For a number of years I co-facilitated a leadership workshop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. One day wandering through that small town, one of my facilitator colleagues found some t-shirts for the three of us. On the front they were emblazoned with the words, “Soul Repair” and “Rejuvenation of Spirit” written in large letters above and below a picture of crossed skis. I always appreciated that imagery — because surely skiing can be a wonderful form of soul repair and rejuvenation. There’s almost nothing in my experience like the adrenalin rush of launching over the edge of something I wouldn’t in my right mind want to walk down. The only alternative is flying.
Of course, we wore the t-shirts to do our work as facilitators, too. That was a different kind of flying. Our work embraced the contradictions and dilemmas of ordinary people trying to understand how to live and lead in ways that tapped their deeper, better selves. The edges they were going over were in their own lives, externally and internally. A doctor struggled with his impatience and alienation of co-workers. A young woman needed to revisit and re-evaluate how her life had changed since the death of her partner in a freak accident. An administrator assessed her short-comings as a leader and decided she wasn’t so bad, after all. The work was all about claiming and reclaiming their lives in the aftermath of something that had challenged them in the past or might challenge them sometime soon: divorce, desertion, job termination, failure, incarceration and, plenty often, a vague unease about loss of meaning. Most often, they did the work with creative tenacity and came way greatly renewed.
The stories we heard were all about the repair of souls. All we did as facilitators was create a place for the work — a work shop — a space with a few tools, some “benches,” and the gift of time. All we did was say, “this is a good place and time to wonder, go deeper, grow in whatever ways you feel you are meant to grow toward a life you want and deserve.”
Repair of the soul is not something you do once and it is over. It is pre-eminently not a workshop. That was just one vehicle. Soul repair is going on all the time because it is about finding the meaning in things — in daily events and encounters, challenges and miseries. I think of a young woman I’ve been helping overcome the pain of her recent termination. It’s particularly difficult for her because it’s from her first job in her field (health care) after getting an advanced degree. It’s just been torture for her to go through the stages of grief. Some around her want her to “hurry up,” get over the hump, take yoga, get out there and apply for some other work right away, or at least, for crying out loud, cheer up.
But true repair isn’t made of such dross. It requires more of us — the sleepless nights reworking events again and again, asking bigger questions: Why did this happen? How did it happen? What am I supposed to get from this? What am I supposed to do now? How do I deal what I’ve been blind to all along? These bigger questions are the “soul searching” that deepens us.
Often that searching ends less in a clear, conscious, articulable answer than in a greater acceptance of life being exactly as it is supposed to be. The paradox of that acceptance — surrendering to deeper events and deeper genius — is that it enables movement forward in a new way. The attempt to push ahead without the search, resisting the soulful, provocative self-questioning, is what causes pain to embed itself permanently in the spirit. Not listening to suffering turns it into a background parasite of some kind, or maybe more accurately, a slow infection that will show itself later and at a particularly inopportune moment — maybe just when you think things are going really well. It’s acceptance and learning that open a new door.
Our business culture turns away from soul work, tries to hide it under a patina of optimism and the oxymoronic condemnation of all forms of negativity. Some like to hold contempt for anyone who has to do that inner work as if they don’t have the right stuff anyway. They really don’t want to explore anything like failure, even be terribly curious about it, let alone discover its lessons. But others, maybe more sensitive or intuitive, more willing to experience, know in an unspoken way that every attempt to simply seal up the walls against soul work ultimately postpones the inevitable. For every child locked in the basement there is the disturbing sound one day of footsteps ascending the darkened stairs.
Just so, my advice to the young woman has been to stay with the situation and not to “heal too fast” but to use these events to reclaim an important meaning before the opportunity is lost. She’s struggled, she told me, with finding her true voice because she’s given it up to eating disorders, to serving others and being what they want her to be. I sense her termination could make her want to seal that voice off again, blamed and sent way before she’s had time to listen to its full story and implicit guidance. That’s what soul repair is, I believe, the work of finding a way through the dilemmas, just as Thomas Moore suggests in Care of the Soul. It’s not about running away, but running toward the very thing that’s causing the suffering. In this sense, the young woman is finding out that her service to others, her care and love, is contingent first on her care and love for herself — a self she doesn’t care for much at the moment, and maybe has not been cared for enough for an entire life.
Why would we turn away from such work? Why wouldn’t we share in it with one another? Support each other as any true partners, true colleagues, true community might?
How many discordant relationships at work are the product of people running away from the problem, rather than toward it and through it with each other?
How many ineffective managers defend themselves instead of thoughtfully holding up a mirror — to see what their soul is truly made of?
How many leaders don’t want to know how they are colluding in the problems and failures they say they want to solve?
These are all problems of the soul at work, and of the needed work of the soul. They are evidence of the need for repair in every one of us — so long as we first believe in the nature of our own souls and the good we might do.
Images in this post are screenshots from this movie.
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