The Heart Aroused is a great read for anyone grappling with what it means to keep humanity in the daily experience of work; what David Whyte calls the ‘preservation of soul’. The insights, challenges and distinctions are illuminating, but unrelenting. Whyte posits that our work can be a well of creativity and joy, but the consuming needs of organisations may be an arid desert in which only the Apollonic and intellectual sides of our persona are required, rendering our soul life akin to that of Tolkein’s character Gollum, in the dark underground of our psyche.
A definition of soul?
Whyte helps us out with that in the opening pages:
‘The indefinable essence of a person’s spirit and being.’
The place, if you like, where we experience loss, sorrow, joy and passion. Alan Sieler in Coaching to the Human Soul (2003) points to the overlap between our internal narratives, emotions and physiology as the locus for our experience of soul.
As human beings, we’re destined to seek and find meaning to life, learning and work. I’ve previously written about ‘the peril of positivity’, the popular antidote to any moments of sadness or despair. Whyte takes the discussion much further.
‘Preservation of the soul means giving up our wish, in the scheduled workplace, for immunity from the unscheduled meeting with sorrow and hardship. It means learning the price of happiness… Above all, preserving the soul means preserving a life a man or woman can truly call their own.’
What does it mean to call your life your own?
The journey begins by welcoming the ‘contemplative splendours of self doubt’ which Whyte suggests rather than quash, we welcome as a ‘warming intelligence’ refusing to shirk the learning we find in solitude and learning the worth of real relationships.
In my consulting work, leaders often raise their concerns about ‘imposter syndrome’ or ‘self doubt’. An element of shame or unworthiness hovers in the conversation with assumptions this terrible affliction is something to be overcome or at least pushed into the lower regions of our minds (enter again Gollum if we’re not careful). What will become of me if I start to question my efficacy and practice? Self doubt/imposter syndrome can help us identify useful questions which if we choose to grapple, can bring greater depths of self-awareness and understanding. This is good, and according to Daniel Goleman, essential for successful leadership. Perhaps we should begin to welcome these soul searching moments and consider what they can offer us?
As a poet, and previously ecologist, Whyte draws on stories and nature taking us through a journey including Dante’s Comedia, Beowulf, and poetry by William Blake and Coleridge.
Much like Bruno Bettleheim and Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Whyte draws meaning from traditional and modern stories into our everyday lives. In Beowulf, he likens the deer (who would rather meet its death on the edge of the lake from the chasing hounds rather than enter the dark waters of the lake and save itself) to moments we experience at work. Instead of finding the courage to ask a challenging question, present the unpalatable data in a meeting, or refuse to engage in unethical practice, we shrink and sacrifice our soul to the corporation rather than risk the consequences of speaking truth to power and finding ourselves no longer belonging to the tribe we’ve idolised for so long.
Usefully, we’re encouraged to question if we have confidence in our struggles.
Are these struggles genuinely ours, or someone else’s that we’ve somehow adopted to postpone addressing our own inner struggles?
Are these struggles worth our time and effort?
As managers and leaders; when we see those we lead struggle, can we give room and understanding for experimentation and potential failure, or do we take over and micromanage, frustrating those around us who are denied the opportunity to learn and grow?
The question of ‘burnout’ makes for challenging reading. The metaphor of fire is frequently used when we talk about our passions and hopes, we even have an emoji for ‘you’re on fire’. We bring our fire and passion into the workplace which spurs us on to great speed, and sometimes great heights. The organisation which simultaneously supports and oppresses, can, if we’re not careful, consume us. I hear everyday on Twitter from colleagues in education declaring they can no longer give what’s required. They are exhausted, spent, burned out. This can be shattering, and experienced as deep loss.
I don’t underestimate the magnitude of these experiences; the journey forward from here is hard. Often it is the journey the soul is most in need of taking to ensure survival. The strategic mind hopes to have power over experience, says Whyte, the soul seeks power through experience. As an offer of hope, every day I see people who, with space, time, thought and a reimagining of the life they hoped for, emerge from burnout with new energy, direction and congruence, taking radical steps to a new beginning, gently letting their former selves rest in past successes and failures.
‘A great deal of the exhaustion that comes from work can be attributed to losing sight of the very world we are serving… Lose your primary entanglement with the agonising beauties of the natural world and you need tremendous lashings of money and power to make up for it.’
The dedicated trekker in Whyte is apparent in his choice of poetry and books, and his urging us to enjoy our natural surroundings. The richness of nature, the notions of journeys and paths, the waxing and waning of the moon, the depth and fury of the ocean are all present in his writing, alongside a call to us all to give ourselves time to enjoy the rich diversity and beauty of the world as we reconnect with and nurture our soul-lives.
Last thoughts; this was a re-read for me. I first read this 7 years ago, the book is nearly 30 years old. The writing is beautiful, the distinctions exquisite, the poems and stories introduced an education in themselves. A treasure to be shared with friends, family and perhaps some colleagues too. Enoy!
I should be content
to look at a mountain
for what it is
and not as a comment on my life.