“When it is dark enough you can see the stars.” ~Ralph Waldo Emmerson
It’s amazing how a tragedy can crystalize our thinking or galvanize us: a call for peace in the days that followed the Paris bombings, a desire to respond to the plight of Syrian refugees, kindness in response to the death of a loved one. In a single week I was touched by all three of these events and began to notice the natural opposites that emerge in circumstances like these. Whether it is a world–wide cry for peace resulting from violence or overwhelming kindness and support in response to a personal loss, there is a way that the human response to tragedy is often resilient and inspiring.
My father in law was a very special man. He was not famous, he never invented anything that changed the world. He was remarkable nonetheless for his unfailing positivity, his unwavering faith and the way he made everyone he met feel lighter. When he died suddenly that week, I noticed many remarkable things: how one life of kindness touched so many, how deeply he was cared for by his family and how we could feel both profound sorrow for our loss and gratitude at the very same time. Sorrow that he was gone too soon; gratitude for his presence in our lives, and that he was spared a frightening future as his Alzheimer’s disease progressed. The simultaneous feelings of gratitude and sorrow at first felt like unlikely mates. Until it occurred to me that perhaps one allowed me to see and appreciate the other; just as darkness defines and allows me to see light.
In the days that followed the loss of Papa, I also noticed the tenderness and kindness with which all in his family interacted. And this was extended by others. Elaborate meals arrived at our house. Friends were donating to the Alzheimer’s Society in Papa’s memory. Over 500 people attended his funeral; still others sent cards and flowers. All to honour this man and show support to his family. It was a remarkable outpouring.
As I re-entered the world in the days after our family loss, I noticed a world moving faster than I had for days, a world that was not as kind as it had seemed just the day before. Once again, sharp contrasts were evident. I also noticed I preferred the kinder days and wanted to make them last. That noticing inspired me to write this article, as a sort of call for more kindness in the world. The world events that have unfolded since only make me feel more strongly about this.
So what does all this have to do with leadership? Here’s how I’m seeing it. The world is full of both darkness and light. What I notice is that when I resist the darkness or judge it, I cannot see the light as clearly. On the other hand, when I include it and allow the sorrow, the pain, the grief; then the compassion, the gratitude and the understanding emerge as well.
In my personal story and in the world’s recent string of violent tragedies, sorrow and grief felt deeply have perhaps enabled me to see the other side, or awakened me to what is possible to create in the world. This is not about making injustice or violence in the world okay because we also know its’ opposite. This is about taking our judgment out of it, experiencing all of it and emerging from it more conscious about our choice for the world we want to create.
As leaders, we are faced with these dichotomies all the time. In this season of peace and joy, we are struck by the unimaginable violence, pain and suffering all around us. And yet, just as a beautiful photograph gets its definition from the play of shadow and light, perhaps as leaders, by being awake to and including all of it, we can create a world with more peace, more kindness and more compassion.