Vicissitude –a change of circumstance or fortune, most likely an unwelcome or unpleasant one.
Words have always held a fascination for me. I read early, so early I do not remember the process of learning to read. One day, I was looking at the page as my parents read aloud to me, the next memory I have I was able to understand or sound out words, deconstruct sentences and infer meaning based on the paragraphs surrounding unknown words. I know that I learnt to read, that someone taught me, but for me, the memory which stuck was the comforting feeling of tracing the shapes of letters on the page, and exploring the different inflections of my voice as I whispered words aloud.
I do not remember the process of learning to read, but it occurred over time and ultimately, I became proficient with spelling mastery and had the memorization skill to remember the tricky rules of the English language by heart. One of my greatest longings as a child was to be able to compete in a spelling bee. I dabbled in learning Latin and Greek, and had a fondness for contesting the idea of a ‘dead language’. After all, language is such a living, breathing, entity. I couldn’t understand how it could influence the entire history of the world itself, then cease to exist as an everyday, spoken utility. So I learned to recite the conjugations of Latin words, amō, amāre, amāvī, amātum and see the similarities in the romantic languages of Spanish, French, and Portuguese. And these conjugations have stuck with me, because they mean “love”. Each one is the word love, but with a different state of being. To be loved, you should love, you might be loved, you have loved… te amo. I love. You love. We all love.
This concept of one word meaning many things has been stuck in my mind recently. When I think of the word “leadership”, I see it as a multifaceted, living, breathing entity. It is not static. It continues to change its shape over time. Much of what I consider to be leadership is relational. It cannot happen in a vacuum, it requires an ebb and flow, a tidal surge of human relationship. Giving, receiving.
However, when we think about leaders, and by we, I should qualify that statement to say, when I think about leaders in my field, I often feel discouraged that I do not measure up to the qualities which I admire in others. While I have heard, time and again, that leadership is a personal journey, I find myself still reaching for the measuring stick and finding myself frightfully inadequate…. dependent on the day, I see myself as barely reaching the mark, or else falling short by an inch or a mile.
So, to return to the love I have for language. I was embroiled in a situation recently where I felt that my expectations of myself, and of others, had fallen dreadfully short of the mark. For me, my investment level had been high, and I had given so much energy into a what I thought was a relationship, one which was equal in recognition. I thought I held a certain measure of value in the eyes of the beholder. I came to understand that what I had was not a relationship, because relationship is a connotative word, implying the relation of two objects to one another. Intersecting pathways in a tapestry of tangled threads. Human connection. A spark, a tiny flame to be nurtured. Warmth, trust. What I received, by contrast, lacked the spark of human connection. It was a situation which would be similar to approaching someone you know to say hello, and they have no idea who you even are. How unworthy would you feel?
The vicissitude of that occurrence…. A large word, obscure, beautiful sounding on my tongue, but bitter medicine in the belly. I sat and wrote that poignant word over and over in my journal. I felt hurt, but I needed to puzzle out how to get beyond the hurt. Examine why I felt so keenly, what was lacking, and how I could come to a resolution in my mind. I was stuck.
I wanted to stay stuck. At least while I was stuck I could perseverate on feeling angry. Anger is a liberating emotion, cathartic in its release. It is a necessary emotion, one which allows us to explore injustice and inequality. Think of a child who has a toy snatched from their hands by another child. The anger flames up quickly, coupled with reaction. “Hey that’s mine!” is a common refrain. We may grow older, but we do not grow out of this reaction. We are quick to claim what is ours, to demand recognition for our belongings, physical and emotional.
I wrote in my journal in a quiet moment, as the frustration began to fade and I started digging to find what was really causing the discomfort: How do I become worthy? Or rather, how do I recognize my own worthiness? And, how does my sense of worthiness impact my ability to raise others up? Do I even see myself as a worthy leader? Can I reframe my perceptions to connect the worthiness I feel as an educator to a sense of leadership worthiness? How do my values of relationship building fit into my battle to recognize my own sense of worth as an instrument of change?
Much like the children’s story of the giant turnip, or whichever version you are familiar with, I had the help of others to become unstuck. A parading cast of diverse individuals, human connections, to help me “pull, and pull, and pull” and I eventually moved beyond feeling ‘stuck’ into the triumph of realizing what I truly needed to learn about myself is that I am worthy, not because other people identify me as being worthy, but because I am more than just adequate. I am enough, and my enough-ness spills over from time to time to cascade into other individual’s lives, positively impacting their own feelings of inadequacy. Because apparently, I am not the only one who gets stuck. Someone said to me about their own feelings of being stuck, “I feel like I can’t breathe.” That breathlessness, the panicked clawing for the surface when you feel like your head never breaks above the water… but to everyone else, a glassy mirror, unnoticeable as you drown below.
I was sitting in a circle of people I didn’t know, or barely knew. We had been asked to write, whatever it was we wanted to write in a time of self-reflection. Having come together, we were asked if we wanted to share our writing. The old me, the one before the leadership journey began, would have sat silently, desperately wanted to share my writing, but would have declined to offer. The old me lived in the realm of self-doubt and unworthiness. But this time, I felt the surge of terror which comes with doing something brave, and I raised my hand.
It is one action to take up the pen and write what is in our minds. It is another entirely to speak those words out from the page. To move beyond the private sphere and into the public realm takes a certain level of bravado which I truly believe is false. We trick ourselves into believing we are brave, then we let the momentum carry us through to the end. Too late to turn back and fade back into crowd, unremarkable, unnoticed. Two steps forward and none back. Stumbling forward, all eyes on you.
My voice trembled and shook, but I spoke the entirety of what I had written.
‘My most significant change (at this moment) has been to be able to stay “stuck” in an area of discomfort, to live with the uncertainties and complexities without demanding order. Allowing a sense of brokeness, emotion, and churning discomfort to unsettle me. To feel small, and unnoticed, but through a different lens.
There is power in recognizing our own inadequacies, and then living humbly to seek out the answers. The perspective of oneself as small, barely visible can be beautiful. Stand outdoors in the blackness of a northern night, and turn your eyes upwards. The sky is alive with vast, insignificant lights. The stars are alone in the vast expanse of space, the cosmic void. YET, they are a stunning collective energy. Together, they light up the universe with grace and beauty, shining with light that reaches others long after they have burnt up and been consumed by eternity.
If we are stars, we bring the same hope, beauty and glittering light. We are not alone. We are an army of possibility, of knowing. We are stardust, human, finite, yet immense. We are many things to all those around us. We are not only north, south, east, and west. We are also above, below, and within. So, why then, do I see myself as inadequate?
We live, breathe, and infuse our voices together, a piece of beautiful music. Music is timeless, just like the stars. My composition is only mine, no one can prove it otherwise. But how will it entangle to create a symphony? The compositions of others, blending, discordant at times, to create the tidal pulse of humanity. What is it to be human stardust? How do we pass on this understanding to children? Can we pass on this knowledge to them if we do not first live in the insecurity of our frail and finite existence?’
So there it was. My acknowledgement that it is important to be “stuck”. But even more important than being stuck and feeling okay with the emotional quicksand, was the recognition that I am worthy. Just as everyone else is worthy. In setting the words free from the page to which they were bound, I answered my own question about being a leader and an instrument for change. I am enough, I am not inadequate.
After the writing session, I had a deep connection with a fellow writer. They said that as I spoke my passage, they felt as though a bolt of electricity went between us, and that we were connected in that moment. We talked and shared together, our feelings so similar, though we lived worlds apart. From that, I realized that what I felt I had lost in connection earlier in the week in a different relationship, I had gained hundred-fold with this person, here, now. The beauty of vulnerability showcased, the two of us sharing a few moments in the void, our light meeting. Stardust communing together, twinkling down on another’s black northern night.
That conversation, fleeting in the annals of history, is where leadership is formed. Generations from now, the ripple of our exchange will pass down in some way to those who come after us, inextricably linked. We will not live to see the lasting effect of our exchange, but it will nevertheless be present, like the shudder of a butterfly’s wings, setting in motion toppling mountains, sliding crag by crag into a ever restless sea.