Crisis into Creativity: through the dark wood
I started this Post on 16th March, its theme being crisis into creativity and all the innovative ideas people were coming up with to keep their world together: the Italians singing defiantly on their balconies; the ingenious tactics found to keep teams connected and working productively from home; the cool forms of greeting in place of our handshake or hug. It felt different, even a little exciting and I felt ready. I’m a change agent, coaching change agent leaders. This is my realm. I even wrote my last Post in early March on the theme of transformational change: Crossing the Threshold
And then my world turned upside down and I was forced to stop. I was hit physically and emotionally and found myself, in solitary isolation, in a very dark wood. It has taken time but four weeks on I am healthy again and feeling a rekindling of my energy and strength.
I have been in many dark woods in my life and they are never the same because I am not the same person after each experience. By their nature they are transformational. There is something fundamental, however, about each one and I have learned to recognise and trust this each time. As I wrote in True Mastery, ‘The process is ruthless: a stripping bare of the ego, a letting go of wilful control and a… sometimes brutal… opening of our hearts and minds.’
This is a brutal time for all of us and many of us are… or sadly will be… experiencing grief and loss: grief for a loved one; for the loss of our old life; for the loss of safety, physical or financial; for the loss of our freedom to move. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the originator of bereavement therapy, created a model of the feelings we go through when experiencing loss and bereavement. It is not necessarily sequential, we might not even experience each stage, and knowing about this cycle doesn’t ease our pain, but it can help us understand why we’re feeling as we are. It gives us permission to grieve rather than deny or distort our feelings, which can bring great harm to ourselves, through an internalising depression or to others, through aggressive posturing or actions.
So, what helped me in the dark wood?
Hope. Hope is to our spirit what water is to our body. It is extraordinary how even a tiny glimmer of light in that dark wood brings us the promise of a better and different future. Hope brings meaning and purpose and fills us with strength and courage. And the converse is true. Without hope we give up.
In a Post last year, I wrote: ‘As a young child, at a particularly dark time in my life, I read a book that saved my life: ‘Marianne Dreams’ by Catherine Storr. It is an extraordinary book about a girl, Marianne, who is bedridden with a long-term illness. She finds a magic pencil and draws a picture of a big house in a bleak landscape and that night she dreams she is in the picture she has drawn. As time goes by, she becomes sicker in the ‘real’ world and spends more and more time trapped within the nightmarish, fantasy world. Her only companion in her dream world is a boy called Mark, who is also a long-term invalid in the ‘real’ world. It is a dark book but one ultimately about hope and embracing life through courage and love…they could not have got through on their own…and it ends with a lighthouse! It was reading this, as 9-year-old, that made me choose life. As simple as that. I learned that however dark life is, there is always hope…light …and always someone out there who will help. BUT I also learned I had to make the first move. I could not be a victim, waiting passively to be saved. I had to play my part: Marianne has to find…draw… a way out for Mark and herself: out of the house, through the dark and dangerous moorland, to the lighthouse and the outcome is healing for them both in the ‘real’ world. It’s what I now call: making a ‘red pill’ choice'. Pockets of Light.
With hope is always love. In that dark wood I had to let go of my self-protective independence, accept my vulnerability and be open to the love and kindness of others. My identity is nurturing others, but I had to get over myself and push through to something much more real. Remember the fundamental truth about coming through the dark wood: ‘The process is ruthless: a stripping bare of the ego, a letting go of wilful control and a… sometimes brutal… opening of our hearts and minds.’
We will not come through this in isolation, by exclusively looking after our own self or tribe. We will only come through this, and with our humanity intact, if we connect to a higher vision that we are all in this together. It’s why, in countries around the world, we cry and bang our drums to the key workers risking their lives for us. One of my favourite stories that I tell when teaching ‘Connecting: beyond networking’ is this:
‘The following story is based on an anthropological research project exploring the concept of ‘reciprocal altruism’: A tribe went out hunting and at the end of the day each person had met with varying degrees of success: some had secured lots of food, others none. Everyone had worked long and hard and all were very hungry. At this point the food was an equally precious commodity to them all. The successful hunters ate until satiated but the more they ate, the less valuable the food became to them. There was no means of preserving the food, so the successful hunters gave what now had little value to them to those with no food. To the ravenous recipient, this gift had a much greater value than to the giver. As a consequence, this created a deep sense of obligation and gratitude and the next time the tribe went hunting, the recipient repaid the giver to a value much greater than the original gift.’
What I love about this story is that it shows we have an individual instinct for survival and that the surest way of doing this is to connect and give.
What also helps is daily meditation with deep breathing exercises, going into my ‘Stillness’, my inner world, and letting go of all the external ‘noise’ and fear. We need to be fighting fit on all levels and mindfulness is a key part of this. And, of course, deep breathing is particularly crucial to strengthen and protect our lungs.
I live a very urban life in an apartment in central London and I used to connect to Nature by leaving the city. Now, my daily exercise is walking in my neighbourhood and I stop and smell the flowers bursting into bloom and listen to the joyous birdsong. Apparently 8th May is when birdsong is at its peak in the Northern Hemisphere: they are luring in their mates! I find such delight and wonder in all this activity.
Last week I created a new game, ‘Daily Wins’. I have a big sheet of paper on the inside of my front door so I look at it when I leave for my daily exercise. Each evening I write the next day’s day and date. Then, in the morning and throughout the day, I capture wins, any wins, however big or small: an impromptu grin from a young boy on a skateboard; warm sunshine on my face; a great talk with a client who’s fighting to hold his people and company together; a group video with loved ones, full of giggles and also sadness that we cannot be together. This is not forced positivity, denying the darkness we are in. It’s a fierce passion to hold onto hope and to our humanity.
The following are some examples of wonderful creativity emerging in this crisis:
This photo, by our team photographer, Dominic Nazeri, was taken from his balcony near London Bridge. “I took this photo to remind myself that life still continues even in quarantine. Even when in confined spaces, we can still find joy and normality”
Dom also has a brilliant Podcast ‘You Never Forget Your First’, which champions the art of filmmaking by evaluating a director's career through the lens of their debut feature. Throughout the lockdown, he's been using a special software which allows him and his team to record and edit the episodes remotely.
Barbara Flynn is a well-known actor who, like many in her profession had all short-term work postponed or cancelled. Thinking that there might be a possibility of continuing her work in sound, and thanks to the knowledge and technical wizardry of Barbara's guitarist son Linus Taylor, a Home Studio comparable to professional standard was created in a day. They found a good corner in the study…a v shape of bookshelves… set up a microphone surrounded by buffers of foam and deadened the room. After quality tests, the sound was approved.
Barbara was able to continue her contract with one of the top supermarkets and you can hear her delicious voice over their recent advert. The BBC’s book of the week 'The See-Through House' by Shelley Klein is next on the agenda. Out of crisis comes creativity indeed!
Sue Walter is CEO of Maggie & Rose, a global family Members’ Club. Over a few days, ill with the virus, and on a tight budget, Sue transformed Maggie & Rose, into an online service. They are currently offering free daily classes for pre 5-year olds: https://maggieandrose.com
William Taylor, and six of his 11-year-old classmates, set up a homework group video on their own initiative. They sign in at 9am each weekday morning, with each one taking the lead on a subject. As a former English teacher, it is heart-warming to hear how many children are finding they miss school!
We all have stories to share. The internet is flooded with creativity and impromptu performances. Yesterday my son sent me a video of Romeo and Juliet being performed in a street in North London, with each actor playing his/her part from a different house window. Shakespeare would be so proud of us!
Finally, for those who celebrate it, today is Easter Day. Like Passover and other celebrations at this time, it is the festival of rebirth and hope: of being in great darkness but with the promise of light and hope. Wherever you are today, I am sending you all my love for a very healthy and hopeful future.