Grace, Courage & Meaning When a `Descent’ Happens

The discovery of our human potential requires the courage to take risks and travel into our unconscious, the places of darkness within us where – paraphrasing the late Irish philosopher John O’Donohue – treasures await us. Using the language of mythology, this human quest is referred to as either the `hero’s journey’ or the `descent to the goddess’. It is the same journey.

This journey takes us through inner landscapes initially unknown and unfamiliar to us. In order to access the treasures we assume we will find, we confront dragons. These dragons, however, are our own fears and other repressed emotions. We must slay them, magically. In other words, we must not try to avoid or destroy such emotions but, instead, make peace with and understand such feelings in order to transform and release them. We also need to develop the grace to receive the gifts of awareness that we had not anticipated.

This universal, timeless myth is not merely a fantasy story yet, instead, embodies what has been possible for human beings since the beginning of time or, at least, since humans developed the consciousness to make meaning of life’s formidable trials and manifest more fully who we can be.

This quest, to be authentic, is not pursued from the shallows of our ego or personality, for self-edification. Indeed, to go through all of the stages, authentically, who we might have thought we were gets totally shredded. We then are compelled to refigure who we are, how to connect our head and heart to our soul, and for what purpose. In other words, in doing what is called the `full round’ of the quest, what is the boon that we now can offer for the benefit of humanity?

Indeed, we are life long learners at more levels than most people recognize. This historic moment calls upon individuals, workplaces, organizations and governments not just to figure out new infrastructures and skills about how to function differently, as our political, economic and social structures go into descent. But, more profoundly, changing the outer world calls upon a deeper understanding and awakening of our inner world, namely, human consciousness and the need for transformation in our very perceptions about what is happening, economically and environmentally.

That recognition is what compelled me to attend the Social Change Institute (SCI) at Hollyhock, in British Columbia. Stated a bit differently than in my previous blog post, I wanted to be among fellow professionals who understand the importance of doing both the outer and inner work among fellow human beings in this time of radical change.

Change is happening around us, constantly and at an accelerated rate, locally and globally. This reality can look, for some people, as if it is beyond our control and render us powerless if we allow fear to prevail. For other people, they continue to function in the mode of `business as usual’, whether from indifference or in complete denial based, again, on unconscious, paralyzing fear that obstructs any vision to do things differently.

What I brought to SCI included many years of professional and volunteer work in social justice, accompanied by the experience of my own seven-year quest of healing and renewal as a formerly burned-out helping professional. Since the 2008 economic downturn, I have felt like a bride-in-waiting to bequeath my boon to the world, a world that systemically is in descent yet does not understand the soul, nor its multiple, interrelational levels.

But I did not realize at SCI that I personally was in another descent. For coming home to the soul, which is the gift of the `full round,’ does not spare us from making further descents at later interludes in life. Doing so, thank goodness, is not as fully shattering. Regardless, the life journey continues to present us with challenging material that calls upon further inner growth, namely, through further descents.

Again, what is so vital to understand is that our human responsibility foremost is to accept life’s challenges – losses, disappointments, perceived setbacks – as part of the overall experience of being alive. Such material calls us to focus on what are the lessons to learn, psychologically and spiritually, not just to be stronger yet, moreover, to become more compassionate.

All of the above is my way to characterize why particular serendipitous moments at SCI had significance different from the other types of organized experiences. Also, in writing about these moments, I hope that they illustrate material for reflection among readers, to awaken you to pay attention to the less visible reasons why personal unsettling events happen. View such events as transformative moments, rather than as negative experiences, and make meaning of them to grow closer to your soul.

Resilience is not a quality that I had identified in applying to be an SCI participant, yet it unexpectedly surfaced. Sitting in the audience at the first morning forum, my response to a specific process brought a blunt request to reframe my question – and I did so, a few minutes later. Not a big deal at the time, until afterwards. Tom, a child care worker, privately complimented me, saying that some folks would have folded up and remained silent. He was impressed by my bravery, in a new and strange setting, to bounce back and respond again. I was deeply touched by his compassionate observation about a human quality that, indeed, is a life skill and survival tool.

Tom’s compassion was mirrored among a number of SCI folks, and illustrated one of the key qualities welcomed in the collaborative style of leadership fostered by diverse types of SCI sessions. Another session, for example, offered the opportunity to pitch our own special projects and possibly find interested supporters and collaborators.

But, what happened next was the first clue of my condition of descent. Despite twenty years of public speaking – in workshops, classrooms and full auditoriums – I was almost overcome with stage fright. There I stood, in a lodge filled with the perfect audience, receptive to wonderful projects to heal and transform a troubled world, and I quivered like a trembling aspen, barely able to speak. Indeed, I wanted to disappear into one of the cracks in the beautiful cedar wood wall-boards.

Somehow I sputtered out words to describe my filmmaking work to give voice to those people who feel marginalized, even silenced. I referred to my first documentary about Everett Soop, a Blackfoot political cartoonist afflicted with muscular dystrophy. Next, I outlined a film project in development to focus on showing successful examples of under-recognized healing modalities for people afflicted with PTSD in the armed forces.

A woman afterwards kindly offered affirmation by referring to my pitch as “ridiculously endearing.” Regardless, I still felt as if I had blown an opportunity to solicit support. Then, to my delight, two younger men – Christian and Silas, respectively – approached me to arrange a special time for longer conversations. What impressed them was what motivates me as a storyteller – recognizing the beauty and power of the human soul.

Christian was very passionate and animated about the growing phenomenon of trauma, across sectors of society. He envisioned a widespread, and diverse, audience for such a documentary about treatments for PTSD. Such a film story, albeit focused on the armed forces, also could resonate with other types of warriors, from front-line trauma helpers to the everyday warriors such as single moms, many of whom, wrongly and unfairly, get stigmatized as losers or failures despite their daily acts of unsung heroism.

Silas and I enjoyed brief chats en route between the main lodge and dining room, until one evening we sat for a long time together. Our encounters were a double gift. First of all, Silas explicitly acknowledged that the fact I was twice his age was the very reason he wanted to listen to and learn what I had to say. The mothers and grandmothers are deeply respected in the Ugandan culture, unlike how middle-aged and elderly women tend to be valued in mainstream North America. (On that note, dear readers, let us explore ways, across generations, how to transform that unfortunate mainstream scenario.)

What also was joyful, beautiful, and regrettably so rare in a conversation, was our topic – the soul and the purpose of life’s journey to develop and express the soul. The focus on the essence of who we are, healing woundedness, and empowering people to believe in themselves is what Silas heard in my two-minute pitch. Indeed, what I love to do most of all is to help people discover who they can be, as does Silas through his project in Africa with the children (which I mentioned in my previous blog).

Such heartfelt conversational exchanges, combined with formal sessions that focused on the inner life, achieved something that sadly is not common in daily life, either within families or at workplaces. SCI participants experientially opened themselves to be more fully present with each other. The soul felt welcomed in the world, rather than treated with disdain and ridicule, hence, stifled.

Perhaps, therefore, the peeling off of layers of stoic bravery, the unveiling of hidden fear how to survive financially, persevering relentlessly against adversity in the larger world where I constantly feel like a salmon swimming upstream, is why – on the final morning in a circle of SCI participants – I had a meltdown.

Shape-shifting into a human waterfall, I flowed outdoors. More than anything, I wanted to lay down on the earth and weep like a baby until there were no more tears. But, a boat and two planes had their real world schedules, and the clock was ticking. Consequently, I had to pour myself into a bucket and get me and my luggage to the shuttle van.

How I propose to apply the inner, and outer, experiences at SCI in professional work will be the subject of upcoming blogs. And, yes, a meltdown is a beneficial teaching as well.

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1 Response to Grace, Courage & Meaning When a `Descent’ Happens

  1. Marion says:

    Much resonates with me in your blog. Your positive reflection that meltdowns bring about transformations echoes the wisdom of my counsellor as I prepare to transform from active teaching in the classroom to retired teacher yet even more active within my own family as well as the community. You articulate many of the concerns that I have about the state of our society and in the words of a dear colleague “I feel that there is sweeping change about to occur.”

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