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12 November 2016

Getting busy sitting still

Written by
Wendy Bittner

Nearly a year ago, when my partners and I first started talking about Donald Trump, I said–not really jokingly, “If we elect this man, I’m moving to New Zealand.”  It’s not a totally outlandish idea.  Our firm was born here.  I have business partners and friends here.  There is a lovely property on the beach north of Wellington, just up the road (or down, depending on your vantage point) from my partners’ homes that I can imagine buying.  New Zealand is a beautiful and inspirational place to think, to write, and to imagine new possibilities as we work to push the boundaries on what leaders can do in complexity.  I fly back and forth across the Pacific frequently, and boy, would I rather be accumulating those miles on Air New Zealand than on the somewhat abysmal United (to which I’ve sadly kept myself tied).

Two days ago, I sat in our partner, Keith’s, kitchen, listening to the wind and the rain and the ocean and watching the returns come in with increasing despair and disbelief.  I had never cried over an election before, but this time, the tears wouldn’t stop.  Yes, I was (and still am) very sad that we failed to elect our first female president…a competent, resilient, capable, articulate, and very well-prepared leader.  More than that, I was (and still am) absolutely devastated that we did elect Donald Trump, who, from my vantage point, appears to be the polar opposite of all of the things I would hope for in a president or a leader of any sort.  Not since 9/11 had I felt so hopeless and paralyzed.  The world had tilted off its axis.

As I wallowed in despair throughout a mostly sleepless night, the siren call for me was to ACTION.  Within hours, there were no shortage of lists and options.  The Huffington Post let us know what to do “If You’re Overwhelmed by the Election…”  Michael Moore published his “to do list.”  Gail Collins of the NY Times encouraged us to “get practical” with her “Ten Step Program for Adjusting to President-Elect Trump” (to be fair, first on her list was, “start with a night of heavy drinking”…maybe her version of agreeing with me that we should slow down before jumping).  At 3 am, I read how I could donate to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU if I wanted to “do something useful,” and how, as a liberal, I should “forget about New Zealand and Canada, and instead move to places like Milwaukee or Atlanta.”  And in the meantime, I swung wildly between the ideas of buying that place on the beach (cowardly, or a strong sign of protest?) and applying for a position in the Trump White House (brave!  If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em and see if you can make a difference!).  Maybe I would never go back to the US…  Or maybe I’d get on a plane to Washington immediately!  Given that I’d (personally) failed to prevent this catastrophe, there had to be something I could do

And then I took a breath.  I put down the whip with which I’d been beating myself (I should have done more to stop this!  I should have listened harder to the opposition!  I must do something now!) and stopped for just a moment to realize that this is a time in which it is OK just to sit still and grieve.  This is a time to pause and observe…to feel and acknowledge the loss (and not just this moment’s loss of a beautiful and qualified–if flawed and human–first female president, but also the loss of many years of potential “progress” as we start over with some of the battles that we thought had already been fought).  I knew there would be many challenges, even if we elected Hillary, but the world that I thought I lived in is not the world that is.  

In the face of this kind of big and abrupt challenge, what we tend to want to do is (re)act…just at the point when we might best be served by sitting still.  It is OK to be sad.  It is OK to be angry or hurt or numb (or, if you happen to be a Trump supporter, to be thrilled, happy, excited).  As we learn from William Bridges, different elements of transitions can be experienced differently.  And it seems we can experience them in different orders. But it’s worthwhile to take the time to experience them.  For the achievers among us, action–and quickly–can seem the only “right” answer.  But in a complex and unpredictable world, sometimes one of the best moves we can make is to get busy sitting still and paying attention.  In this stillness, we can notice the systems that surround us and that are within us.  Rather than rushing past, denying, or trying to diminish them, we can allow ourselves time to process and come to terms with the emotions that drive us (more than we usually like to admit) and that drive those around us.   Rather than blindly grasping forward, we can take the time to notice what we will need to let go of as our world changes from what it used to be to what it is now.  As we let go of those–now outdated–versions of ourselves, we can pause in this neutral, creative space.  We can find the time not just to listen for–but truly to hear–the different voices that are so often drowned out by the wind in our ears as we fly from one quick move to the next.  And we can rebuild the senses of expansiveness, hope, and possibility that are so necessary for acting with confidence in uncertainty.

For me, I don’t need to hide under the covers, but it is also ok that I take some time to walk on the beach for a bit and enjoy the beauty of the morning as I let the numbness and shock settle.  I can revel in some of the rote and routine tasks of work and life and watch and listen to how those in the world who are happy about this outcome respond and celebrate.  I can recognize the need for action and commitment while also admitting that I am not yet ready to act or commit.  I could make a reactive move now–out of anger or fear or the desperate desire to avoid “slacking off in my duty to the world”–or I can give myself a moment to admit and come to terms with my deep grief.  I can look at the fact that I may need to let go of many of the ideas I’ve had about the humanity I’m trying to help, that I may need to reframe my identity from a welcome–even popular–voice for growth, to a scrappy activist for change.  I can sit with the world and notice that, no matter how wobbly things seem, the sun will, indeed, continue to come up.  And then–fortified with that evidence and made more resilient with some rest–I can choose how I want to act in this new (unwanted, but also undeniable) version of our world.

I do not know what is the best answer for me in the coming weeks and months.  It might be that I still buy that property on the beach north of Wellington or–heaven forbid–that I do actually find my way into working with the administration that I so dreaded to see in place.  It might be that the most useful thing I can do is to continue the work I am already doing to help leaders to better navigate complexity.  It might be that some totally unexpected opportunity arises if I open my eyes and pay attention.  I will probably donate to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.  Sorting this out may take some time (and, extending Gail Collins’s advice, I will almost certainly drink several glasses–or bottles–of wine in the process…lucky for me that I’m in New Zealand!).  Whatever path I choose next, however, I know that my decisions to slow down, to acknowledge my grief, and to sit still with purpose these past couple days have made me stronger, more curious, and more hopeful.  The ideas and parts of my identity that I will need to let go are coming into focus.  When I make a move, I will be acting from choice rather than reacting (or rebounding) from fear.  My thoughts will be clearer, my heart will be stronger, and my brain will work better…and that’s the version of me that is most likely to do good in this uncertain time.

3 thoughts on “Getting busy sitting still”

  1. Diana Manks says:

    Lovely writing Wendy – and I am so happy that New Zealand is providing some solace and thinking space.

  2. Kathrin O'Sullivan says:

    “My thoughts will be clearer, my heart will be stronger, and my brain will work better…and that’s the version of me that is most likely to do good in this uncertain time.” – that is so powerful Wendy. Thanks for sharing this perspective. A great reminder to make space to connect with the truth that lies in the stillness and leads to wise action.

  3. Heartfelt and powerfully thought-provoking. Thank you Wendy!

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