As someone who is driven by wanting to learn more about our nature as human beings, our resilience, and what this means in practical terms for a life that is worth living to the full, the last two months have been distressing, perplexing but then frequently, immensely inspiring and optimistic.
In the week of the terrorist attack in Manchester, I received out of the blue, a letter informing me that a former colleague had died at the age of 49. He had been one of the most outstanding teachers I have ever known in his early career, rising rapidly through the ranks of school leadership with panache, a total commitment to giving everyone his best, sheer hard work and real values based on the importance of education and opportunities for young people. Two years ago he sent me a Christmas card with the news he had achieved what he felt was his dream job as a headteacher. The short, factual letter I received was from a former colleague of his wife who was clearly distraught and unable to communicate but wanted former colleagues and friends to know. Left with little information to go on other than the fact that he was not living near the school anymore, I did a Google search and found that he had left his job as a headteacher after only two terms citing major disagreements over the future direction of the school. Knowing the man as I did, I felt sure that this experience would have been devastating for him personally and professionally. Little over a year later, my former colleague was dead.
I have worked for some years now in a coaching role with headteachers, all highly capable, admirable individuals, and some of whom for varying reasons have left their post or who have been “forced to leave”. I felt sure I could have helped my former colleague through what many of the headteachers in a similar position describe as a firestorm raging through their lives, with major damage done to their self – worth, personal values, their family life and a lingering, disturbing dilemma about what life holds for them now. The reality is that I could not help him. I found myself reflecting on the loneliness and desolation he must have felt – what few people know is that some headteachers who leave their posts are treated (quite appallingly at times) as “untouchable” even for standard teaching posts, although some find more understanding former colleagues, multi – academy trusts or schools who are prepared to recognise the qualities of the person and offer a new opportunity. Many leave the educational world completely and avoid going back over any detail of the loss they experienced, especially not exploring the emotional baggage that stays with you after any traumatic event.
The most courageous former headteachers confront the whole reality of their experience and try to make sense of what has happened. I have found the work of Susan David really helpful in making sense of such moments when our world comes crashing down. Building on the research of psychologists like Steven Hayes known for his work on “Psychological Flexibility”, Susan David in her book Emotional Agility, explains that by daring to walk towards our fears and inner experience, we begin to take control of our lives. “Courage”, she says, “is not an absence of fear; courage is fear walking”. By making a decision to walk towards our fears, using our values as our guide, we can begin to focus on what really matters to us. She summarises the journey of accepting your full self and what life throws your way like this, “Choose courage over comfort by vitally engaging with new opportunities to learn and grow, rather than passively resigning yourself to your circumstances. Recognise that life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility. We’re young until we’re not. We’re healthy until we’re not. We’re with those we love until we’re not.”
I like to think that at its most inspiring, emotional agility is what helped the off – duty nurse on London Bridge to walk towards mayhem to help injured victims and a man to protect his friends lying helpless on the ground by standing his ground as the terrorist wielded his knife. We are all more resilient than we think we are. To return to the theme of this blog – where can we find solace in such times as these? It is that we need to rely on our inner wisdom, a deep understanding inside us that reminds us that beauty, destruction, inspiration, hope and loss are all part of our experience. This is captured beautifully by a writer I often return to when needing some time out, David Whyte, when he says in a wonderful reflection on the nature of solace “When life does not in any way add up, we must turn to the part of us that has never wanted a life of simple calculation.” We can all discover in ourselves what makes our life meaningful and our most treasured values which urge us onto be our best selves. Let’s keep our fear walking ahead!