Kirsty's Story

Don't Expect Applause

We were together. I forget the rest.[1]

The residential Warrior for the Human Spirit training course, led by Margaret (Meg) Wheatley, and organised by Collective Leadership Scotland, seems a lifetime ago. The world in which I got up on a sunny morning in early March, walked out with my backpack and my fold-up bike, and got on a train to Perth, is not the world we live in now. My backpack has collapsed in on itself, slumped over as the despair of millions. My fold-up bike is on offer to any frontline worker that might need it. I’m more likely to travel on a spaceship than I am on a train.

We’re all less mobile now.

I started writing this six weeks ago. But I’ve had to rewrite it. My mood has shifted. For so many of us there is discombobulation. Anger. Fear. Helplessness. There is a constant, tattering edge. Emotional detritus washes in and out on a fractious tide.

The new temporary rings out the daily bells of the dead. But church bells don’t peal any more. The bells are, instead, line graphs that rise, octave upon octave. Funeral services are live-streamed. Mourners, limited in attendance by risk assessments, stand two metres apart. No words can replace a hug.

We’re all bereaved now.

I’ve been listening to Tunnel 29. It tells the story of a group of students who tunnelled from West Berlin into East Berlin to help their friends and relatives escape. What bravery, what leadership. The group was infiltrated by a Stasi informer. We are not living in that world. But the state has, on the back of the COVID19 crisis, taken extraordinary powers that impinge upon our liberties, particularly those of the poor. Citizens are encouraged to inform on their neighbours. And, according to the police, they are doing so in droves.

We’re all being watched now.

Life-affirming leaders, or Warriors for the Human Spirit, are leaders, activists, and citizens who want to make a meaningful contribution in this time of increasing assaults on the human spirit and all life. The COVID19 pandemic has demonstrated a clear need for this type of leadership. And indeed, these warriors are emerging. They are not common yet, but they are here. We catch a glimpse of them on television. On social media. On our streets. In our shops. In our new on-line world. In our places of work or worship. We speak to them when they call us to check that we’re still okay.

Could I be a warrior? At the beginning of March I was on a career break. I wondered whether I should offer to go back to help out with the crisis. Surely more hands would be needed? But words from Meg’s training gave me pause. ‘Don’t rush in to fix things. Ask yourself: what is your work and what can you do to serve?’  So in those early days after that intensive residential week in Perth I carried on writing, and I carried on my voluntary work, supporting local efforts to improve conditions for walking, cycling and wheeling. I spoke with my new friends from the warrior training. What were they doing?  How were they coping? Many talked about taking their seat – the daily mindfulness practice at the core of warrior work. Taking our seats, being present, dignified and grounded, is essential if we are to make meaningful contributions to both our own lives and those of others.

No, I haven’t meditated every day since the course. Nor do I practice with my eyes open as Meg had instructed. But the regular practice has helped me identify what I think about the most, where my anxieties lie, and how to deal with some of the thought processes I find most difficult. I know what my work is right now. What it will be in two or three months, I’m not sure. I haven’t yet offered to go back to my paid employment. But the request for volunteers has come in. And I have three days left to decide.

We can all take our seat.

There was so much to think about at the warrior training. For me, the essence of it seems to be that we behave with decency and dignity in the service of others. So in lockdown, I have taken the opportunity to observe myself.

I notice first that my writing has taken on a darker more fantastical edge. My stories have become dystopian. I have embraced magical realism, played with shape-shifters, and ordinary household objects take on human qualities. I break creative writing rules, make up words, leave sentences undone. Has lockdown set me free?  On quality perhaps. But not on quantity. The first draft of my novel, completed in November, remains untouched. Short pieces are easy. Longer pieces are still fragments to be knitted together when my edges stop tattering.

Warriors, we were told, don’t expect applause. Expecting applause and not getting it results in anger, disappointment and pain. It is not easy, though. I yearn for affirmation with my writing. I want people to tell me that my experimental work prompted them to think differently. Or that they liked the rhythm of my words. Or that they got caught up with a character that I’d invented. It seems I’ve still got a long way to go on this warrior trait.

Can I prevent the hurt that comes from lack of acknowledgement in the future? Perhaps. Focussing on the work, or the service that needs done, without needing praise, is a selfless act. And I have found that I am generally able to do it with my voluntary work. Staying in the background, and getting pleasure from something I’ve worked on with other people, turns out to be enough for my self-esteem.

We can all do without applause (but it’s hard).

Warriors create islands of sanity. We can all imagine these. Swinging in a hammock under a Coconut Palm or a Caledonian Pine. Everybody respects everybody else. Compassion and trust are the cocktails of the day. Warriors put the qualities of relationships at the heart of their leadership on these islands. And learning and reflection are the conditions required for our survival.

I had struggled to see the relevance for my own situation at first. In my previous paid work, yes. But my voluntary effort would surely be too small for island creation? And, on top of that, I know I’m not a particularly calming person. Island building would be too hard for me.

In my work, four (or sometimes five or six) of us pull together to get things done in and around our local neighbourhood. The who does what depends on who has the time, or the skills, or the contacts. I am the leader only in as much that I saw that the work needed done, starting doing it, and people came along to help.

In the COVID19 crisis my local fellow activists are juggling home schooling, working from home, and enduring the mental fatigue of lockdown. The people that we are working with (the Council, stakeholders, other communities) have the same challenges. So I have attempted to create an island of sanity. So far, its boundaries are not clear. It’s not apparent who’s on the island and who isn’t, although all are welcome. Sometimes I get side tracked. I forget about the coconut oil and pick up a jack hammer (for this I apologise). But then I take my seat and get back to the serious business of focusing on the quality of the relationships, rather than the transactional elements. Not just between ourselves in our small clan, but between all the people that are working with on the projects we’d like delivered.

We can all create islands of sanity.

Of course, focusing on the quality of relationships means doing so with those that you don’t get on with, as well as those that you do. In our training week we spent a bit of time identifying what triggers us, why we are triggered, and what the impacts of those triggers are. Triggers for me are someone or something that stokes my rage. Tightens my chest. Drops a rock in my belly. Triggers hurl a response out of my mouth before I’ve taken time to reflect.

Most of us are probably triggered by something that links back to a lack of respect. For us. For others. For the planet. So on our island, we understand what triggers us. And we aren’t triggered. The red flag goes up. We pause. We create space. And most importantly, we treat trigger individuals as if we’ve never met them before. We erase our common history and start again.

We can all learn not to be triggered.

As with all of aspects of warriorship, the theory is easier than the practice. Meg encouraged us to be grateful to everyone. Yes, even the ones pulling the triggers. The person that made my life hell. The person that threw me under a bus. What can I learn about myself from that person and their actions? About my reactions? I learn to focus on my own behaviours. To be respectful and decent. To be less transactional. To waste less energy being angry over someone that I can’t control.

We can all be grateful to everyone.

There’s one more thing I want to say about this island of sanity. It is an island without hope. Hope, according to Meg, is an addiction we cling to. As I understand it, she asks us to replace hope with being present. Being present prevents us from toppling into despair when our hopes are not realised. I was resistant at first. But I was also relieved. We all know it’s the hope that kills you.

Working in climate change involved so much hope for me. Hope that it would be prioritised across the globe. Hope that every organisation would do the right thing. Hope that if I could just be better at my job I’d get better results. All those hopes dashed, despite the efforts and successes of so many, by the interminable height climbed by those lines on the graphs. Letting that hope go feels lighter. On our island we might use the word hope. Hope your folks are okay. Hope it works out for you. But we won’t be hopeful, we’ll be present instead.

 We can all live without hope.

Our warrior training continues. The group from Perth meets every month on-line. In between those sessions we exchange messages. A photograph of a sunrise. A virtual hug. A reading about futures. A poem about grief. There is shared love and dark humour. All of us in wonder about how it came to be that we entered that hotel outside Perth to start our training in one world, and came out, wide-eyed and bewildered, in another. We were together. I forget the rest.

Now I watch and listen to other leaders with my warrior hat by my side.

Senior politicians leading their countries with humanity and integrity. Chief executives working with their staff on the collective transformation of their businesses as they adapt to pandemic life. Team leaders providing a space each morning for colleagues to express their fears and concerns. Women keeping calm order in panicky supermarket queues. Bus drivers reassuring anxious passengers; and cleaners, everywhere, keeping the show on the road.

We can all be leaders now.


[1] Walt Whitman.