The silencing: learning to embrace “unknowing”
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke
I have never been a big fan of linear models like the Kubler-Ross grief curve and all the U’s out there, I’ve always felt they over-simplified processes that are complex. When I look at them as patterns and not linear sequences, sometimes they can be helpful to make sense of my own experience. I came across an article by Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg recently that describes three rough stages we go through when facing a crisis like COVID19. These are Emergency. Regression. Recovery. I am involved in many projects where people are journaling their experience of navigating the pandemic in a tool called Sensemaker®, and we can see anecdotal evidence of these patterns. It also resonates with my own experience:
“In the beginning, when the emergency becomes clear, team energy rises, and performance goes up. Almost all of us have unknown reserves. As the executives’ experiences reflect, this reaction feels full of purpose and much gets done. Leaders tend to become the best version of themselves in this phase, and teams instinctively pull together and become highly productive. Few people question the leaders’ authority, and teams work in hectic, but harmonious, ways. The urgency created by the shock paves the way for rapid decision-making and turbocharges teams’ bias for action.”
In the beginning of COVID19, I felt motivated to write and speak; words seem to flow easily. I felt that two decades of working in uncertainty and life in a complex country like South Africa prepared me and provided me with a unique perspective. I felt I had something useful to say. Then all of a sudden my words just seemed to dry up … I suddenly found myself in a strange “silencing”.
Reality sets in, the uncertainty, ever-unfolding trauma, and monotony takes its toll. People become tired and irritable; they lose their sense of purpose.
Regression is one of the mind’s ways to defend itself from confusion and insecurity by retreating to an emotional comfort zone.
This loss of words, the “silencing” is what this regression looks like for me.
I love words. Poetry and good writing have been two of the things that have kept me sane in these strange times of navigating a global pandemic. I’ve always been an avid reader, and speaking and writing have become key forms of not only self-expression but also sensemaking and meaning-making.
In the face of the near unimaginable trauma and grief of a global pandemic suddenly my words felt inadequate. I suddenly felt the (self-imposed) pressure of needing to produce something deep, profound even. Nothing I wrote or said seemed to add value. It felt like original thought suddenly deserted me — the complexity and gravity of the situation called for the wisdom of others wiser than me. My computer filled up with half-written posts that kept taunting me whenever I opened my word processor.
Then, while we were still making sense of lockdowns and exponential viral surges, we were confronted with the horrific killing of George Floyd. Protests against systemic racism erupted everywhere. And suddenly every word became a potential minefield. Not speaking out in support of the long-overdue ending of systemic racism feels wrong. But saying something as a privileged, white South African also feels fraught. Am I being performative? Am I making it all about whiteness? Is it an expression of white guilt or fragility? And on and on … I don’t know what the “right” words are, so I choose silence.
Not much is known about COVID19, but one thing that is indisputable about this pandemic is that it has forced pre-existing faultlines in our societies and systems into the open to such an extent that they can no longer be ignored. Maybe it has done the same to our internal fault lines. Perhaps all of the issues and traumas we have been suppressing and avoiding have now surfaced, demanding attention.
The shame of “not knowing”.
Uncertainty creates anxiety, not only because of the unpredictability and seeming loss of control but also because “not knowing” can induce shame. We live in a society that values “knowing”. In many ways, we are habituated into equating our self-worth to knowing, having answers and being right. When we were children, many of us were shamed by teachers for not knowing the answer to a question or scoring low on a test. Now, as adults, no matter our status, we still experience that shame. Whether we are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, Presidents of nations, or stay at home parents … our identities and sense of self are often framed by narratives such as “if you don’t have the answers you are incompetent” or “good leaders would know what to do”.
The problem is that in a complex world, especially in the midst of a global pandemic, economic calamity, socio-political instability and the climate crisis looming large, knowing is impossible. Many of us fear shame almost as much as we fear death, now with COVID19, as Eliat Aram says; we are forced to face both.
I know that in complexity “answers are transient, but questions remain valuable” … But I suddenly found myself in a space where I didn’t even know the questions anymore.
In this context, projections are powerful. The projections of others onto us, e.g. that you are an expert or the Messiah leader can be paralysing if you know that you don’t know. It is tempting to compare ourselves to others, especially those who don’t seem to be suffering the same silencing and instead seem to be in perfect flow. When we do that the shame multiplies, but the truth is that there will always be someone wiser, more articulate, more original than you. We also operate on different rhythms, I may be working through the silence now, while others are in flow, but those tables can turn at any time. I’ve learned that I will never find my own authentic voice by trying to measure up to others.
So what am I learning through all of this? Maybe to embrace the silence and the unknowing. Maybe it is in the silence where I can discover new questions. questions. But also to not allow myself to be silenced … to keep writing, keep contributing and push through the discomfort. Hopefully, this is the way to move towards the third phase, Recovery: where we start to imagine and live into new possibilities.
So where am I now … I am pondering what the questions are that are seeking voices brave enough, or humble enough to ask them? Maybe the silence is an invitation to finally address the questions that have patiently been waiting for us … questions that have no right to go away.
SOMETIMES by David Whyte
if you move carefully
through the forest
like the ones
in the old stories
who could cross
a shimmering bed of dry leaves
without a sound,
to a place
whose only task
is to trouble you
but frightening requests
conceived out of nowhere
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere.
Requests to stop what
you are doing right now,
to stop what you
while you do it,
that can make
that have patiently
waited for you,
that have no right
to go away.