Inbox stalking is never an attractive avocation. Three days have passed since my brave little email swooshed into cyberspace, hopes clinging to it like an invisible attachment. On day three, the awaited reply dings in. “Yes, I’d be happy to meet with you.” Back and forth exchanges result in a date several weeks out, after my second chemo treatment. Ecstatic, I begin obsessing. What does a bald woman wear to an informational interview with a leadership guru?
Months before the diagnosis, I participated in a multi-part workshop on “adaptive leadership,” much hyped as new and exciting. It’s rare that leadership theories turn out to be either. Marty Linsky, global consultant, Harvard Kennedy School of Government faculty member, and co-author of Leadership on the Line, changed my thinking.
The temperature had spiked in the posh hotel’s conference room, without anyone touching the thermostat. Sweaters and jackets were removed, absently placed on the backs of chairs Our sole focus: the compact instructor in the suit and tie, commanding the front of the room, stealthily pissing off his students. “How can you possibly know what you believe in, until what you say you believe in comes into conflict with something else you believe in? I always said I had two number one values. I believed in self-actualization and I would never do anything to hurt my kids. Then I got divorced. When I had to choose between myself and my kids, I chose myself.”
That did it. In a room of middle-aged professional adults, Marty’s choice of example was a direct hit. Only a nanosecond of shocked and wounded silence passed before an angry hand flew up. The bait had been taken.
The hand belonged to a woman in her forties. She spoke from the perceived safety of the round table where she sat with her five colleagues. “I was in an abusive relationship,” she stated. “I protected my children by leaving. I put my children first.”
“Yes,” agreed Marty, facing her defensive assertion with the neutral calm of a Caucasian ninja. “And you chose a divorce, which your children experienced as painful. In their eyes, they were harmed. You made a choice between competing values. In seeking to protect your children, you hurt them as you freed yourself.” Silence greeted his response. Marty continued, “It’s really tough to face those kids, who you have promised you would never do anything to hurt. For me, that was thirty years ago and, to this day, if you ask my kids what was the worst thing that ever happened to them, they would say it was the divorce. Even more painful was looking in the mirror and seeing a different person than the one I wanted to I believe I was.”
Riveted, I watched with rising discomfort as the participant continued to argue with Marty. She could not hear his point, nor could many of the others. They were too busy flopping, like this woman, on the floor of the boat Marty had so neatly reeled them into. Sending us off to break, he prepped us for the next conversation. “We are loyal to our own ideas of ourselves. When this is threatened, the heat gets raised.”
“What is he playing at?” the participants asked each other over coffee and small Danish pastries, reluctant to discuss their own competing values. The women, congregating in the restroom, told each other that men didn’t understand divorce. Uncomfortable, I sat alone at my table. Reflecting.
When Dad divorced Mom, what values had come into conflict for him? What had he prioritized? Did he consciously choose? And what had I prioritized to reach this point of career ennui? What beliefs were in conflict?
Now I was in dangerous territory. My hands circled the too-small hotel coffee cup. What idea of myself was feeling threatened right now? Observing Marty, fully present and alive, radiating passion for what he was doing, my stomach churned. A familiar story of myself was playing in my head, the one that tells me I don’t deserve to be successful, to go after what I really want. The one that tells me the life I have lived to date, even with all I have accomplished, is nothing more than a pale version of what my life was really supposed to be. If only I knew what that was. But that was a misdirection. I knew what I wanted. I wanted to stand in my own brilliance, like Marty Linsky had just done. I wanted to inspire people to change their lives and their worlds. I wanted to do this free of concerns about what others think of me.
Nibbling my stale Danish, a hard truth. I have been more loyal to the idea of myself as a woman who is not living up to her potential than I have been to the idea that I am a woman who is worthy of, and has already realized, real success. I have spent more time cultivating, watering, and feeding the destructive belief of what I think I don’t deserve than nurturing the belief of what I do.
Ouch. This facing of truths stung. It challenged and cut through the righteousness upon which my self-efficacy was anchored. No wonder the other women were hiding in the restroom.
When the training resumed, definitions gave form to my break-time ah-hah. An adaptive challenge is one in which only the people with the problem can solve the problem; adaptive leadership, the activity of mobilizing people to recognize and solve their own adaptive challenges. It was working so far for me.
Disquieted but engaged, I counted the days until the next training. Even after the cancer diagnosis, I wanted to believe I could still attend. That proved unrealistic. The full hysterectomy and cancer-staging surgery, the burst incision, and the every-three-weeks for four months treatment schedule made continued participation impossible. But the adaptive leadership experience stayed with me.
Post-surgery, moving gingerly between a horizontal position on my bed to a horizontal position on the couch, I pondered the life choices leading up to this cancer moment, the ideas of myself to which I had declared loyalty. That building an innovative gay youth organization in a homophobic state was only a minor achievement. That spending the first fifteen years of my professional life in social work and nonprofits was noble. That success didn’t have to be financial. That I was a worthy speaker and consultant, good-enough-for-Maine, but not ready a for a prime-time big-city career. That a White lesbian from Northern New England can only go so far in this world. I knew when I hit upon on a self-deception – each stressful realization triggered sudden hot flashes, dripping sweaty anxiety across my body. Lying in bed, hand on bandaged belly, damp from the illuminating hot flashes, I knew no one else could swoop in and fix this problem. Yeah, a doctor could surgically remove the cancer, shoot me up with chemicals, hope to obliterate all the cells. But I’m responsible for my beliefs. I’m responsible for my life.
“Change means loss,” Marty had declared. “Change always means loss. Even if it’s a good change.” Ovarian cancer is definitely a change, definitely a loss. Loss with a capital L. I ran through the roll call of Losses: health, hair, uterus, work, income – even my parent’s marriage made the list. They all require giving something up. They all require telling a different story if the outcome of my life is going be different. Change will mean making difficult choices between what is precious and what is expendable, and it’s not just the tangible stuff. It’s the intangibles that keep us stuck. Until we are brave enough, desperate enough, to let them go.
In the January light, my eyes traced the crack in the plaster ceiling above the bed I share with Ramona, my relationship with her the only thing not causing hot flashes at the moment. The crack ends at the bare light bulb, the fixture broken years ago when we moved into our home. Staring at the gray bulb, I asked myself: Am I willing to change the story? Is the old one expendable yet?
I climbed out from under the covers and emailed Marty.
© 2011 Cathy Kidman