At the beach the other day, I noticed a pattern of small stones laid out on a larger one. It was someone’s life, I thought, all the things they had learned on their own. And so I thought of all the things any of us must learn, each one another small stone in the pattern:
That you are okay.
That you are not okay.
That you can let go.
That you can hold on.
That you can survive the inevitable losses.
That it is time to grieve.
That it is time to celebrate.
That you can get up again.
That you can make your own decisions.
That you can be alone.
That you can trust.
That you can succeed.
That you can fail forward.
That you don’t have to sweat the small stuff.
That nothing is permanent.
Behind our masks, we may still not be quite sure of the answers to the questions our hearts may ask us any day. In that secret place you may grapple moment to moment in small or large ways with who you are and what your life means.
The truth is that we all have things we must learn for ourselves, life lessons we don’t know or can’t know in advance, where time is the teacher and we get our tests via the School of Hard Knocks. So we need a little compassion for ourselves, whether the lesson is one where we look back and say, “I should have trusted my gut more” or one where we must recognize it was trusting our gut too much that got us into trouble. Such lessons go deep into the workings of our lives as leaders because there is a strong social expectation that leaders make good judgments — knowing themselves and knowing life, including that most private of processes: to recognize, accept and learn from our own mistakes.
Perhaps it cannot be said strongly enough that we most often learn for ourselves in difficult times, precisely because they are difficult and there are no easy, ready-made answers; no instant truths or well-trod paths. Because we cannot avoid hard times, because we have to respond authentically, genuinely from our innermost being, because those difficult times draw us into contact with our character as people. Others’ advice somehow doesn’t work and we may even resent it when it comes. It is through facing these difficulties and conflicts that we find greater self-reliance, soulfulness and differentiation as a person. It is a time to think, above all, for oneself, not simply to follow the ways of the past or the loudest, most aggressive or most familiar and comforting voices. Solace comes from knowing it is our own life learning, our own truth that we are coming to stand for.
The I Ching would say that in darkness, we must keep the light alive, even if it must remain concealed. In a world of false narratives and bad choices, to think for yourself, to learn for yourself is a radical act of maintaining sanity, the precursor to creating islands of sanity around us. Isn’t that the world we have right now? And day by day, doesn’t the inner light grow stronger?