Rediscover the human
‘How is that human systems seem so naturally to gravitate away from their humanness, so that we find ourselves constantly needing to pull them back again?’ (Jenny Cave-Jones)
What a profound insight and question. How is that, in organisations, the human so often becomes alien? Images from the Terminator come to mind – an apocalyptic vision of machines that turn violently against the humans that created them. I was invited to meet with the leadership team of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in East Africa that, in its earnest desire to ensure a positive impact in the lives of the poor, had built a bureaucratic infrastructure that, paradoxically, drained its life and resources away from the poor. The challenge and solution were to rediscover the human.
I worked with a global NGO that determined to strengthen its accountability to its funders. It introduced sophisticated log frames and complex reporting mechanisms for its partners in the field, intended to ensure value for its supporters and tangible, measurable evidence of positive impact for people and communities. As an unintended consequence, field staff spent inordinate amounts of time away from their intended beneficiaries, completing forms to satisfy what felt, for them, like the insatiable demands of a machine. The challenge and solution were to rediscover the human.
A high school in the UK invited me to help its leaders manage its new performance process which had run into difficulties. Its primary focus had been on policies, systems and forms – intended positively to ensure fairness and consistency – yet had left staff feeling alienated, frustrated and demoralised. We shifted the focus towards deeper spiritual-existential questions of hopes, values and agency then worked with groups to prioritise high quality and meaningful relationships and conversations over forms, meetings and procedures. The challenge and solution were to rediscover the human.
Academics and managers at a university for the poor in South-East Asia had competing roles and priorities, and this had created significant tensions as well as affected adversely the learning experience of its students. The parties had attempted unsuccessfully to resolve these issues by political-structural means; jostling behind the scenes for positions of hierarchical influence and power. They invited me in and we conducted an appreciative inquiry together, focusing on shared hopes, deep values, fresh vision and a co-created future. The challenge and solution were to rediscover the human.
Where have you seen or experienced a drift away from the human? Curious to discover how I can help? Get in touch!
‘The people living in darkness have seen a great Light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a Light has dawned.’ (Matthew 4:16, the Bible)
‘Death is a thick black wall, against which every soul is hurled and shattered.’ I don’t now remember who said that, but I do remember my philosophy lecturer quoting it when we studied existentialism. These are very dark words indeed and have, for me, a deeply foreboding and chilling feel to them. I sat down and avidly wrote an essay in response, doing my best to present what, I believed, were convincing rational arguments to counter such a nihilistic and hope-less outlook.
When I got my paper back, the mark was nowhere near as high as I had hoped for or expected. The lecturer had commented simply yet profoundly that an existentialist writer would have absolutely no interest in my reasoning. It’s not about objectivity or logic. It’s about how it is and feels to be in the world; a phenomenological cry of angst in the face of fragile, fathomless, futility. It was as if, in my attempt to offer ‘correct’ thinking, I had totally missed the point. It never was about thinking.
As the years have passed by, I too have known that angst, at a times an almost irresistible magnetic-like pull towards my own death. Sometimes, it has felt like half-clinging on weakly to avoid being pulled over the edge. In the face of unbearable and irreparable heartbreak, suicide can feel like a least-painful solution. Tom Walker’s moving song, Leave a Light On has deep emotional resonance here. Jesus is my life-saving Light. ‘At the end of the day, it’s either God or death.’ (James Wallace).
Whatever Advent means to you, Light shines in darkness. Hold onto hope.
'The optimism of the action is better than the pessimism of the thought.' (Greenpeace)
Resilience is a common buzz word today, partly in response to the complex mental health challenges that individuals and communities face in a brittle, anxious, non-linear and incomprehensible (BANI) world. Who would have imagined 3 years ago, for instance, that Covid19 would strike or that Russia would invade Ukraine, with all the ramifications this has precipitated in our personal and collective lives? It can feel like too much time spent on the back foot, reacting to pressures that may appear from anywhere, without warning, from left field – rather than creating the positive future we hope for.
A psychological, social and political risk is that people and societies develop a ‘Whatever’ attitude, an apathetic ‘What’s the point?’ mentality. After all, what is the point of investing our time, effort and other resources into something that could all get blown away again in a brief moment? A good friend worked in Liberia with a community that was trying to recover from the effects of a bloody civil war. They started to build schools, hospitals and other infrastructure and, just as things were beginning to look hopeful, a violent, armed militia swept through the area and burned everything to the ground.
This can feel like an apocalyptic game of snakes and ladders. Take one step forward and, all of a sudden, back to square one again. A close friend in the Philippines befriended people in a very poor makeshift community, surviving at the side of a busy road in boxes and under tarpaulins. She worked hard to improve the quality of their lives, to ensure that they felt and experienced authentic love, care and support, and it started to have a dramatic human impact. Faces brightened and hopes were lifted. Then, out of nowhere, government trucks appeared and bulldozed that whole place to the ground.
It could be tempting to give up. One coping mechanism is to focus on living just one moment, one day, at a time because, after all, 'Who can know what tomorrow will bring?' This may engender an element of peaceful acceptance, akin to that through mindfulness. It can also morph into a form of passive, deterministic fatalism: ‘We can’t change anything, so why try?’ Martin Luther King's response stands in stark contrast who, in the face of setbacks, advocated, ‘We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would more tragic than to stop at this point. We’ve got to see it through.’
Psychologically, both approaches could be regarded as survival strategies, as personal and social defences against anxiety. In a way, they are adaptive responses: ways of thinking, being and behaving that seek to create a greater sense of agency and control in the face of painful powerlessness. In the former case, a level of control is gained, paradoxically, through choosing to relinquish control. It's a letting-go rather than a clinging-on. In the latter, a fight-response (albeit a faith-fuelled, non-violent fight in the case of MLK), control is sought by changing the conditions that deprive of control.
Each constitutes it's own way of responding to an external reality – and it’s out there as well as in here that the real and tangible challenges of resilience and transformation persist. The social, political and economic needs of the poorest, most vulnerable and oppressed people in the world don’t exist or disappear, depending simply on how we or they may perceive or feel about them. MLK’s call to action was radical: ‘We need to develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. It’s no longer a question of what will happen to us if we get involved. It’s what will happen to them (and us) if we don’t?’
[See also: Resilient; When disaster strikes; Clash of realities]
‘I turned my head and saw yet another wisp of smoke, on its way to nothingness…’ (King Solomon)
On three separate occasions, a female grass roots activist in the Philippines was followed at night by strangers: men on motorbikes. As she walked alone, they would ride slowly and menacingly behind her, aiming to threaten and intimidate her into silence. She had taken a very public stance against corruption in high places – a stance that, for other activists in her country, had resulted in a deadly blade or a bullet in the back from a passing motorcyclist.
Undeterred, this young woman turned around and confronted the bikers, fearlessly: ‘Even if you kill me, you can’t take my life.’ She’s a radical follower of Jesus who has chosen a determined, startling and courageous life stance at the cutting edge of faith. It stands in stark contrast to the greyness of nothingness that the writer of Ecclesiastes speaks to at the start of this blog. It’s a spiritual-existential stance that holds the potential to transform…everything.
Zoom out now, back to our own lives. Strip back the trappings and tear away the superficial facades. What lays behind and beneath for us? This is the deep stuff of spiritual and existential coaching. It touches on fundamental questions: identity, meaning, purpose and stance. ‘Human life must be risked if it is to be won.’ (Jürgen Moltmann). ‘If you risk nothing, then you risk everything.’ (Geena Davis). I don’t want my life to be a wisp of smoke. You?
(See also: Deep; Spirituality in coaching; Existential coaching)
Few images have more powerful emotional resonance for me than that moment at which the WW2 Allies detonated explosives under a huge marble swastika at the Zeppelinfeld stadium in Nürnberg, Germany. It was the place where, just before the war, Hitler and his followers had held their infamous Nazi rallies. The rallies had proved a potent propaganda weapon, convincing Nazi supporters of their own ‘supremacy’ and intimidating their enemies into fearful submission.
The public destruction of this infamous symbol marked the impending final demise of the deranged Nazi myth and its psychopathic regime, and the end of by far one of the worst eras in human history. I can only imagine how it must have felt for those who had suffered so terribly to witness, at last, this emerging glimmer of hope. Similar evocative and symbolic moments were soon to follow with a Soviet flag over the German Reichstag and an American flag raised on Iwo Jima.
There’s something about these images-as-symbols that capture and express a wider human story and experience. They carry and convey powerful psychological, cultural and emotional meaning for those who understand and identify with what they represent. Other well-known examples of symbols include the Christian cross as a sign of God’s love and salvation through Jesus Christ or, conversely, ominous ‘Z’ insignia on Russian military vehicles during the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
What symbols have a particular resonance for you – and why?
Light in darkness
‘To the existentialist, life is like a small child, lost and alone in a deep, dark forest. And the child means nothing to the forest.’ (Peter Hicks)
Hicks’ bleak depiction of the human condition, of an unresolvable existential angst that we face and experience as we find ourselves thrown into this world, is a despairing vision of life without hope. It reflects vividly Jürgen Moltmann’s view that ‘hell is hopelessness’. Yannick Jacob comments that, ‘there is a way to live without this anxiety, at least temporarily, by deceiving ourselves, by closing our eyes to some of the realities of our existence.’ It’s as if we can numb the pain, make ourselves feel better for a time, by distracting ourselves, or drugging ourselves, to feel safer and more alive.
This is, perhaps, a deep root cause of addictive behaviours, of aligning ourselves with extreme positions, of engaging in some forms of extreme sports or of taking medication that seeks to dampen our too-painful-to-handle thoughts and feelings. Instead of being willing to pause, pray and peel back the curtains to reveal what may lay behind our personal and cultural actions and routines, we grip and hold them tightly shut. Over a lifetime, we glue them, stitch them and tape them together. We build barricades to support them, reinforce them and hide them, even to ourselves. Out of sight, out of mind.
At least for a while. Sooner or later, we may inadvertently catch a glimpse, experience an unnerving feeling, find ourselves fighting, falling or failing as the walls creak, crack and start to crumble down. It could be sparked by an accident, a break-up, a failed promotion, an illness, a mid-life crisis, a war. Our defences are weakened, no longer able to withstand the swirling, turbulent pressures that have built up behind them. It’s as if suddenly, as if by a flash of lightning, everything is revealed. Our self-assured confidence collapses and, perhaps for the first time, we experience terrifying vulnerability.
This is the existential backdrop to the Christmas story: an intensely dark crisis that can’t be resolved with a quick-fix solution. For followers of Jesus, it’s a piercing and dazzling hope-filled account of a profoundly transformational encounter between God and humanity, where God takes the first step and enters our reality. When the Bible says ‘Light shines in darkness’, we catch a glimpse of radiant light, life and love now made possible. Whatever your experience as a coach, whatever the experience of your clients in 2021 – let’s face truth gently, with courage and humility – and make hope real.
#Je Suis Samuel
The brutal murder of Samuel Paty, a teacher in France on Friday, spun freedom of expression back into the media spotlight. Freedom of speech is, after all, a bedrock of Western democracy – not only the safeguarding of the expression of thoughts, feelings, and opinions but also, critically, the right and opportunity to be exposed to those of other people and groups too. The same principle applies in liberal education: learning, development, creativity and innovation emerge from the interaction of diverse insights, experiences and ideas; sometimes awkwardly or angrily if they clash, yet vital for healthy growth.
Emmanuel Macron has described the current Kairos moment as an existential crisis: a fundamental conflict between secular, liberal European values and those of radical Islam. A broader cultural backdrop is, however, a struggle between freedom of speech and freedom from harm, where the latter includes freedom from offence. Brendan O’Neill commented last weekend that, in France, “cancel culture turned murderous…the (teacher’s) beheading was a militarised expression of (it).” The silencing of a voice, the no-platforming of a dissenting view, can lead to dire unintended consequences.
Coming from a very different place politically to O’Neill, Douglas Murray struck a strikingly similar chord in, ‘The Madness of Crowds’ (2019/20): “We are going through a great…derangement”. Cultural and technological upheavals are driving humanity at breakneck speed into uncharted territories where many hitherto beliefs, values and assumptions are being stress-tested to their limits. Grasping at simplistic and polarising stances – no matter how irrational – is one way to feel safer and more purposeful in the world. So, question: What do these feverish times call for from us, as leaders, coaches, trainers and OD?
‘Kairos moments’. Pivotal experiences...
I wasn’t trying to be difficult. It felt like an issue of justice. I was in my late teens and this was a trade union meeting in a local town hall. The room was packed full and I sat upstairs in a balcony. The union leaders were in powerful positions, sitting in a row at the front table. Nobody dared to speak or to raise a challenge. To lose membership meant to lose one’s job. ‘We have mortgages to pay and mouths to feed.’ I valued the trade union ideal but, somewhere along the way, this body had lost its visionary, democratic principles. I disliked the way its leaders abused power and traded on fear.
After making long, tedious speeches, reminiscent of a bygone communist era, the main leader stood up and asked if anyone had anything to say. A tense and tangible silence filled the room. I could feel my heart pounding and nerves straining throughout my body. I had to say something, I had to speak. So, much to my colleagues’ amazement, I stood up, took a deep breath and advocated a proposal for democratic reform. The whole room gasped…then fell back to stunned silence. The leader, now red with rage, shot me down for daring to challenge his authority – and inadvertently proved my point.
I was treated like a hero as I left that day, work mates crowding around, punching my shoulders and patting my back with looks of surprise and admiration. It was a defining moment for me. I had stood up to authority, taken a public stance on my beliefs and values and, by God’s grace, managed to stay diplomatic and assertive. There could be no going back now. I organised a union-wide petition and, as a result, came under threat from union reps who warned me that I was ‘playing with fire’. I resigned, left my job and entered human rights and community development work.
I can see a trajectory in my life that had led up to that point, e.g. from when, as a young school boy, I had hated bulling and cruelty to animals and had created an animal rights activist group at school. I can also trace a clear trajectory through my life and career in subsequent years, e.g. in leadership, coaching and OD roles in charities and INGOs, based on my spiritual-existential-humanistic beliefs and values. I still hold that same passion to support people who are poor, vulnerable or oppressed in the world. What have been the defining moments in your life and career? How did you get here?
How can I help you work out your career-calling? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org
I woke on the floor by the front door with blood on my head. I had no idea how I had got there or how long I had been laying in that position. I tried to lift myself up, weakly, and saw pieces of wood all around me. I was puzzled and confused, disorientated. It turns out I had fallen unconscious and fallen through a wooden table. I half-crawled, half-staggered, to a different room and collapsed.
This experience taught me vividly how suddenly and dramatically our circumstances can change. In this case, I had a contracted a severe infection and was rushed into hospital in an ambulance. In other situations, it could be e.g. a sudden loss of a relationship or a job, a loss of someone or something important to us. It can come out of nowhere, leaving us lost, shocked and reeling.
There’s something about loss that can fundamentally challenge our sense of security and certainty, especially in wealthy nations where we cushion and insure ourselves against all kinds of pain and hardship. It can force us to face deep spiritual and existential questions that lay out of reach of simple ‘positive thinking’, e.g. who are we, why are we here, who and what really matters?
So a reflection and challenge for leaders, OD, coaches and trainers. How far do we face and address profound life questions in our work? How far do we allow ourselves to stay on the surface, the superficial, without going deeper? How far are we willing to travel with people, if they want to, into spiritual and existential places? How well do we handle it if people pose such questions to us?
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'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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