The Canary as Leader

by Miki Kashtan

Earlier this week I was talking with a friend while doing my exercises. It’s a bit of a ritual that we have developed when she started calling me every day some time after the Shiva ended (for my sister, Inbal, see “Loss, Empty Space, and Community“). I do my exercises, sometimes she does hers, and we talk about our day, or anything else that comes up. In the midst of exercising and talking, I realized the obvious: not doing well is just the way it must be during this period. There is no hidden deficiency anywhere in me or elsewhere, and there is nothing I or anyone else can do to make me do well.

Although this bare and simple clarity came to me as a fresh insight, I knew it already when I was scrambling to find ways of creating community. Although I couldn’t figure out how to move towards the kind of community I would most dearly want to have, with people living close by and being involved in each other’s lives, I did take one small step as the Shiva was winding down. I set up a weekly call with a small group of people who happened to be here at that time. That strategy emerged while talking with them about how I could remain mindful, so I don’t fill the spaces with more unchosen things, so I remain true to the intention to have my life be purposeful, chosen, aligned. The purpose of these 30-minute calls was to hold me accountable to the task of moving through this period with choice and clarity, without overwhelm, and with support.

The first of these calls is already a blur. By the second, last Friday, I was already struggling to fully receive the support. I knew I needed it, because I was aware that I wasn’t managing on my own. The clearest evidence of this is about scheduling. For years now, well before Inbal was diagnosed with cancer, my life was overfull. Certainly, attending to as many responsibilities as I have been for years, and doing that on top of a significant and ongoing commitment to participating in Inbal’s care, was deeply unsustainable, and I had resigned myself to a high degree of stress.

I had hoped that removing the biggest stimulus for filling my schedule, namely my responsibility for my work, and having more human contact, support, and accountability, would make a significant dent. Instead, what’s been happening was that I ended up filling my days with other things instead of work, with just as little intentional, clear choice about what I was putting into my calendar and why.

I have no significant idea what is really needed to change my pattern of saying “yes” to one more thing and then one more thing. I only know that the call was a highlight, because of being a moment in which there’s no distraction; when I can have complete and total focus on the issue. That is the condition most conducive to talking openly about how I might transform the habit of disappearing into the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. Just the alignment of being with people and seeing what is going on allowed me to own the deep truth that I feel too small to be able to handle life on my own. For those moments, I could stop the incessant internal scramble to hold things together, and have that longed-for experience of being held, of my dignity and beauty being seen, and of my challenges being surrounded with tenderness.

While the specific thing I am struggling with – overscheduling without mindful choice – is perhaps unique to me, the need for community isn’t. The idea that we ought to be able to handle our challenges on our own is what I call into question. On my own, without support to see deeply what’s leading to my choices, I vanish into a profound resignation about making life work for me. With others’ support, I can gain strength and clarity.

Self-Sufficiency, Self-Reliance, and Self-Responsibility

I don’t actually have any expectation of myself that I “should” be able to handle life on my own. I don’t have that expectation of anyone, whether their specific challenges are similar (I know many of us are challenged around mindful scheduling) or vastly different. Rather, I mourn how life is structured in such a way that this expectation is the backdrop against which we form our sense of self. This is the fundamental myth of self-sufficiency.

This is the context in which I see myself as a canary: although we all need community, just like all animals need oxygen, some of us are more acutely affected than others. Being a canary means that I notice, in my body and heart, the devastating effect of this expectation, even in those moments of not finding a way to put myself on the line, become the exception, make myself vulnerable to judgment and ridicule. I still, despite decades of being an adult, have the fundamental sensibility of a small child who knows very clearly, with or without words, that we need others in order to attend to our own needs. Being a leader, in this context, to me means using the extra “canary” sensitivity for the benefit of all, serving to remind all of us of the essential need for community: love from the outside is fuel, in the absence of which we have to work harder to have the freedom to be human and express ourselves in the ways that we want.

I have written before, more than once, about the perils of the injunction to be self-sufficient. (See, for example, Choosing Interdependence.) What I have not done yet is to make the careful and difficult distinction between self-sufficiency and self-reliance. My way of seeing it is that self-sufficiency means having all the necessary resources to attend to my needs without having any need for anyone else. Again, I see this a profoundly misguided notion that contributes to isolation, pretense, and self-judgments. Self-reliance, on the other hand, is about having the capacity to mobilize my own resources, whatever they truly are, in order to attend to my needs.

Ironically, it seems to me that in modern, industrialized countries, we have less and less knowledge about what our true resources really are, both physically and emotionally. We are, generally, less knowledgeable about attending to our physical needs, more dependent on getting products and services for money. We are also, generally, less willing to step into discomfort in order to reach for something important to us, more prone to allowing safety, convenience, and ease rule the day.

Self-responsibility, to round up these confusing and somewhat overlapping concepts, is about taking responsibility for knowing what my needs are, ascertaining what resources are likely to attend to those needs, and taking action to mobilize these resources, whether from within (self-reliance) or from without. Part of it is not pretending to have more resources than I have. If I fully embrace my interdependent nature, I can become fully open to receiving from others as needed. In practical terms, taking charge of making life work means, amongst many things, learning how to make more and more requests instead of fewer and fewer. It entails parting ways with the ideal that we have internalized, the ideal that says that needing things is a weakness or a form of selfishness, or both.

Subtle Hiding

One of the things that I expressed on last week’s call was that people see me through the lens of how capable and functional I am, while the fundamental inability at the core of it is invisible, resulting in it being more difficult for me to get the support I need.

This invisibility also reproduces itself. Few people know how much unmanageability there is inside me, or how costly it is to constantly compensate for it. It’s not surprising, because the residual impulse towards self-sufficiency that continues to live in me makes it unlikely that I will expose it. Even when I have support, even when I talk with really close people several times a week, I still talk from the place of functioning, not from within the inability. I think of it in this way: the mindless scheduling is what I need community and support for, and my challenge in fully showing my struggle is what prevents me from accessing community and support when they are available.

I am clearer than ever that functioning at such high speed and with so little breathing space in between engagements means that I often don’t even know what I need, let alone devise strategies for attending to my needs. I discover all too late when I have overdone anything. I was not surprised when, at this part of the conversation, others started expressing a sense of companionship in recognizing the stress, loneliness, and despair that are the common costs of external competence.

Although I know that this struggle is common, and that the need for others is essential to humanity, I experience bouts of humiliation when I speak about it. The source of it is simply believing that others can mask the struggle better than me. Having people be on a call with me, to support me, when I know they are not likely to ask for that same kind of support for themselves, leaves me in considerable anguish and helplessness.

Simply put: my choices and my circumstances combine to create a profound dilemma for me. I am dependent on others in ways that I cannot avoid. Although I am fully embracing this dependence as part of my conviction about what it means to be human, the sense of being out of choice about something that others can choose is a level of vulnerability I am still working to accept fully. As much as I am aware of the need, I also have internalized, deeply, the expectation to manage on my own, and thus I undermine my ability to have access to support even when it’s there.

Instead of showing it all, I end up “packaging” myself again and again and again even with the closest people, as if to reassure them that I am OK even when I am not. It’s quite subtle, since I am constitutionally quite incapable of lying or hiding in a purposeful way. As best I can understand this, I want both my strength and my challenges to be seen at the same time, and deep inside I probably don’t trust that can happen. This experience leaves me feeling all alone even when surrounded by so much love.

I don’t have an expectation of a quick fix to this challenge, both because it’s so long-standing, and because I am up against so much in our culture that reinforces the pressure to function, to deny dependence, and to hide need. I do know, more clearly, where I am aiming. It’s not about figuring out, once and for all, the puzzle of my schedule – for that, I will continue to need support from others. Rather, it’s about continuing to move towards the discomfort, so I can be unabashed about my human needs and get the support necessary. The solution is not about some new method for time management, which would keep me trapped in functioning, and still alone. The only practice I am aiming for, if I can get there, is to notice the packaging and reach for a deeper level of truth that I can articulate. Telling my friend, on the phone, that I am not doing well, was the result of this renewed resolve. It is a form of self-responsibility, and a challenge to self-sufficiency.

There’s more to this, much more. About how we, as a species, have moved further and further away from immediacy of contact into more and more abstract, impersonal, and asynchronous forms of relating, which lend themselves to growing without limits. When I am able to hold that awareness, I have more understanding of my scheduling challenge as a common modern tragedy. Perhaps reminding myself of this tragedy will eventually allow me to release the experience of humiliation and come to trust the possibility that my own willingness to be so raw and exposed might truly inspire others to do the same; that my being a canary truly is a form of leadership, of inviting others to come back to our fundamental longings and align with our evolutionary makeup. I wonder why “Thou shalt not live alone” is not one of the commandments.

For now, all I know to do is to notice, within myself, how glad I am to share love with the people I have in my life, and how much this conversation, these topics, feel vital. I also know I seek companionship in exposing rather than hiding our human vulnerability. Before writing this piece, I read an article by Michael Lerner in Tikkun called God and Goddess Emerging, in which he explores, among many other topics that I found deeply inspiring, the Jewish notion that God needs humans as partners. I was struck by this sentence in particular: “For a Greek imperialist or a male chauvinist, a god with feelings and needs must be a lesser god.” These traditions, the Hellenistic as well as the patriarchal, are the foundations of our disdain for vulnerability, in ourselves and, by extension, in our gods. As hard as it is to question this legacy from within an experience of vulnerability and need, I can’t think of a better way for me to make use of the challenge I am facing now. It is my hope that my choosing this form of love of self that so honors Inbal’s wisdom and love of me is also a way to love others, to love life, and to invite us all to reclaim the longing and capacity for love that are part of our makeup.

The Fearless Heart Teleseminars

Join Miki to talk about recent posts on this blog. These are drop-in teleseminars open to all and free of charge. They are offered twice a month, on a Sunday morning and on a weekday in the early evening, to accommodate multiple time zones from around the globe. Register here for the next ones:

Sunday  October 12: 10:30m-12pm PST
Thursday October 16 : 5:30pm-7pm PST

One thought on “The Canary as Leader

  1. Jean Meier

    In this writing, your words, “moving towards the discomfort” jump out. So key to me. So difficult sometimes.

    Also, I marvel at the ways in which times of not doing well can be some of the biggest periods of learning and moving towards what we want/need on the deepest level.


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