When do you push forward, and when do you step back?
How do you decide, or is it decided for you?
How does this reciprocal rhythm oscillate and dance in your life?
Modern western culture tells individuals and organizations alike: Grow! Move! Push! –Or die! Competition and scarcity dominate the collective psyche, if not consciously then subconsciously, no question. Even on vacation we are pressured to do something socially noteworthy, lest we have nothing to report upon return. There is a palpable, frenetic, explicit and implicit drive—to keep driving. I’m not complaining, necessarily. Growth, innovation, evolution, improvement, advancement, development—I pursue these with as much fervor as anyone. It has served me well! My whole life the hard work (and a lot of luck) has paid off in spades, in school, work, and now leadership in multiple realms. I have accomplished as much as I could have imagined at this age, and I’m just getting started! How exciting and rewarding, living a life of audacious acceleration, of claiming agency, of “Yes, AND!”
Yet, lately I feel another energy emerging. It came on unexpectedly, and I welcome it like my oldest friend.
I only realized it as I wrote about ‘Aunt Rachel,’ Dr. Rachel Remen, last month. “I am called to slow down, to be still, more than I have been (have allowed?), for a very long time,” I wrote, quite spontaneously. Those words forelighted a month of ‘settling and recharging… awareness and fulfillment,’ as I wrote to my friend, when I realized what was happening. This meta-awareness always fills me with awe and gratitude, as if the cosmos lets me in on a secret, conspiring to prepare me for what lies ahead. Remen’s My Grandfather’s Blessings reminds me of the importance of human connection at the deepest level. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert makes me confident and brave to create, to make things to share, like this blog or a new oral presentation. The Art of Possibility helps me dig deep, in a different way every time I reread it, for fundamental relational skills when I need them the most.
The week I wrote about Aunt Rachel, Maria Popova’s post on friendship as rendered by Kahlil Gibran crossed my email inbox. The Prophet was one of my favorite books in high school. I found it moving, inspiring, and reassuring, like a lovingly personal counselor, in those emotionally tumultuous adolescent times. Popova’s post brought that comfort back, similar to how Remen’s book did in recent weeks. I felt compelled to follow her sequential links to writings by Seneca, CS Lewis, David Whyte, and John O’Donohue, all on friendship. She quotes Seneca, the stoic: “Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself…” Something within me was deeply moved, activated to seek more.
How fascinating, what is with this fresh call on my attention? I’m not sure, but I trust it fully, and have embraced it. I found To Bless the Space Between Us by John O’Donohue, a book of the most eloquent blessings, and Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by David Whyte. Both books quench my thirst for beautiful language that articulates the deep longing for meaning and connection, with myself as well as with others. They call to me.
Between caring for patients, leading work teams, proposing new projects, LOH training, speaking engagements, wife-ing, parenting and friending, life could hardly be more challenging or fulfilling (I should also call my parents more often!). I see every meeting, every letter, every message as a chance to show up all in, fully present, at my best. To be my Best Self in all realms, I push myself to learn, practice, and excel, to exercise my agency in service of relationships and connection. So sometimes the universe approaches me lovingly, jogging alongside, inviting me to slow down. Take a break, he says, enjoy the view. Soak it in. Relish how far you’ve come, what you’ve built thus far. Breathe deep, stretch out. Rest a while. What do you see, she asks, how does it feel? What have you learned, they say, what can you synthesize and integrate, before you march on with resolve and conviction once again, in the direction of your biggest dreams?
The word pairs below emerged, with a little nudging, over the past week. I see them not as dichotomies, not at all in conflict. Rather, they are each separate and inextricable sides of the same multifaceted polyhedron of life, necessary counterbalances for a healthy, fulfilling, and meaningful existence. I started wearing my Yin-Yang ring in January. It is meant to remind me that opposites are more often complementary than oppositional. Our society values agency over emergence. We endorse doing ahead of holding. But practicing emergence is by no means passive, weak, or unproductive. It is active, enthusiastic participation in the dance of life, the reciprocal movement of ebb and flow. Childbirth and heartbeat are quintessential examples of the balance of Agency and Emergence, giving and receiving, contracting and relaxing.
What other word pairs would you add?
I commit to fully inhabiting, savoring this deliberate time and open space, however long it lasts. Energy will shift again, as it always does. I have the next self-improvement books and task lists in queue. I’ll get on the blocks again, ready for the starting gun, soon enough. But for now, I breathe deeply and look around in appreciation and learning.
Focus Zoom Out
Exhale (blow) Inhale (smell)
Make this happen What’s trying to happen?
Tap the system Watch it spin a while
Grip Hold loosely
Take up space Hold space
The exhibit where I took the art photos: https://smartmuseum.uchicago.edu/exhibitions/tara-donovan-fieldwork/