EPISODE 11: MAKE THE IMPLICIT EXPLICIT
A few weeks ago my Adventure in Uncertainty Turned Right … to the UK. My home for 25 years.
I arrived on November 3rd so that I could be in the nation’s month-long Lockdown with my 3 gorgeous Gremlins.
November 3rd was also the day the US thought it would find closure. It didn’t. For a metaphorical 32 seconds we had collective clarity of tomorrow. That tomorrow hasn’t come. What came … what has been purposefully created … was more uncertainty.
For 25 years my Lab of Misfits has studied how and why the brain fears uncertainty. But sometimes, certainty is worse.
ALS is certainty.
Within 5 years of being diagnosed, 90% are certain to die. Not suddenly. But progressively ... day-by-day. The neurons that control your muscles degenerate. Often beginning with your legs. With an inexplicable ache … or maybe a twitch. Then an innocuous stumble. As months pass, your legs are no longer your own. Walking becomes impossible. Then it’s the motoneurons that control your arms. You lose the ability to throw a ball to your child. Then the ability to hold your child. Feeding yourself stops, and you need to be fed. Then speech. First it’s slurred. Then only those closest to you can understand what others perceive to be mumblings. Eventually even they can’t understand. Finally, breathing … our most basic, most essential behaviour, stops. You suffocate … not quickly.
And through it all your ability to think and feel remains. You see and feel every loss ... every degenerative step. You’re acutely aware of what is happening and what will happen, as there is no cure for ALS … yet.
The reality created by ALS is clear.
Bodies don’t lie. Brains do.
I’m going into detail here for a reason. Because I’d like you to sit and imagine … if only for a minute ... the moment that your imaginary doctor makes certain the uncertainty of your imaginary ailments. “It’s ALS”, s/he tells you. You hear the words. You know it’s significance. Can you imagine what that might feel like? Even contemplating the mere thought of it from the safety of imagination is hard. So hard that you might even resist … and look away.
But it’s important not to. Because that moment happens. It’s a reality fifteen times a day in the US. A certainty that no one wants. In such times, uncertainty becomes the refuge of hope not fear. And where there is hope, you’ll find a willing mind.
At that moment, what do you think about? Looking back on your life, would you have wished that you carried more weight? Had more stuff? Or let more go? Would you be happy with the number of times you sacrificed love and integrity to the altar of delusional pride?
I wanted you to imagine the moment of diagnosis, because today (the day of writing these words) Pat Quinn died at 37 of ALS.
He was diagnosed in 2013. And while his body progressively stopped, he expressed in action remarkable courage and care to move a movement that moved the world … or at least a good part of it. You’ll have heard of the Ice Bucket Challenge that raised over $220 million for ALS research (and more). That was Pat. He not only started it, he maintained it throughout (with an ever increasing number of compassionate advocates). In his most inhospitable years of life, he added to life by creating hope for others. He chose to transform his degeneration into inspiration.
(If you'd like to donate to the ALS Association whose mission is to find a cure for ALS as well as funding care for people living with the disease, click here.)
The source of adventures is sometimes joy. But it can also be pain … or fear … or loss.
Which brings me to the point of this episode: Inspiring people do! They not only express themselves in words, they manifest those words in action.
We all know what we’re supposed to say … especially if you’re creative and intelligent. ‘Virtue signalling’ and being ‘woke’ are relatively easy. But it’s what you actually do that speaks truth. And more importantly the authentic alignment between intentions and actions, which I wrote about in Episode 8.
When I was growing up, I had several books that were favourites. The Berenstain Bears was one such series. In the Berenstain Bears the young cub was an adventurer. His father, however, always needed to prove himself. And in doing so, he invariably created chaos for those around him … and for himself. But the father had self-honesty, at least of a sort. At the end of each story he’d say: “This is what you should NOT do. So let that be a lesson for you!” … as if it were all by design.
In Episode 10 of this series, I raised attention to what quantifiably defines a good leader: (i) lead by example, (ii) admit mistakes and (iii) see quality in others.
I will add one more: Wisdom.
Yes … not all contexts are our own making. This is to be sure. But how we respond is. When you find yourself in a challenging context … ask yourself these questions:
“Do my actions increase or decrease the effort I have to make, or am I transferring my effort onto others?”
“Do my actions increase or decrease my personal responsibility for the context that was created, or am I transferring my responsibility onto others?”
“Do my actions take ownership of their result, or am I transferring the consequence (blame) of those results onto others?” (... and yet taking credit when all goes well?)
“Did I create the context?”
“Am I being honest?”
Someone jumps in the water. You - being kind - attempt to save them. They are thankful. Though thankful, they take no responsibility for the fact that they jumped in. They may even blame others for being pushed. Or more insipid they narrate that the foolishness of jumping in was actually ‘in service of another’s benefit’. Indeed, almost every bad action that has been perpetrated was done ‘in service of others’, from the Crusades to emotional abuse to entitlement. Often unknowingly. Often strategically.
"...it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the qualities that I have described, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have these qualities and always to observe them is dangerous, and to appear to have them is useful. A prince should appear merciful, faithful, kind, religious, upright, but should be flexible enough to make use of the opposite qualities when it is necessary."
- Chapter XVIII, The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli 1513.
Then they notice that you pulled them out of the water onto a rug that is now wet, and get angry that you ruined it - since after all, had you cared, you’d have anticipated this and pull them out ‘over there’!
The above is a variation of what is called the ‘abusive cycle’. When we blame others, we eliminate the very thing we have control over … ourselves. We might try to self-justify by saying to ourselves that “the situation was beyond my control”. Or get angry which will trigger certainty in your brain. And yet not taking ownership actually disempowers your brain and increases your fear of the future: As you still don’t want ‘that thing’ to happen, the only way to ensure it doesn’t is to either control the one who you blamed, or force them to take ownership.
Taking ownership empowers. Which is why saying sorry (and knowing why you’re saying sorry) is good, not only for the other person’s brain, but also for yours! Though a step into vulnerability, it’s a proactive step towards self-realisation. And an important aside is that you’ll be more likely to increase another’s respect towards you for it (though we so often fear / assume the opposite).
As we’ve discussed before, but just to remind ourselves - since it’s important, is that true freedom lives, not where things are wonderful. It lives where things are difficult, challenging … in conflict … in poor health (as in the case of Pat). When good things happen, it’s pretty obvious what one should do next: Keep doing what you were doing before. When things are difficult, that’s when you have the freedom of choice. You can look at the obvious: Anger, Jealousy, Hate, Despair, etc. Or you can look away from the obvious. Attention is less about what you look at. It’s what you look away from.
A leader is the personification of a set of ideals and principles. It’s a concept. It’s the embodiment of a set of principles and ideals that transcend the person. Doing it well requires deconstructing oneself. What is true for a president is true in any form of leading, whether in business or in love. Which is why great leaders look away from what is for their benefit if it is not serving all the people / institutions / structures they lead.
We are often blind to ourselves.
Which is why the best person to reveal you to you is usually not you. It’s someone else. Hence the importance of pursuing self-honesty, not simply on one’s own. But with those who truly care for you. Caring does not mean enabling. Nor does it necessarily mean validating you. It means wanting to understand you … to discover the truth of you … to help you uncover the assumptions and biases that are foundations of your actions (good or bad).
It could even require questioning the identity that you define yourself by.
Which is why true care, friendship, support, love is a risk. Enablers prioritise validation over understanding. Enablers polarise you away from wisdom … turning you into a caricature of you. Through enabling, they encourage the fears and ways-of-being that ultimately do not serve you or are harmful to others.
(Sound familiar in today’s politics?)
So surround yourself with people who want to understand you - even if that understanding challenges who you thought to be true about you.
And finally, don’t weaponise the uncertainty of others … or indeed of yourself. This is an all-to-common strategy in relationships from a leader and its citizens, to a loving couple. Your brain hates uncertainty. If you’ve been reading these blogs, you’ll know that it was evolutionarily a bad idea to ‘not know’. Which is why one of our greatest needs is closure … to experience that gorgeous moment when we go from not-knowing to knowing. Your brain is wired to crave resolution. But this craving can be used against you … and you will likely have used it against another person.
A scenario might be this. You and I are in a relationship, and you ask me a question about something that is of importance to you, but which I have some agency over. Rather than give you a clear answer. I’m vague. Aloof. Implicit. I create ambiguity in my response. I might justify this to myself by being ‘in service’ (“they wouldn’t understand” … or “they might get upset”). Or, if I’m even more Machiavellian, I might have been the creator of the ambiguity (uncertainty) in the first place. By creating the ambiguity about something that is important to you, and being the only person who can resolve that same ambiguity, I’ve created a power dynamic (purposefully or otherwise) that disempowers you and empowers me. Put simply, I now have an element of control over you. Creating uncertainty in another person is related to one of the ‘Four Horsemen’ of relationships called ‘stonewalling’, which destroys love. Going silent. Refusing to engage. Creating - or at least keeping - another person in ambiguity. It happens all the time.
You see it in the run-up to elections, when uncertainty will be created and the hopeful leader will claim that they are the only ones who can create closure. It’s why our current leadership is creating doubt over the election. It’s a form of manipulation. It’s using perception against you. It’s powerful. It’s strategic. It’s Machiavellian. But it’s also obvious once you know how / where to look.
And it happens often in loving, caring relationships … far more often than people realise.
So, when possible, make the implicit explicit. It’s generous. Decrease uncertainty where you can. It’s a risk since honesty of self can create vulnerability. But it’s also how you create life.
Why does any of this matter?
A denouement: Pursue GRACE, as embodied by Pat. Grace is an unsung hero. Grace is hard because it's called upon when contexts are hard … in contexts in which grace matters.
Harder still is to see and accept when we’re not being graceful.
Written by: Beau Lotto.
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