations, at a loss how to survive - never mind to succeed. I’m reminded of Paul’s words in the New Testament: ‘Let’s keep going in the race marked out for us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus – especially since there are people surrounding us and cheering us on.’ (my paraphrase). God, help us recognise the profound impact a simple word of encouragement can make: it could save a life, a dream, a deepest hope.
Two years ago, I came off a mountain bike – badly(!) - during a UK Sport Relief charity ride. I demonstrated perfectly how not to fall, how not to land and, as a consequence, snapped my left leg sideways at the knee and ruptured two ligaments. During the next twelve months of leg splints, crutches and intensive physiotherapy, specialists told me I would never be able to walk up and down stairs again, never be able to swim again, never be able to ride off road again.
It was a shocking, painful and numbing experience. I kept playing over in my mind what had happened, what I could have done differently, what this could all mean for my life, how it could impact on my family and work. I felt angry with myself for making such a simple, stupid mistake, frustrated that I could no longer do activities I loved. And I realised I faced a choice. I could give in to the experience, accept my ‘fate’, or take what action I could to re-shape the future.
Two years on, after months of (at times) agonising physio, dragging myself up stairs by hand rails etc, I managed to reach the top of a mountain without leg splints. Two years on, having learned to use a pull buoy float and hand paddles, I managed to swim 80 lengths with arms only. Two years on, with leg braced and lots of deep breaths, I managed to complete a 22 mile off road bike challenge. It has shed revealing light onto my attitude to risk. A reminder to hold onto hope.
I thank God, family, friends, colleagues, professionals, neighbours - and even total strangers - who have supported me. It has influenced my thinking as a leader, coach and OD practitioner: how to support, challenge and increase the resource-fullness of people, teams and organisations. It has strengthened my conviction that we and others are often capable of far more than we know or believe. It has reinforced my faith that God stands with us in the midst of trials.
Are you an agent of hope - or of fear? It’s a stark choice. Faced with challenges that look and feel insurmountable, it’s easy to fall into fear. Some avoid fear by closing their eyes tightly, holding their breath, sticking their fingers in their ears and singing, ‘La la la’, hoping it will go away. Some try to avoid the situations, the relationships, the circumstances that evoke their fears. It sometimes works, but not often. Our fears have an annoying way of stalking and haunting us, tracking us down.
And so it is so often with those we lead, coach, train or facilitate in groups. What message do we model, communicate, inspire in others? I walked through fire last week. Well, on burning embers anyway. It was a charity fundraising event and I volunteered. In preparation beforehand, a trainer tested our fears in order to build resilience. We did all sorts of strange activities to overcome our inhibitions, culminating in breaking boards with bare hands and snapping an arrow end-on with my throat(!)
Weird stuff. But it worked. The Firewalk was easy after that. It’s the same as exposure therapy: a gradual exposure to things we fear most in order to overcome our anxiety by facing them head-on and by doing them, not just thinking about them. Have you heard of P = P – I? Performance = Potential – Interference, based on Tim Gallwey’s Inner Game. Interference can be external or internal. Internal includes our fears of failure, of rejection, of humiliation, of getting it wrong.
So I’m intrigued by how often e.g. God in the Bible says, ‘Don’t be afraid’. There’s a deep spiritual, existential dimension to this. Who or what do we place our trust in, our confidence in? What enables us to muster courage, to take a stance, in the face of our fears? There’s a psychological dimension to this too. How far do we take a breath, reveal our anxieties, take a risk, take courageous steps forward in the face of fear - to build the belief and hope in others that they can do the same?
I write, therefore I think. I guess you could call that Descartes for Introverts. A journal editor contacted me this week to invite me to draft an article. The guidelines propose having a clear idea of content and structure from the outset. I get the point, I see the logic, but I’m aware I don’t write like that. I don’t think I even think like that. Often I don’t know what I think, what I want to say, until I start to write. This means that, for me, writing is an exciting adventure of exploration, discovery and promise. It’s as if each word, each sentence, opens the way for what could emerge, what could surprise, what will reveal itself, next.
I sometimes experience a similar phenomenon when I lead, teach, coach, facilitate. In the past, I would prepare…and prepare…so that I would be, well… – prepared. Now I notice I’m more interested in preparing myself. How to be present, curious, open to the person, open to the group, open to God, open to the moment: noticing what is preoccupying my thoughts, how I am feeling emotionally and physically, what is holding my attention, what I’m not noticing, what stories I’m telling myself. It's about learning to risk just one step forward with awareness, intention and belief in what could unfold, what will become, next.
This attitude, this stance, is invitational by nature. It reaches out to inquire, share, collaborate and co-create. It’s so different to a defensive, defended posture, trying to hold the ‘other’ or the future at bay to protect and preserve. It’s a willingness to be vulnerable, not-know, let go of control, move out and trust. It’s not easy to sustain this state if work and relationships feel pressured and stressed. It's easy to fall back. Yet it can be a place of great fruitfulness, alive and life-giving. It can be a sacred space where love thrives and where hope is truly transformational. It calls for a leap of faith. Just one step. Next.
Gone are the days when we could think of ourselves, our teams and our organisations in splendid isolation. We now discover, abruptly at times, that everything is interconnected, everything is interdependent. We see impacts of global markets on domestic markets and vice versa. We see impacts of national and international policy on local people. We see sudden, unexpected changes that come out of nowhere, traceable only in retrospect, that dramatically shape our lives and work.
In the third sector where I’ve spent most of my professional life, we used to think of, say, human rights, international development and environmental issues as completely separate. We now see them as integrally related. Make a change in one area and it impacts on people and communities in another area - or in another part of the world. We can’t always see the connections but we can certainly feel them. This makes the world more complex, less predictable, less certain.
A pervasive atmosphere of complexity and uncertainty can evoke personal, social, economic and political anxiety. Leaders and ideologies are emerging across the globe that offer simplistic solutions, often at the extremes, that create a comforting illusion. They may help us sleep more peacefully, live more purposefully. Yet they ignore, dismiss or suppress aspects of reality that don’t fit their simple narrative. To break free from this, we must learn to surface and live with uncomfortable truths.
A stark example: witness the rhetoric in the UK and other Western nations this year in the face of unplanned, large-scale migration into Europe. Social media is filled with heated debate. ‘They’re all helpless refugees – rescue them!’ vs ‘They’re all terrorist sympathisers – reject them!’ It poses an either-or, black-white choice. To say, ‘It’s complicated. It calls for a sophisticated response’ sounds like a cop out, a refusal to take sides, a stance devoid of passion, a betrayal of a cause.
So we find ourselves facing an existential crisis, created and fuelled in part by a perfect storm of influences. These include: spread of Islamic extremism, growth in right/left wing nationalism, intolerant illiberal liberalism, gross economic inequality, unprecedented global awareness via the internet, powerful social media, more failed states, huge displacement of people, alarming climate change. It can feel perplexing, confusing, debilitating. How to take a stance in the midst of all this?
Adrian Spurrell (Synapse Solutions), my professional mentor, has been a persistent voice of challenge and support this year. ‘We can be driven by fear or by hope. Choose hope.’ It reminds me of hope in the Christian gospel too – a faith I experience as real – when we affirm the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s a mysterious faith that holds onto hope, is held onto by hope, often in the midst of hope-lessness. May we know peace and hope this Christmas time and the courage to stand in 2016.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.