20 May Walking the Road Less Travelled
Even though lockdowns are starting to ease, we will all continue to face challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has created. These challenges will differ individual to individual, but we all in varying ways will feel apprehensive, scared, frightened and uncertain about our individual and collective futures. Given all the uncertainty, what are some of concepts that can help us navigate this time?
How we frame something is very important. It determines how we describe our situation to ourselves and to others and directs the way in which we address our challenges. As an example, when I was in my early twenties I felt quite defeated by life and felt that everyone was coping with life better than me – and there was some secret sauce that I didn’t have. I then read “The Road Less Travelled” and the opening line is “life is difficult”. The premise contained in this book is that life is difficult for everyone and the joys and rewards in life come from confronting and dealing with our challenges and problems. Walking into our challenges sometimes takes us to what feels like the limits of our know how, capacity, strength, emotional resilience and inner resources but character and resilience are built at these times. This sentence of three words changed the way I framed my life and opened new pathways to deal with obstacles. It also helped me feel less alienated.
When I later studied philosophy, I found this idea of the obstacle and challenge being the way or path of life was the central tenet of stoic philosophy. Being a stoic did not mean avoiding the feelings of despair, discomfort, fear, anger, anxiety or pain but instead it meant having the courage to enter into the negative feelings, problems and challenges. Stoicism sees the discomfort and challenge as an invitation to find and incorporate, however difficult, the wisdoms and learnings available from the negative. Sitting in and with the discomforts often allows a solution, or at least the next step to arise.
Fear is a normal human condition. In all the stories I have read of people who did amazing things, I have found that they all were afraid. However, they did not let fear stop them from doing things that they wanted to do or felt impelled to do. The 13th Century Poet Rumi, who was an esteemed scholar and community leader with privilege wrote in one of his poems “Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened”. This shows that fear is felt by all of us no matter where we are or what age we live in. As an entrepreneur I realised early on if I did not feel some fear then I was probably not following the best path, the path that stretched me and which was the right one. My experience shows that there are two universal fears that we all have, that I describe as follows:
- Fear of Abandonment – which is the fear we will be abandoned or left behind or miss out and will not get the right password/secret ingredients to make a good life or solve this challenge or deal with what life sends us; and /or
- Fear of Not Being Enough – where we feel we are not good enough or able enough for what life presents and it all or some of it overwhelms us and we will not find the way through.
I also found that fear has two time horizons:
- Actual fear when I am living in the middle of immediate difficulties and dangers, where things and events are changing, melting down or facing a major catastrophe or challenge; and
- Anticipated fear where I cast ahead and catastrophize the future and get caught in a negative thinking cycle which creates anxiety.
Obviously when in the middle of difficulties adding anticipated fear into the mix creates extra stress and pressure and this is where the techniques of creating mental circuit breakers (meditation, exercise or doing things that use your hands and body – not just your head) become important.
When feeling fear I find it useful to ask myself what I am afraid of and see where the feelings lead. I also find it helpful to find the one thing, however small, that creates a first step and allows some movement. Sitting with the discomfort often allows a solution, or at least one small step that I should do to arise.
Asking for Help and Networks
Asking for help is an important ability to have. The performance artist Amanda Palmer has done a great Ted Talk on the need to ask for help. Her view is “asking for help with gratitude says we have the power to help each other”. We are not meant to get through life on our own, we are social beings and being part of groups, families and networks is an essential part of being human. In our lives we all ask for and get help and give help to others. At the moment, it is especially worth being generous and going out of our way to help others who are doing it tougher than us. Social capital is foundational to a well lived life and it should be freely given and openly received.
This is where networks and communities are important like this one as you link with like minded people. Networks of human connections create opportunities and openings and learnings and they help shape your destiny. It is usually through networks that new possibilities open and new opportunities arise.
Sociologists note that across all cultures, our lives evolve from not only our own choices, preferences and individual circumstances but also from the forces of influence from our surrounding social network structure.
Doing the Best You Can is Enough
Doing the best you can is more than enough. None of us have a clear view of the future and what it looks like at this moment in time. In uncertain times all we can do is take one step at a time and do the best we can with what we have. There is a thinking/decision making model that was advocated by the sociologist Charles Lindblom. He called it ‘Muddling Through”. Muddling through is particularly useful approach when dealing with uncertainty and complexity. It relies on splitting large decision making process into smaller steps. Central to muddling through is the willingness to be guided by our experience and intuition not just the rational logical mind. What feels right in each moment is critical to consider.
Making smaller and incremental choices provides the opportunity to pivot and change as more information comes to light – preserving optionality. In most situations (but not all so judicious use of optionality is needed) the more options we have, the better suited we are to deal with unpredictability and uncertainty. The homily do not cut off your nose to spite your face is an example of preserving optionality.
We do not know what the future entails but it will contain its fair share of challenges and obstacles for us all. It will also provide us with new gifts and joys not just the negatives. You will notice that there is a theme in this post which is the theme of solving things one step at a time and not needing to have the full solution before making any movement.
Knowing the we are all feeling the same way is also a theme of this post. This is meant to confirm that no of us is alone in what we are feeling and experiencing. Sharing your experiences, opening up to others, creating opportunities not just for yourself but for others and being part of this network and others will be critical for all of us to muddle through to the new future. If you so find yourself overwhelmed by fear and uncertainty or find yourself struggling to cope that is not a failure, it is part of the human condition and please make sure that you reach out to this network or other networks that you are part of and do not wait too long to seek professional help.
I would like to close this post with a poem from the American poet Wendell Berry:
“The Peace of Wild Things”
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
About the Author:
Lindley Edwards is a corporate advisor, CEO and Board Member of various companies. As well as a career in banking, business and finance, Lindley is currently completing a PhD in Philosophy.
 “The Road Less Travelled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth” by M Scott Peck
 A wonderful and accessible introduction to these concepts is provided by Ryan Holiday in his best selling book “The Obstacle is the Way: The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage”.
 Full poem is “Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground”.