A collection of short essays that is astounding in its loveliness and profundity all the way through, Consolations is one of those books that can always speak to me at any moment – as the curator of my memories and as the ancestor of my future self – and offer something fresh. Each time I crack it open, different words call to my latest unfolding wondering or to my current search for elucidation on one thorny subject or another (Forgiveness, Genius, Naming, Rome, Courage, Denial, Pilgrim, Hiding, Maturity…).
Perhaps the most practical – and maybe the longest – sentence in the entire book is at the ending of “Beginning” (p. 31):
It is always hard to believe that the courageous step is so close to us, that it is closer than we could ever imagine, that in fact we already know what it is, and that the step is simpler, more radical than we had thought: just picking up the pen or the wood chisel, just picking up the instrument or the phone, which is why we so often prefer the story to be more elaborate, our identities to be safely clouded by fear, why we want the horizon to remain always in the distance, the promise never fully and simply made, the essay longer than it needs to be and the answer safely in the realm of impossibility.
Certainly a Beginning – that tiny yet momentous act of transforming the impossible into the possible with our mere mind – is risky and even perilous. It is radical and subversive and magical, and we know it. How incomprehensibly powerful we are – and how terrifying that is! Also, as a leader it can seem as though everything you believe yourself to be, and what you believe you are seen to be by others, is at stake in starting something new. This is why understanding one’s less productive habits around Beginnings (e.g., the tendency to fudge or hedge them, to speak vaguely or with mixed messages, to move too slowly, or to ask others to dive in without getting your own feet wet, etc.) is an essential self-awareness practice of effective leaders.
One productive habit that I encourage my clients to develop around risk-taking is to frame the risk as an experiment: the purpose of experimentation is to gather data, and any information that results is therefore useful. The experimental mindset mitigates our culture’s seductive pressure to quickly declare judgment (succeed or fail, lose or win, good or bad) and offers us instead the more generative and energizing invitation to learn, play and adapt. That said, there are times in our lives when contemplating Beginning is so frightening that the only truly motivating question that remains is, “What’s at risk if you don’t take the courageous step?” As Brene Brown points out, there is no courage without vulnerability, so vulnerability is necessary to Beginning, too. Fortunately, Vulnerability is another word Whyte rhapsodizes – particularly poignantly – in Consolations (although it’s even more devastating to hear Whyte read the mini-essay aloud in his own voice). He also takes on Courage, which he defines on page 49 as “the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work; a future.”
For more on David Whyte’s poetry and philosophy, I recommend his breath-taking interview with Krista Tippett for On Being, “The Conversational Nature of Reality,” which I reviewed a few years ago in this blog. To deeply explore the theme of Beginning in a live online forum with David Whyte, check out “Start Close In,” a webinar series he is offering for three consecutive Sundays this month, starting on the 10th.