“The darkest hour is just before the dawn.” I’m sure you’ve heard and read this all your life. Where did it originate? Apparently, the first to use it in literature was an English theologian in 1650, but he was probably not the first to use it. We see it a lot, especially in self-help books, journals and workshops, also in literature.
It’s popular because it’s true. We’ve all worked on something important to us, finally reaching a moment of despair, only to have the answer we’d been searching for suddenly materialize. Or for those of us who have struggled with something in our lives that keeps turning up and blocking us – over and over – until we loose hope of ever turning that around, and then shortly after, we find the answer, and then change happens. The feeling of new discovery after such bleakness is indescribable.
Uri Alon in his Ted Talk on Why science demands a leap into the unknown describes what he discovered as a PhD candidate: he was in the middle of writing his thesis, and found that all his assumptions were incorrect, everything he tried led nowhere; he lost all sense of direction, felt unworthy, that he couldn’t be a scientist. He didn’t end up quitting, and eventually made it through with the help of his friends and colleagues, ending up discovered something completely new that proved to be the key point of his thesis. Afterwards he remembered feeling an amazing sense of calmness – the reward for hanging in there and waiting for the magic to happen.
Then, a few years later, it happened again – he was working away and getting nowhere, final ready to throw it in, and that’s when he made another new discovery. Then, he began to hear from other researchers that they’d had similar experiences. As it happens, Uri is a man of many talents and passions, and one of these is as an improv actor. If you know about improv, then you know that it’s about getting up on stage with no clue about what’s going to be handed to you; and whatever is handed you, it’s up to you to make something of it, regardless of the consequences. When he was learning to be one, he was told exactly what was going to happen: that he would get on stage, having no idea what would happen, and that he would get stuck and fail miserably! The whole experience was to learn how to be creative in that stuck place.
This improv approach is exactly, he realized, what he wanted to nurture in himself, his colleagues and his students. We all assume that if we have a question A – and want to reach the answer – B (whatever that may be), we do our experiments or take action, and eventually – pretty directly – get to B. But in fact, it’s never a straight line to the answer. Instead, we try, fail, try again, and keep going around and around in seemingly endless circles until we are stuck. He calls this the Cloud. We can be lost in this cloud for a short or long period, but one thing is certain – we will end up in that cloud. It’s because this cloud stands at the boundary between the known and the unknown. If we continue to explore the problem inside the cloud, then eventually we might notice something new coming out of the cloud that relates to A, but not to B. This is something we weren’t looking for or expecting -C.
What he came to realize is that in order to discover something truly new, we must change at least one of the basic assumptions we’re making. B is some thing or experience we know something about at the beginning, but C is brand new. Hanging onto our assumptions will drive us around in circles forever.
The cloud is therefore unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean such deep and dark despair is. Again Uri went to his work in improv: In improv, the actors learn to always say “Yes, and …” to any challenge. They’ve discovered that saying “Yes, and” bypasses the inner critic and often brings us to the brand new answer – without going first to a place of despair and hopelessness. (It may be a place of temporary high anxiety, but not hopelessness.)
Saying “Yes, and” is a way of changing direction deliberately with hope and curiosity replacing inner resistance and ultimately hopelessness. Sherwin Nuland in his Ted Talk on the extraordinary in ordinary people, talked about hope. He discovered that the concept of hope is based on the Indo-European root – keu – which is the same root that ‘cure’ comes from; and it means going in a different way. Hope is about looking in new directions that we hadn’t previously guessed or expected.
Growing, learning something new, discovering new pathways, all require change in us, and change requires changing directions. If you think you know where you’re going, you’re not going in the right direction. The process of change means we will end up in the cloud – that boundary between the known and the unknown, and when we do, we can either approach it in resistance and despair, or in the hopefulness of “Yes, and”. Pema Chödrön might add: Be more like a river than a rock.
Pema Chödrön – How to let go and accept change
Quote of the Week
Hope does not consist of the expectation that things will come out exactly right, but the expectation that they will make sense regardless of how they come out. – Vaklav Havel, Breaking the Peace
At times we need more – we know the logic, know what to do. And yet something is still blocking us. As a registered psychotherapist and stress coach, I offer individual one-on-one consultations. For more information, visit my websitewww.thejoyofliving.co/programs or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org