When everything goes to hell in a hand basket, choose hope

Photo source: The Guardian

My grandmother used the expression”hell in a hand basket” when it felt like everything was careening wildly out of control, when despair and danger were pounding at the door to be let in. It seems an apt phrase for the events of the first week of January 2021.

This blog isn’t structured or ordered, nor is it planned to come up with the “top 3 tips or insights” so you can take the chaos of where we are and life hack yourself into meaning or action. I don’t think anything like what we have experienced in the world in the last year can be summarized into something so easy or simple. None of it has been easy or simple. It’s been hard, painful, leaning deeply into despair and fear, manifesting in anger and dehumanizing acts. This blog is a ramble through the weeds of the last year, seeking wisdom or a “Come to Jesus” moment (thanks for that phrase too Grandma!).

Let me rewind to late 2020. I ended the year in deep reflection, trying to find meaning for myself in the lessons and insights from a year of radical change, fear, despair, adaptation and turmoil. I was trying to grasp what I wanted to carry forward into 2021, and for weeks it was elusive, slipping through my fingers. For me, these brave, honest conversations with myself often start out murky, like I’m slogging through deep mud, dragging at my ankles and shins. I get irritable and easily frustrated and I look for signals external to me as if someone else might have my answers. I should know by now that finding my own truth requires the peeling back of all of my defenses, stories and assumptions. It requires me to be laid bare to the realness of the situation before I can see what might emerge. Honestly, the process sucks. I roll between anger and grief, unstuck and unmoored from an anchor, as I try to make it easy for myself until I give in and sink into it, and once I do, it all rises to the surface. I’m learning to resist less, and sink in sooner, but still I falter. And as much as it sucks, it is the only way I know how to live — seeking truth, and the real, raw experience of what it means to live as a fully expressed human in a time of global chaos.

Photo credit: Unsplash Drew Beamer

To find the lessons of 2020 I asked myself these questions:

  • What am I grateful for in this year?
  • What was the best lesson of 2020?
  • What was the most memorable moment of the year?
  • What was the best decision I made?
  • What am I more mindful of or aware of now?
  • What do I want to leave behind or let go of?
  • What brings me joy, purpose or fulfillment? What do I want more or less of in 2021?
  • How do I want to feel in 2021?
  • Where do I want to grow and stretch? What is calling to me? What am I yearning for?
  • What do I most want to do in 2021? How do I most want to be in 2021?

This review of 2020 gave me a few remarkable insights and some big decisions. I’ve made a choice to reduce the amount of work I say yes to, reducing the amount of time and energy I invest in my work in the world. For those of you who know me, this is a huge decision. I am my work — what I do is who I am. It is the essence of my contribution in the world, and comes deeply from my beliefs and values, connected to the foundation that brave, honest conversations are how we solve the problems we face in our lives, organizations and communities. I’m choosing to live in the sweet spot, the place where my creativity, joy, contribution and connections expand, and where I extend my focus on what matters most, letting everything else slip away.

I know this choice is easier said than done, so I began the first week of January centered and grounded, looking at what it means to work less and play more, to centre joy, creativity, connection and contribution as my filter for choice-making.

And then January 6th happened. And all that grounding and focus went away….it went to hell in a handbasket.

  • My first reaction was a deep, burning rage. I wanted to drop through the twitter feed and the television and strangle someone.
  • Then I went to despair. I’ve spent 26 years working in the space of high conflict, high emotion and I’ve got nothing. No insights, ideas or possibilities about where to from here.
  • Then fear rose up, asking me how much worse things could get. I projected break down, intense violence, the turmoil that would result globally with the destruction of the world’s oldest democracy.

I roller coastered between the three experiences for a couple days. I’m sure like everyone else watching things unfold, there came a moment where you had to step away.

Photo credit: Quote fancy

Once I came up for air, I sought inspiration.

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” ~Victor Frankl

There are so many things in life I can’t control or influence. What I can control is how I show up, how I choose to interact in the world and what I choose to put out into the space because it contributes to the world I want to be part of. That’s just about it in terms of what I can control. So I’ve got a choice. You’ve got a choice. I know from experience and research that love, hope, compassion, creativity, cooperation are all higher level emotions to come from, and they have a more positive impact on performance, effectiveness, outcomes and relationships. So I choose to show up in expansive ways, despite the challenges and turmoil, even when it is hard.

Now choosing to show up this way doesn’t mean I don’t have a well of despair, rage and fear in me. I like to think that we are all made up of countless possibilities; we are never just one thing. I am all these things…and so much more. I recently watched this video posted by the New York Times, highlighting that now might be the time to own the truth of who we are as humans, of who Americans are as a culture. It raises the point that all of those saying “this is not who we are” is not true. Violence, anger, fear, cruelty, discrimination….these things are in all of us — we can choose to put them in to the world, or choose something else instead.

Those who are immediately calling for “healing” miss the point that healing requires examination, understanding of the source and root cause of the disease, trying different treatments and approaches before finding one that works, and moving forward to cure the whole system, not just the part of the system we agree with, or the side we are on. (I know I lost the metaphor a little at the end there but you get the point I’m making).

Blame is easy. Polarization feels familiar, picking a side of good and bad and putting yourself on the side of angels. What’s more difficult is holding the space in the middle, being in the mess and division, and looking for a way forward together. When we make the other side wrong, and then we dehumanize them, we’ve lost our own humanity in the process. I spent some time reflecting on difficult questions I wasn’t sure I had any answers to:

  • What is the anger, fear and despair pointing me to? What is the lesson or teaching for me to find there?
  • If I can enter into the anger and name its source, can I find liberation and freedom there? Can I channel enough love and compassion to find the teaching anger wants to bring me?
  • In this tumultuous, chaotic time, what does the world need more of? What can I contribute?
  • Who is it that I need at my back? Whose back do I need to have? Who do I need to connect with, to step aside for, or hold space for so we could find a way forward?
  • How do I find the strength and resilience to work in the discomfort, to do hard things together with others?

I know for certain that brave, honest conversations are how we solve the problems in our lives, organizations and communities. I know that conversation is the conduit to connection, understanding, relationships and trust. When those things are present, we can accomplish anything, together. In a world of polarization there is little or no connection, understanding, relationship or trust. If I remember that if we are for each, for each others’ hopes, needs and differences then I can hold space to celebrate those differences, to foster understanding, so we can be in it together. If I lead with my heart, I show up fully in the hardest moments.

I looked for support, help and allies to process my experience and to find meaning. I talked to friends and colleagues and looked to old favourite friends of inspiration, like Parker Palmer. His book Healing the Heart of Democracy is a book I’ve gone back to countless times. Here is the wisdom that called to me this time when I opened it:

“Democracy gives us the right to disagree and is designed to use the energy of creative conflict to drive positive social change. Partisanship is not a problem, demonizing the other side is.”

“ At the deepest levels of human life, we do not need techniques. We need insights into ourselves and our world that can help us understand how to learn and grow from our experiences of diversity, tension and conflict.”

“If you hold knowledge of self and world wholeheartedly, your heart will at times get broken by loss, failure, defeat, betrayal or death. What happens next in you and the world around you depends on how your heart breaks. If it breaks apart into a thousand pieces, the result may be anger, depression and disengagement. If it breaks open into greater capacity to hold the complexities and contradictions of human experience, the result may be new life. The heart is what makes us human — and politics, which is the use of power to order our life together, is a profoundly human enterprise.”

Since my work is in the space of the public arena, building leadership to do hard things, it all connects back to democracy, and our capacity to reason, deliberate and converse with each other.

I came back to choice. In crisis and challenge, we sink or swim, and our real spirit shows through. In this time of chaos, disruption and turmoil, I want to be part of the solution. I want to offer compassion, possibility and courage to what is to come. I want to contribute what I yearn for myself to others. I want to believe that we can do hard things together.

To summarize, my messy, introspective journey over the last few months looked like this — perhaps it might help you on your journey through this chaotic place we find ourselves in.

  • Sink in and feel it. All of it. The beautiful, painful messy experience of what it means to be human in this challenging, chaotic world. Have the courage to stay with it, to look into it.
  • Step away from it. Find a pause, a space, a breath between your experience and your actions.
  • This will not be easy. It’s human to want it all to be easy, to boil things down to either / or rather than holding all of the mess at once. If I can engage with the things in the middle I might need to change, feel discomfort or be willing to transform.
  • Ask some hard questions. Look at assumptions, examine hard things, be willing to do the work.
  • Resist the urge and familiarity of picking a side, blaming or calling for healing before the hard work is done.
  • Look for some support, seek help and allies, look for inspiration.
  • Remember what you believe, what you value, what you stand for and step back in to that.
  • Make choices about how you show up. Contribute to the world you want to be part of. It starts with you, and that is the only place you can begin.

Where do you begin? What do you choose? These are the times it will take all of us to show up differently.


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