Fellows of the Human Spirit

Fellows of the Human Spirit

I love this recent article by Margaret Wheatley. As it was buried in a larger document (see p32-34), I thought I’d extract it and share it here.

Meg uses the term “Warriors” (explained in the piece), in a way that for me seems very much like my understanding and usage of the term “Fellowship”. Hence the title chosen by me here.

Margaret Wheatley

An invitation

For many years now, I have been inspired, motivated and comforted by a prophecy from Tibetan Buddhism of impending darkness and the summoning of the warriors. Although this word ‘warrior’ has connotations of force and aggression, it means something very different in Tibetan culture. The Tibetan word for warrior, pawo, means one who is brave, one who vows never to use aggression. I practice for this kind of warriorship in a lineage based on the prophecy of the Shambhala warriors. My vow is to refrain, as best I can, from adding to the aggression and fear of this time.

The story (and prophecy) of Shambhala and its warriors concerns an ancient kingdom of wise and conscious people, ruled by enlightened kings. Its people were unusual in that they had no anxiety. Free from fear, they were able to create an enlightened society.

The prophecy states that when all life on Earth is in danger, and the future of sentient life hangs by the frailest of threads, the kingdom of Shambhala emerges. You cannot tell who these warriors are by their appearance; they look like normal people. Their weapons are compassion and insight. Well-trained in their use, they go into the corridors of power and dismantle the beliefs and behaviours that are destroying life. When I first heard this, I was moved by the description of the warriors. Perhaps you see yourself in this description, or are curious to see what it might mean. This is my invitation to you, and all of us caught in systems of degenerate power. We are free to choose a new role for ourselves, to transform our grief, outrage, frustration and exhaustion into the skills of insight and compassion, to serve this dark time as warriors for the human spirit.

Images for this time

I’m sitting on the banks of the Virgin river in Zion National Park in Utah, my favourite place on the planet. The river has been flowing through this magnificent canyon for two million years, creating one of earth’s most sacred places. It’s a dry winter, the river is low, ambling along. I’ve been here at other times when it’s fierce and destructive. Next time it will be different again. I’ve learned a lot from rivers. They take many forms, yet never lose their way, to the ocean.

The Hopi Elders describe our time as a river flowing very fast, great and swift. They warn us not to hold on to the shore because those who do “will be torn apart and suffer greatly.” They encourage us to push off into the middle of the river and to keep our heads above water. These river images however, even the turbulent ones, no longer describe this time for me. and what I’m seeing and how I’m feeling. It is Yeats’ dark vision that speaks to me, written in 1919 in the troubled years of the first World War:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned …”

A confession of innocence

Many of us, certainly I’d describe myself in these terms, were anxiously engaged in “the ceremony of innocence.” We didn’t think we were innocents, but we were. We thought we could change the world. We even believed that, with sufficient will and passion, we could “create a world,” one that embodied our aspirations for justice, equality, opportunity, peace, a world where, in Paulo Freire’s terms, “it would be easier to love.” This vision, this hope, this possibility motivated me for most of my life. It still occasionally seduces me but I’m learning to resist the temptation. I no longer believe that we can save the world.

Powerful, life-destroying dynamics have been set in motion which cannot be stopped. We’re on a disastrous course with each other and with the planet. We’ve lost track of our best human qualities and forgotten the real sources of satisfaction, meaning and joy. I feel clear in saying that greed, self-interest and coercive power are destroying the very life force of this planet. I don’t know whether such destruction is intentional or not, but I observe it happening everywhere. I was hit in the face with this while in South Africa in November 2011. South Africa is the country of my heart, always teaching me about the depths of human experience – I’ve been working there since 1995, this was my fourteenth visit. In the years of Mandela, hope was palpable. Everyone seemed to be starting projects to tackle huge social problems, eager to work with others to create the New South Africa. They understood the complexity of all the issues, they knew it was ‘a long walk to freedom’ and they had great faith in their future.

But now, for many reasons, hope is hard to find and the good people who have created successful projects and built effective NGOs are exhausted & demoralized. They keep doing their work, but it’s now a constant struggle. They struggle for funds, they struggle with inept, corrupt bureaucracy, they struggle with the loss of community and the rise of self-interest, they struggle with the indifference of the newly affluent. The dream of a new nation of possibility, equality, and justice has fallen victim to the self-serving behaviours of those with power. Please do not think this is only true in South Africa. It’s happening everywhere, as you may have noticed.

Indestructible motivation

By stating that we cannot change the world, I do not intend to bury our motivation in despair. Quite the contrary. My intention is that we do our work with greater resolve and energy, with more delight and confidence, even as we understand that it won’t turn this world around. Our work is essential; we just have to hold it differently. This was beautifully described by Vaclav Havel, leader of the Velvet Revolution, the poet playwright who then became president of the new Czech Republic: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

How do we find this deep confidence that, independent of results, our work is the right work for us to be doing? How do we give up needing hope to be our primary motivator? How do we replace hope of creating change with confidence that we’re doing the right work? Hope is such a dangerous source of motivation. It’s an ambush, because what lays in wait is hope’s ever-present companion, fear – the fear of failing, the despair of disappointment, the bitterness and exhaustion that can overtake us when our best, most promising efforts are rebuked, undone, ignored, destroyed. As someone commented, “Expectation is premeditated disappointment.”

My great teachers these days are people who no longer need hope in order to do their work, even though their projects and organizations began with bright, hope-filled dreams. As “the blood-dimmed tide” of greed, fear, and oppression drowns out their voices and washes away their good work, they become more committed to their work, not because it will succeed, but just because it is right for them to be doing it. I watch their inner struggles and bouts with despair, but mostly what I notice is their perseverance and confidence. They see how bad it is, they know it is getting worse, they realize their work won’t create the changes they have worked hard for all these years. Yet they continue to do their work because they know it is theirs to do. Sometimes they say, “I can’t not do this.” Other times they ask, “What else would I be doing if not this?”

These brave people are true warriors. Seeing as clearly as they can, hearts as open as they can bear, they keep doing their work. They know how systems of power work and they try to discern wise actions. Though in frequent battles with politicians, leaders and bureaucrats, they strive to keep their hearts open, to not succumb to anger and aggression. Work is filled with constant challenges, and they know there will be many more.

Perhaps you see yourself already working in this way, persevering because you feel you have no other choice. Or perhaps you still feel you can save the world by work- ing harder, faster or by connecting with others to take on big change projects. My only request is that as you do your work, you become curious about finding a more enduring source of motivation than needing your work to bear fruit, to be successful in creating positive and enduring change. Beyond hope and fear, there is clarity available, the clarity of knowing that this work is ours to do no matter what. We may succeed, we may fail – but no matter what, we will continue to persevere on behalf of other human beings.

As we do this, we learn how to be warriors for the human spirit, and we find the few others who have also claimed this role.

– Bob

Further Reading

Margaret Wheatley Archive

1 comment
  1. Or, in the words of T. S. Eliot:
    “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
    For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
    For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
    But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
    Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
    So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

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