Read an Excerpt
By MARGARET J. WHEATLEY
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Margaret J. Wheatley
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHere Is a River
TO MY FELLOW SWIMMERS:
Here is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid, who will try to hold on to the shore. They are being torn apart and will suffer greatly.
I'm making my shoulders strong for the young to stand upon, stepping lightly on the backs of those who hold me up. It's a chain of life unending, ever new and ever bending, grateful is the heart for the chance to be alive.
Susan Osborn Singer/songwriter
We've Been Here Before
We have never been here before in terms of the global nature of our predicament. For the first time in human history (at least that we know of), we have endangered our home planet. And for the first time, we know what's happening to just about all 7 billion of us humans, the challenges and terrors we endure and the occasional, reaffirming triumphs. Never before have humans been so aware of one another's struggles, pain and perseverance. Never before have we known so many of the consequences of what we do—our thoughtless, violent, heroic and loving actions.
Yet we have been here before. In our long, mysterious history, humans have had to struggle with enormous upheavals, dislocations, famines and fears. We've had to counteract aggression, protect our loved ones and face the end of life as we've known it. Over and over again.
The scale is different now, but the human experience is the same. And so are our human spirits, capable of generosity or abuse, creativity or destruction, survival or extinction. As we face the challenges and struggles of this time, it might help to recall the centuries of solid shoulders we stand on.
And if you reflect on your own life experience, what else have you endured? You're still here—how did you stay here?
How have you come through rough times before?
What from your own personal history gives you now the capacity to get through this time?
What Time Is It?
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. In short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities, 1859
Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes Writer
It's Our Turn
Throughout human existence, there have always been people willing to step forward to struggle valiantly in the hope that they might reverse the downward course of events. Some succeeded, some did not. As we face our own time, it's good to remember that we're only the most recent humans who have struggled to change things.
Getting engaged in changing things is quite straightforward. If we have an idea, or want to resolve an injustice, or stop a tragedy, we step forward to serve. Instead of being overwhelmed and withdrawing, we act.
No grand actions are required; we just need to begin speaking up about what we care about. We don't need to spend a lot of time planning or getting senior leaders involved; we don't have to wait for official support. We just need to get started—for whatever issue or person we care about.
When we fail, which of course we often will, we don't have to feel discouraged. Instead, we can look into our mistakes and failures for the valuable learnings they contain. And we can be open to opportunities and help that present themselves, even when they're different from what we thought we needed. We can follow the energy of "Yes!" rather than accepting defeat or getting stuck in a plan.
This is how the world always changes. Everyday people not waiting for someone else to fix things or come to their rescue, but simply stepping forward, working together, figuring out how to make things better.
Now it's our turn.
The future is no more uncertain than the present.
Walt Whitman Poet
Dwelling in Uncertainty
Some people despair about the darkening direction of the world today. Others are excited by the possibilities for creativity and new ways of living they see emerging out of the darkness.
Rather than thinking one perspective is preferable to the other, let's notice that both are somewhat dangerous. Either position, optimism or pessimism, keeps us from fully engaging with the complexity of this time. If we see only troubles, or only opportunities, in both cases we are blinded by our need for certainty, our need to know what's going on, to figure things out so we can be useful.
Certainty is a very effective way of defending ourselves from the irresolvable nature of life. If we're certain, we don't have to immerse ourselves in the strange puzzling paradoxes that always characterize a time of upheaval:
-the potential for new beginnings born from the loss of treasured pasts, -the grief of dreams dying with the exhilaration of what now might be, -the impotence and rage of failed ideals and the power of new aspirations, -the horrors inflicted on so many innocents that call us to greater compassion.
The challenge is to refuse to categorize ourselves. We don't have to take sides or define ourselves as either optimists or pessimists. Much better to dwell in uncertainty, hold the paradoxes, live in the complexities and contradictions without needing them to resolve.
This is what uncertainty feels like and it's a very healthy place to dwell.
Finding Our Place
Humans have a responsibility to their own time, not as if they could seem to stand outside it and donate various spiritual and material benefits to it from a position of compassionate distance. Humans have a responsibility to find themselves where they are, in their own proper time and place, in the history to which they belong and to which they must inevitably contribute either their response or their evasions, either truth and act, or mere slogan and gesture.
Thomas Merton Catholic monk, writer, activist
How did I get so lucky to have my heart awakened to others and their suffering?
Pema Chödrön Buddist teacher
History Chooses You
It is strange but familiar to hear people who are now well-known activists and respected workers for noble causes describe themselves as "accidental activists."
They tell how a compulsion entered them, a clarity that they had to do this work. They say: "I couldn't not do it" or "If I didn't do something, I felt I would go crazy" or "Before I even realized what I was doing, I was doing it."
In every case, they saw an injustice or tragedy or possibility when others weren't aware of a thing. They heard a thundering call that nobody else noticed.
Why this happens is a puzzlement, but it seems that issues choose us. They summon us to pay attention while others stay oblivious. They prompt us to act while others stay asleep. They offer us dreams of bold new futures that others will never see.
We are both blessed and cursed when history chooses us.
But once chosen, we can't not do it.
The Right Thing
I was grounded in that moral fiber of wanting to do the right thing. I was so sure that this was the right thing because it was so obvious and even those who were persecuting me knew, and I knew they knew ... I was doing the right thing. But they didn't want me to do it because it was inconveniencing them, and I knew that.
Wangari Maathai Noble Peace Laureate 2004
There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost ...
Martha Graham Dancer/choreographer
We often choose a name that seems accurate for us, but that isn't big enough to contain our entire life. Often such names describe who or where we've been, but not where we're going. Names such as: "cancer survivor," "victim of war," "displaced person," "child of a dysfunctional family."
What is a name that calls you into your future life?
What is a name that can sustain you for the challenges you will inevitably face? A name that supports you to encounter life's difficulties, not as a victim, but as one who grows stronger and wiser?
What is a name that calls you to be fearless?"
The term " spiritual warrior" is one such name. This is not a traditional warrior, but one of a very different type. Spiritual warriors are "those who are brave." Most importantly, spiritual warriors never use aggression or violence to accomplish their work.
The skills that give them power are compassion and insight. It takes years of practice and discipline to cultivate these. And a strong commitment that these are the skills most needed.
Those who devote the time and exert the discipline to acquire these skills trust themselves to be of service to this troubled time.
It becomes a dark time when we lose faith in each other and thus lack courage.
Chögyam Trungpa Buddist teacher
Never Too Late
Bravery is a choice. It is a decision to enter into the fray no matter how illogical and crazy things are. Even as our friends, family and common sense recommend that we stay away.
In our life, we are surrounded by people, events, circumstances that offer continuous proof of how bad things are, including bad people who don't seem worth struggling for.
We did not plan to live in such a crazed world. Very few of us have been prepared by life circumstances to deal with the levels of fear, aggression and insanity we now encounter daily.
When we were being trained to think, to plan, to lead, the world was portrayed as rational, predictable, logical.
But now? Ever present insanity, illogic, injustice, illusion.
This is just the way it is and will continue to be.
We can't restore sanity to the world, but we can still remain sane and available.
We can still aspire to be of service wherever need summons us. We can still focus our energy on working for good people and good causes.
It is never too late to be brave.
Only Don't Know
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss. For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
T. S. Eliot Poet
Chapter TwoLet go of the Shore
Know that the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore. Push off into the middle of the river, and keep our heads above water.
A supernova is a stellar explosion that occurs at the end of a star's lifetime, when its nuclear fuel is exhausted and it is no longer supported by the release of nuclear energy. Supernovae are extremely luminous and cause a burst of radiation that often briefly outshines an entire galaxy before fading from view over several weeks or months. During this short interval, a supernova can radiate as much energy as the sun could emit over its life span.
F.W. Giacobbe Astrophysicist
It's hard to find fault with eagerness. It seems like such a good thing—people motivated and eager to get to work, take on a project, change their lives.
But not too far down the road, eagerness shows its ugly side. People become so committed to their cause or work that they become missionaries. They want everyone to work on this particular issue, or do this diet, or follow this plan that will change your life.
People also can let their commitment to being of service grow into exaggerated heroism. They're willing to take on any problem you give them. They keep looking for the next great cause. They seem unstoppable in their motivation and energy. "Bring it on!" is their life slogan.
Such people are like supernovas—great clouds of fiery, burning gasses that appear powerful and beautiful, but are actually already dead. They've exhausted their energy, blown themselves up and what we're observing in the night sky is just their last gaseous remains.
Eagerness is a good place to start, but its propensity for unfettered growth requires vigilance. Like a parasite, it tends to kill off its host.
It's not a bad thing when our eagerness fades and we find ourselves just doing the work, bored at times, motivated at others, working day-by-day on little tasks, hoping that some of what we're doing is useful, but not really sure.
It's good not to be a supernova.
Just being with your fear, just being it, is the most powerful form of fearlessness.
Jerry Granelli Musician
Human history is filled with stories of countless people who have been fearless. If we look at our own families, perhaps going back several generations, we'll find among our own ancestors those who also have been fearless. They may have been immigrants who risked to find a better future, veterans who courageously fought in wars, families who endured economic hardships, persecution, slavery, oppression, dislocation.
We all carry within us this lineage of fearlessness.
There's a difference between courage and fearlessness. Courage emerges in the moment, without time for thought. Our heart opens and we immediately move into action. Someone jumps into an icy lake to save a child, or speaks up at a meeting, or puts themself in danger to help another human being. These sudden and heroic actions, even if they put us at risk, arise from clear, spontaneous love.
Fearlessness, too, has love at its core, but it requires a great deal more of us than instant action. If we react too quickly when we feel afraid, we either flee or act aggressively. True fearlessness requires that we take time and exercise discernment. Then we can move with love into right action.
Fearlessness demands that we take time to look at whatever feels threatening to us in all its complexity. We step into the fear, into the moment, and watch how by acknowledging and moving closer, fear dissipates and fearlessness arises.
In the Tibetan tradition, fearlessness is known as an act of ultimate generosity, one of the great gifts we offer others.
Anger gives the illusion of clarity. A certain strength arises when we have an opinion and we know where we stand. The difference between the clarity we believe we have when angry and the clarity that results from actually seeing clearly is that aggression has its own narrow logic, which does not take into account the deeper level of causes and conditions that surround each situation.
Dzigar Kongtrul Buddhist teacher
Anger is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. It's important to remember this in this age when we have an abundance of anger available everywhere. So many people are angry about so many things and at so many people. Anger has become not only tolerated, but expected. Perhaps even respected.
Some anger seems well deserved—we call it "righteous anger." Confronted with injustice, genocide, dehumanization, oppression, (the list goes on and on), we have every right to be angry. And this is true—we should be angry and horrified.
Some people are motivated by anger—their sense of outrage seems to energize them and propels them to join ever more causes.
But just how far can anger carry us? And where do we end up? Anger is a primary cause of burn-out and depression. It doesn't give us energy. It eats away at us and makes us sick—there's no nourishment coming into our bodies, such as is so readily available when we feel peaceful, centered, generous.
Anger also clouds our perception. We can see victims, enemies, immoral acts from far off. But what are we missing with our telescopic rage?
Anger separates us from solutions to the problems that make us angry. We can't see the people we need to involve and the information we need to know if we are to resolve any of these terrible situations.
There's no such thing as righteous anger.
Anger in any form only makes us blind.
At one community meeting, we ran into a high-conflict issue. We ran out of time and agreed to postpone this issue until the following week. All week, emotions ran high and opposing views intensified. We eagerly assembled at the next meeting, impatient to get this issue resolved. This was a Quaker community—each meeting began with 5 minutes of silence. On this day, the clerk announced that, due to the intensity of this issue, we would not begin with our usual 5 minutes of silence. We all breathed a sigh of relief, only to hear her announce: "Today, we'll begin with 20 minutes of silence."
Story told by Parker Palmer Educator and writer
Excerpted from Perseverence by MARGARET J. WHEATLEY Copyright © 2010 by Margaret J. Wheatley. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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