Finding Solid Ground in the 21st Century
April, 2012 Newsletter
- Stephen Mitchell
I'm perched on an outcropping scanning the narrow footbridge that spans the canyon. The floor of the bridge is formed by wooden slats attached to steel cables on either side. My eyes focus on the spaces between the slats and looking down I see jagged stones and the ravine 200 feet below. It seems as if a Venetian blind has been strung across the canyon promising safe passage to the other side. I am terrified. I decide to attempt the aerial walk above the canyon's rocky floor and take two tentative steps on to the bridge. My knees weaken and I retreat slowly back to the solid quartzite platform. Breathing hard I lean against the side of the mountain. Two men saunter across the bridge. I am feeling nauseous, immobilized by fear. I will not go.
Then Joseph says something that turns it around: "You will face this fear eventually," he says. "It may be on your deathbed but you will have to come to terms with this at some point. Better to do it now when you have the support of these men." The precision, compassion and honesty of these words inspire me to make the crossing to the far end of the canyon. My fear turns into rage and by the time I've traversed the bridge there is nothing left but a serenity and sense of purpose such as I've never felt before.
Joseph Jastrab is the man who inspired my canyon walk. When asked what one should expect from such experiences he replied, "Certainly the unexpected. This is the only thing that we, or anyone else for that matter, can stand behind with an unconditional guarantee…expect nothing, but be ready for anything." (See footnote below). My trepidation about traversing the gorge on a narrow footbridge pointed to a deeper fear. At the time I was faced with a great deal of chaos and uncertainty in the circumstances of my life. By encouraging me to embrace a life that seemed to provide no solid ground Joseph helped me develop a sense of inner security in the midst of shifting outer conditions, something that bestowed rich benefits in the future.
The image of my canyon walk was evoked again recently after reading an article about Ernest Shackleton. His story is also one of great leadership, especially in the face of uncertainty and change. In 1914 Shackleton posted an ad seeking a crew of men to join him in a quest for his life-long dream: an expedition in which he would walk across the Antarctic continent to traverse the South Pole. It read:
Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.
It would seem that few would answer the call. Instead 5000 men applied. From these applications Shackleton hand picked a 27 member crew for a journey that would ultimately prove to be a great testament to the strength of the human spirit and to the leadership abilities of a man faced with near impossible odds for survival. Shackleton and his men would sail the isolated waters of the Weddell Sea, land on Antarctica's northwest shore and travel with a sledging party 1500 miles through unknown tundra, trekking over the South Pole to the Ross Sea. The expedition turned out to be a colossal failure. The men never reached the South Pole and instead lost their ship and were held captive on the polar ice. It would be almost a year and nine months before Shackleton and his men would return home.
The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition as it was called was quashed by frozen blocks of ice. Along with it went Shackleton's dream and this could have crushed him as well. Instead his mission changed to one in which he would apply his knowledge and experience "to secure the safety of the party." The polar historian Roland Huntford observed that "polar exploration was littered with dead bodies… Bringing his men back alive became the only thing he cared about. That change from aiming to attain what you had set out, to extricating yourself from defeat is a strain that had broken many a man. It did not break Shackleton."
Nancy F. Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School. After writing a case study on Ernest Shackleton she commented in 2011, "I was struck by Shackleton's ability to respond to constantly changing circumstances. When his expedition encountered serious trouble, he had to reinvent the team's goals…This capacity is vital in our own time, when leaders must often change course midstream - jettisoning earlier standards of success and redefining their purposes and plans." (For a full account of the Shackleton story see notes below).
It appears that the 21st century is gearing up to be a time of enormous change. We can learn a lot from people like Shackleton about working with change and uncertainty. In following these examples we can embrace a new paradigm that awaits us. What are some of the changes we can expect?
For one, we are being called to find simplicity in an increasingly complex world. Much of the complexity is self imposed: buying things we don't need, inundating our senses with countless images intended to distract us from the reality of life, continuing to base political and economic systems on waste and unremitting "growth." This ultimately drains our spirit and our health. Shifting to ways of living that are more sustainable, simple and direct enlivens our spirit and our health, re-vitalizing rather than draining our lives and our resources.
Our health care system is an example of this complexity. America's use of prescription drugs is rapidly increasing. Despite this trend the US ranks 37th among the world's industrial countries in studies that measure overall health. It is a complex, inefficient and costly system. Modalities like chiropractic care that support our inherent health and Innate Intelligence are way less costly and are often more efficient than a reliance on complex outer technologies and chronic use of medication. In the new model of health we are encouraged to live our lives fully and when death calls we embrace it as a welcome and natural part of the cycle of life.
Another shift that is taking place is that we are being asked to honor who we are. Rather than idealizing prominent people we can learn from those who offer wisdom and compassion, awakening these qualities in our own lives. Joseph Jastrab puts it this way: "I think its time for all of the 'larger than life' heroes to be brought into a less idealized and unreachable focus. Every human life is comprised of similar challenges and courage."
We are also moving into an era that recognizes and supports the connectedness of all things. We see clearly that what occurs in one part of the planet – environmentally, politically, socially and economically - affects everybody and everything everywhere. The Canadian educator Marshall McLuhan saw electronic media as extension of our nervous system and predicted that it would foster connectedness in our time. “The effect of the electronic revolution,” he said, “is to create once more an involvement that is total. The world is getting smaller and more familiar to our mind and to our emotions.” Like it or not social media is here to stay, and folks like McLuhan are cheering it on. The task is to use it for connection and not merely as another medium for distraction.
The uncertainty and rapid changes so characteristic of our times can either be a burden, inviting anxiety and distress or it can be a springboard for a sustainable life of simplicity, connectedness and inner calm. While we are likely to experience both as things change, our choices will have a major affect on how we live. We can choose to change our point of view, finding ways in our personal individual lives to return again and again to that which is unchanging, that which is the source of inner wisdom and compassion.
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