The Story of Nessie: a leap into faith!
This month I’m going to tell you the story of Nessie and how she shifted her relationship to change, moving from petrified terror to a leap into great trust and courage … across the Pond. Nessie is a cat, and I am not going to anthropomorphise her, but there are learnings from her story that will help us all in our understandably fearful response to great transformational change.
Nessie is a beautiful, affectionate, and highly sensitive cat. She lives with Louis and Abbi, my son and daughter-in-law, and, until two weeks ago, her home was in London, UK. Nessie is an indoor cat, specifically bred not to go outdoors: from birth her instinctual wildness was curbed, and her horizons were inevitably small and contained. She was also a lockdown cat, born in March 2020, and like many human babies born in that time, her formative circle of trust was confined to those in the same household. As such, she was very timid of strangers and the unknown.
Three years ago, on 2nd September 2020, following a holiday to France when borders had briefly opened, I wrote an article about how we need to find a way of moving forwards:
‘The holiday was a very precious and unexpected oasis in this extraordinarily challenging year. And yet it was not quite the relaxed atmosphere of yesteryear. It was inevitably sobering with everyone in masks and in a more heightened state of alert, a constant reminder that we’re not yet out of the woods.
The old, albeit illusory, certainties that we could plan our way out of anything, that we had the control to stop illness, death, financial insecurity, etc. have gone. We can choose to stay huddled and cocooned in fear, telling our children never to leave home, in spirit if not in body, so they grow up fearful of life and unable to respond to all that life brings. It’s understandable that after we experience great fear, we huddle back into the nest.
But this is the odd thing about staying in our comfort zone. When we are in it, we have a confidence, surrounded by our ‘family’ but it is an elusive confidence and one that is ultimately corrosive. We feel safe and secure in all that is familiar, but conversely, we feel increasingly anxious stepping outside those parameters, and we become infantile, clinging ever more dependently to the status quo and fearful of all that is new and different. Perhaps the more honest questions are: What am I really afraid of? And what other issues about my life might I be hiding from?’
Three years later the world has moved on but there are still many lessons we can learn from that time about how we respond to change and the unknown: what helps and what doesn’t.
Back to Nessie: for the first 2.5 years of her life, her realm was boundaried and she was blissfully happy, becoming less fearful and much more confident about people coming into her home.
And then her world turned upside down. The first upheaval was 10 months ago when Louis and Abbi moved house. There was a 12-day transition period where they would be temporarily staying elsewhere, so they drove Nessie, in her cat basket, across London to stay with me. Despite their loving care, she arrived traumatised. She scuttled under the guest bed in the study, squashed into a tiny space between the far wall and the radiator, her head propped onto the radiator valve. And she would not move for 3 days! I know cats and have moved homes with them many times, but this cat’s terror was very new, and I was at a loss. For the first two nights, I slept in the study bed, handfeeding her food and water in the gap between the bed and the wall, talking to her and trying to reach down to stroke and comfort her.
Nessie is a very affectionate cat and by day 2 she was purring and trying to turn upside down for her tummy to be tickled. How quickly she had found a new, if very uncomfortable, comfort zone!
I have huge empathy. It is a great strength but there is a shadow side: I feel the other’s suffering too much and I can get lost in it and my healthy empathy can flip into an over-identifying sympathy. And then we’re all stuck in the pit with no way of getting out! This is why I love the skill of ‘Detached Involvement’, the discipline of being in the arena…i.e., feeling and doing… whilst simultaneously connecting to my helicopter vision to guide me/us forwards.
So, there we both were, trapped in the study. I called Abbi and asked for help, and she told me to be bold and lift Nessie out. I picked her up…it was not easy… and talked to her. I told her she had a choice: to stay stuck in that excruciating tight corner or to take a leap into faith and begin to explore this exciting new territory. Staying stuck in fear is not what animals are born to do and she needed to reconnect to her feline instincts i.e., to hunt! Within another day, she was enjoying the run of the place and then, just as she had settled, I took her to her new home. I was dreading it: she arrived a little fearful but not traumatised and settled in much quicker than we expected.
Zoom forwards 9 months and more changes were afoot for Nessie. Louis and Abbi were embarking on an exciting new life in Manhattan and of course, Nessie was going too! Once again, she came to me for a 10-day transition period. This time I was prepared. I had the study door closed so she couldn’t bolt into her hideaway. To my astonishment, she recognised the place, was still a little fearful but settled much more quickly than before. Phew! So far so good. We had a very gentle 10 days together. I wanted Nessie completely calm and trusting before the really big adventure: namely being put on a plane and flown across to NYC. And it worked: my dread of a horrible, panicky ending didn’t materialise. It was a smooth and gentle transition. Nessie had overcome her petrifying terror and learned to trust that change might be a little scary, but it can have very exciting outcomes.
This is Nessie and Louis in her new home, an hour after she arrived:
And within a very few hours, Nessie had discovered the wondrous view outside her home, see top of page, symbolised by the Freedom Tower. She was not in Kansas anymore!
Of course, Nessie is a cat but there are learnings from her story that will help us in our response to transformational change. The quest to grow, to expand frontiers, is human. If we don’t grow, we die, if not an immediate physical death, then definitely a psychological one.
What helps us move from that frozen huddled place to one of growth and embracing the unknown? As homo sapiens we are brilliantly designed, physiologically and psychologically, to respond fast to danger. It’s about pure survival and we do this by diverting all energy from where it’s not urgently needed and channelling it to react to the sabre-toothed tiger bearing down on us. This includes switching from our natural abdomen breathing to a shallow upper chest breathing, and it also includes conserving our emotional energy: pausing to figure out how we feel about the imminent threat is not wise when we’re about to be eaten up! We are designed to be in fight/flight response for an intense sprint of energy.
The problem is when we get stuck in fear: our imaginative brain…the blessing and the curse of being human… overrides our instinctual body and we catastrophise i.e. we imagine the worst outcome.
It takes huge courage to embrace change and the greater our fear, the greater our courage needs to be. If we transform our relationship to fear, it loses its terrifying grip on us and it becomes a helpful guide, alerting us to the many twists and turns ahead of us. Similarly, if we can change our attitude to new experiences, then we can begin to ease our fear response: not everything unknown and new is a life-threatening sabre-toothed tiger!
Many of you will know Kierkegaard’s concept as a ‘leap of faith’ but a more accurate translation is a ‘leap into faith’. It is not a blind, unthinking action, hoping naively all will be well. It is a conscious leap: seizing what I call a ‘Chance Meets Purpose’ moment. Every fibre of our being knows this is a unique opportunity, but if we leap too soon or too late, we shall mess it up. It is all about the timing. We know we have to wait, but it’s not a passive waiting. It’s an active waiting, full of intensity and focus with every muscle poised for action, like a cat…Nessie!... waiting to pounce.
Our IQ won’t tell us when to leap, it is our human intuition and animal instinct that will prompt us. Our intuitive intelligence, our inner voice, is our greatest guide and the source of our imagination and hope and we need to feed it with healthy nutrients: creative stillness, film, theatre, music, dance, art, great literature etc. Create visual guides such as images, photos, collages and practice personal mantras, reinforcing the positive messages. We will need these when you wobble…and we will periodically wobble!.. in the face of those forces resistant to us making the leap.
Our physical intelligence is our instinctual body, and we need to feed it with physical exercise, happy activities, healthy Nature, nutrition, sleep etc. This is the source of our positive energy and involves understanding our personal rhythm and how and when we are at our best. Timing and pacing are everything going forwards.
Nessie is now happily settled in her new home. She is very far from that timid, terrified little cat cowering under the bed. My guess is this is only the start of many even more exciting adventures!
Hannah Elizabeth Greenwood