Saturday, September 25, 2004

On cliffs, oceans, and horizons 

A lone figure stands on a clifftop. At his feet, the ground falls away in giant tumbled blocks of stone to the rocky shoreline below. Beyond, the open sea stretches to the horizon. Looking down, he sees waves breaking over the rocks sending up showers of spray. Their sound reaches up, but its distance hides the power of those waves. Further out though, the ocean appears quieter. The sun is past its zenith, starting to sink towards evening; although it’s only afternoon, flashes of purple and gold reflected from the water’s surface hint at the glories of the sunset yet to come.

There’s no path, but the man thinks he sees the start of a way amongst the rocks, and takes some hesitant steps forwards, down through the tumbled blocks, drawn by the brightness of the shimmering sea, wanting somehow to follow the sun over the far horizon.

Looking further down though, he sees the way steepen. What had looked like a path becomes harder to follow; he sees that before long he’ll be forced to climb rather than scramble; images form in his mind of a body clinging desperately to a rock face, unable to move forward or back and at the mercy of the incoming tide. Unwilling for the moment to face that way he turns away looking for another path, and in that moment, the land behind him, forgotten for a while in the excitement of his quest, comes into his field of view, and so into his mind. Back from the cliff’s edge, the land is smoother, softer, safer. Below a skyscape of perfect blue studded with a few equally perfect white clouds lies a landscape of gently rolling green hills and fields.

In that instant, the balance in his mind shifts, the way down the cliff suddenly becomes too precipitous, too dangerous; the rolling hills offer an easier path, attractive in its own way, although the landscape that way is also somehow smaller, less expansive. With a secret sigh, he retraces his steps up over the cliff edge, and enters once more the risk-free world of safety and security.

It takes several paragraphs to tell, but that set of images appeared fully formed in my mind ten years ago as I walked out of the company head office, down the steps and out into the square, having just accepted a temporary assignment with the company that 3 months earlier had announced its intention to dispense with my services, along with those of two and a half thousand others. It was 4 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon; my severance pay-off was already in the bank; an hour earlier I had been facing a mere ten more hours as an employee of the company before I was free of the shackles of employment. That’s pretty close to the cliff’s edge. I walked on down the street, past the iron railings that fronted the building; railings that suddenly seemed to take on a new significance – on Monday I’d be returning through them, contained once more behind corporate bars. Ninety-nine people out of a hundred would have congratulated me on escaping immediate unemplyment by such a narrow margin. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that instead I’d just missed out on an opportunity for amazing adventure by that very same margin. So near, and yet so far.

I’d had a dream, but no real plans. A colleague and I were going to set up our own consultancy business, offering the coaching skills we’d learned through being facilitators in a massive corporate change programme, and applying those skills in the particular context of the organisational philosophies of W. Edwards Deming and the statistical process control methodologies of Walter Shewart. We did a fair bit of research, talked to as many people as we could who were already doing something similar, and the more we talked, the more I began to doubt. With a family to support, I needed assured income; he on the other hand knew that, at a pinch, he and his wife could manage on her income alone. So we went our separate ways, and my dream faded. Even though two years later I eventually took the step into unemployment, this time it wasn’t a step over the cliff’s edge, merely a minor struggle from one sheltered valley to the next.

In his book that I quoted from a couple of days ago, David Whyte talks of a chance encounter that was to change the course of his life. An ex-drug addict tells him the story of how his attempted suicide became a turning point. Laying sprawled across a window box in the pouring rain on a twelfth floor balcony, too physically weak to make the final effort to throw himself into oblivion, his face presses into the soil and he starts to see the micro-landscape of the window box transformed into a full scale landscape, as his hands start to mould the soil creating hills and rivers, transplanting seedlings to make a new world. He explains to Whyte how this germ of an idea led him into becoming a landscape gardener:

“We all have our own ground to work, you know. You have yours, too. You just have to find out what it is. But you know what? It is right on the edge of yourself. At the cliff edge of life. That’s the edge you go to. Put yourself in conversation with that edge no matter how frightening it seems. Look down over that edge. It’s a bit terrifying to begin with but then you’ll recognise a bit of territory you can work, something you can step out onto. It was there all the time for me, when I look back, just on the other side of a too, too familiar window, out of which I had not been looking.”

Whyte sat up all night, going over in his mind his own experiences, his own ground.

“By dawn” Whyte says, “I was staring out over the far sea, involved in a strange inversion of the stranger’s experience, for I felt as if I was new ground and the vast sea was reaching into my contained territory and molding and shaping a future life. All the hours of the early morning, I looked out, feeling a kind of magnetism to that far windswept ocean, as if aware of the forces in my future that would draw me into my work, whatever form it would take, over the horizons and unknown seas to the west.”

I’m understating wildly if I say that the similarities in language and imagery between Whyte’s story and my own are striking. I was even going to call my company Horizons. Time after time after time after time I come across what seem to be messages pointing the way. I ignore them all resolutely. So far. Maybe its time I looked for some ground to work.

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