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Stepping Stones of Courage: Inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Photo by Marion S. Trikosko [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In our new year of conflict, confusion and cowardice, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. represents a perennial call to compassion, clarity and courage. Compassion in the nonviolent nature of hopeful activism, ally relationships and mindfulness with the marginalized. Clarity about the morality of our actions, institutional and personal. Courage facing social inequities and embracing the possibilities of a beloved community.

Dr. King’s leadership invites our deeper considerations for important stepping stones toward lives, communities and societies of hope, equity and peace in the 21st century. As we reflect on these provocative quotes by Dr. King may we who seek to be a community of courage live up to and live into the most noble dreams of our callings.

1) Dare to Love

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”

2) Dare to Forgive

“Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude. We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

3) Dare to Be Nonviolent

“We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself. We will try to persuade with our words, but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts.”

4) Dare to See the Other 

“Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”

5) Dare to Be Known

“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”

6) Dare to Speak

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

7) Dare to Act

“Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”

8) Dare to Seek Justice beyond Self Interest

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

9) Dare to Hope

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.”

10) Dare to Lead with Soul

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right.”

MLK’s Call to Action:

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

“With patient and firm determination we will press on until every valley of despair is exalted to new peaks of hope, until every mountain of pride and irrationality is made low by the leveling process of humility and compassion; until the rough places of injustice are transformed into a smooth plane of equality of opportunity; and until the crooked places of prejudice are transformed by the straightening process of bright-eyed wisdom.”

May we be so.

Estrus Tucker is an independent consultant and keynote speaker specializing in small and large group facilitation, focusing on personal, professional and community renewal, transformation, healing and reconciliation. Estrus is a innovative practitioner of the Circles of Trust®, Habits of the Heart®, Dialogue and other models of civic engagement, leadership and organizational development. Estrus brings over 30 years of executive leadership experience in the nonprofit sector, including operations and board governance. Estrus is the 2012 recipient of the International Association of Human Rights Agencies’ (IAOHRA) Individual Achievement Award for his work and leadership in support of creative civic engagement and transformational leadership in Mississippi; Belfast, Northern Ireland; Cape Town, South Africa, and Texas.

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Courageous Authenticity: Post-Election Reflections from the Academy for Leaders at Pendle Hill

Is it possible to become more intentional about creating spaces – in relationship, community – where our fearful shadows can emerge into the light to be seen for what they are, when the truth and love within us can appear and make a claim on our lives?

 – Parker J. Palmer

We began the Academy for Leaders on November 10, 2016, two days after one of the most emotionally divisive, tumultuous, and contentious presidential elections in U.S. history.

As leaders from around the U.S. and Canada took their place in the circle we had planned and co-created, “fearful shadows” were present. We felt the weight and the urgency of the moment. On the opening night, the room was filled with grief and anxiety, and a cold silence was palpable. Some leaders were totally exhausted, having gotten very little sleep the night before.

Following the election events and sensing the growing nationwide sentiment of anxiety and tension, Gayle and I re-worked the opening to focus on inviting space and time to breathe, to talk about the immediacy of our feelings. This re-working of the opening was very carefully crafted—not knowing Trump or Clinton supporters in the room. Our goal in this opening session was to create trust and emotional safety for everyone.

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This meant allowing for expression of true self – not masked by political correctness, winning approval, or looking good. We wanted a real-time discussion of the election to allow the group to express out loud was what palpably felt in the room, not avoiding or sugar-coating conflict, and yet speaking with honesty and integrity. As co-leaders, it also meant being aware of our own underlying assumptions, expectations, and biases, what unconscious beliefs we might bring into the discussion and into the room. We knew that to create trust it was important to discuss our feelings, emotions, and vulnerabilities, and yet we did not want the discussion to spin out of control, or degrade into an ‘us against them’ free-for-all.

Gradually, over the four-day retreat, using Courage & Renewal practices and principles, and with the amazing, loving, and generous support of Pendle Hill staff, our group of nearly thirty leaders shifted dramatically from fear and grief to self-care, renewal of soul and role in the world, and support for each other. Many people looked visibly different – lighter, calmer, less tense – by the end of the retreat.

Courageous Authenticity – Discussing the Elephant in the Room: A Blueprint

We tenderly opened what we anticipated might be a strongly emotional discussion about the election by first reading an excerpt from Parker’s A Hidden Wholeness about “the blizzard of the world” that we now find ourselves post-election. We invited the range of emotions and sought to create safe space for everyone by actively exploring the Center for Courage & Renewal’s Touchstones, guidelines for engaging self and others. Using the Touchstones, we offered participants time to reflect individually, in dyads, and within the large group. Finally, we invited the leaders to trust the wisdom of their bodies with this three to four minute breath and body practice.

Let’s take a few moments to pause and to gather ourselves, to come home to ourselves.

Check in with yourself and notice what would support you, and do that—to sit or to stand.

We invite you to close your eyes if that is comfortable to you, and allow your spine straight but not rigid.

Let’s begin by checking in with yourself and noticing how you’re feeling physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Just a glance at how you are doing at this moment.

Recall Thomas Merton’s words from New Seeds of Contemplation: “Let there be a place somewhere in which you can breathe easily, naturally, quietly.”

Take a moment to sense your breathing, and…

Ask yourself:

“Where do I feel my breathing?” and simply wait.

Returning to the question over and over: “Where do I feel my breathing?”

Let whatever perceptions you have be here without editing them. Don’t discount tiny movements.

Perhaps place one hand on the belly and the other at the chest and feel the movement of the hand at the belly and at the chest.

Now, ask yourself: “What does my breath feel like?”

And simply wait. Is your breath rough, smooth, labored, or easy? Return to the question over and over: “What does my breath feel like?” Take note of whatever words or images arise to describe your breath. Again, let whatever perceptions you have be here without editing them.

And, now return your attention to just a glance at the body and mind, gathering an impression of how you are doing at this moment. There is no need to change or edit this moment, this glance. Simply observe.

And, when you are ready, please inhale the arms up and stretch, and open your eyes, slowly. Thank you.

While we were so exhausted by the end of the retreat, we both felt the tremendous inner glow of community. When we arrived back home that night from Pendle Hill, we received these words from a national activist for women and children.

It hit me this morning that I have never been in a group in my life of people who all find deep meaning in what they do in their work lives. This was so rare – beneath everyone’s frustrations and senses of inadequacy and challenge to do better was a real love of the work and a sense of mission. Every single person was engaged in deeply meaningful work in the world… amazing. Because of the deep happiness of the people there, it was a joy to be in this group. It is wonderful to have the chance to grow stronger together, too, when some common core of values that have been strengthened and nurtured during the time we had. Thank you for your role and your soul in that process of forming a community of people who care about what they do in this world.

In an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous climate, where the reigning question of the day appears to be “what comes next” and “what is my personal response,” courageous conversations offer a way in. These conversations are curated through the very personal practice of listening deeply. Often seen as act of passivity, true listening intensifies connection and broadens our capacity to know ourselves, others, and the other in ourselves.

At a time when many are calling for greater activism, perhaps the action that is required now is to listen as an act of love and to speak as act of integrity. We know that the “fearful shadows” will always be there, and so will the light. Opening to the elephant in the room begins with what we already know: speaking your truth while respecting others’ truth and listening without intruding, invading, fixing, or correcting. Growing these practices in our circles, in our conversations, in our lives create spaces that are safe, potent, and wholehearted.


Valerie Brown is a Courage & Renewal facilitator, international retreat leader, writer, and ICF-accredited leadership coach of Lead Smart Coaching, LLC., specializing in the application and integration of mindfulness and leadership ( In her latest book, The Mindful School Leader: Practices to Transform Your Leadership and School (Corwin Press, 2015), she explores the role of mindfulness in strengthening thriving leaders and building greater understanding and peace within schools.

Gayle Williams brings 30 years of leadership and management experience to her current practice as a philanthropy/nonprofit leadership coach and Courage & Renewal facilitator. As Executive Director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation from 1993-2012, Gayle’s work focused on values-driven social and economic justice in the Southeastern US. Prior to the Babcock Foundation, she was Program Director for Education at the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis, where her portfolio focused on community-based initiatives for educational equity. Before entering philanthropy, her nonprofit work concentrated on youth development.

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Giving and Receiving Welcome

Each day holds a surprise. But only if we expect it can we see, hear, or feel it when it comes to us. Let’s not be afraid to receive each day’s surprise, whether it comes to us as sorrow or as joy. It will open a new place in our hearts, a place where we can welcome new friends and celebrate more fully our shared humanity.

– Henri J.M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey


How is your heart in this first week of 2017? Is it feeling open to what’s new or guarded with uncertainty? I want to open a new place in my heart to welcome all that this year will bring.

This calls me to redefine the word Welcome. I feel the tensions in welcoming change, welcoming difference, welcoming conflict, welcoming challenge, welcoming retirement, welcoming new leadership, welcoming fresh ideas. From the global to the local and the personal, 2017 will be a year of welcome – and growth!

Since I began facilitating Courage & Renewal retreats 14 years ago, I’ve experienced the power of our first Touchstone: Give and receive welcome.

This poem by fellow facilitator Estrus Tucker reminds me that it’s an act of courage to give and receive authentic welcome:

There are invitations that can’t be written,
and a welcoming that is deeper than words.
Hospitality abides in the familiarity of a face,
in the embedded trust of shared customs and histories,
and in identities often formed and deformed
by unity and exclusion,
hope and humiliation,
love and lies.

Welcome is not always easy. When we feel others are out to change or challenge us, it’s only human to guard ourselves. But what happens when we experience true welcome and invitation?

When welcome is offered and received, a sense of belonging naturally leads us to relax rather than raise our defenses. It is subtle. Welcome invites us to be vulnerable and connected.

When have you felt truly welcome?

How do you remain open and hospitable to yourself and to others?

I’m looking forward to welcoming all that 2017 brings, with as much courage and openness as I can muster.


Terry Chadsey
Executive Director

P.S. Courage & Renewal practices create the conditions of safe space to experience genuine welcome – of your inner wisdom, of insight, of trust among others. Find a program near you.

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Simple Presence: A Wish for the New Year


A few days after moving, I put on my gloves and coat and went for my first walk in the new neighborhood. Sometimes the best way to settle in is to give my body the chance to orient itself, to begin to know a place.

I walked up the hill and past the domed church, watching how the last dregs of winter light catch the treetops. For the first time in a few months, I began to feel the space around my body opening up. As I went further, I dropped into this simple presence more easily; I noticed what is good. I noticed the smallest gestures of peace. I also noticed – again and again – my whirring mind, spinning from present to future. But then I paused the whir again as my eyes were greeted by gorgeous violet berries on a branch. Whir. Pause. Whir. Pause. Pause. I started to breathe more deeply.

Though my mind is spinning in these days of collective suffering and sorrow, I am learning to be a better friend and ally not only by acting in solidarity but also by taking moments to let my feet touch the ground. To embrace the touchstone that reminds me to “be present as fully as possible.” And here, as this touchstone reminds me, I can allow my doubts and fears to rub shoulders with my hopes and strengths. 

As a new year beckons, I’ve decided to eschew lists and resolutions and simply choose a word to hold close to my heart in the coming year. I am choosing presence. May I be present to what is in front of me. May I not turn away. May I keep my feet touching the ground. May I lean into hope and trust.

I like to listen to “The Color Green” by the innocence mission when I am walking around, watchful for the “sudden visit” of a color or a sound or a glimpse, something simple even in the midst of complexity, something that could even “lift me up three stories” if I am willing to be lifted.

Here is my wish for all of us: for simple presence to suffuse our coming days. For this presence to be compassionate – granted kindly to ourselves and others. For us to find moments where we can “see the day gifted with a million gifts.” 

What words are you holding close to your heart for 2017?


JoVanceJo Vance is the Marketing & Communications Associate at the Center for Courage & Renewal. A stalwart believer in the power of stories to spark change in the world, Jo is passionate about creating space for those stories to be shared through effective communications. When she’s not hiking in the mountains or by the ocean, Jo volunteers with fellow environmental and social justice activists, works on her poetry manuscript, and delves into her ever-evolving stack of library books.

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Parker J. Palmer Reflects on a Lifetime of Learning


This blog features an excerpt from “Parker J. Palmer Reflects on a Lifetime of Learning with Executive Editor, Frank Shushok Jr.” in the journal About Campus.

In his Editor’s Note, Frank unpacked the issue’s theme – Learning to Struggle. With Frank’s permission, we’ve excerpted a portion from his note as an introduction to his interview with Parker:

The old adage “where you stumble and fall, there you will find pure gold” seems true to me these days. If you’re like me, you have some rough patches. I wish it had not taken me decades to understand that our pain, our struggles, our mistakes, and our insecurities are mine shafts where pure gold resides. This priceless, raw material—available nowhere else in life—is the material of one’s real potential and the source of dazzling hope that others desperately need to see.

It’s probable your struggles and pain are not the same as mine, but you’ve got some pure gold inside you … hiding in mine shafts you may have sealed off. And, given a little attention, a few good people, and a fistful of courage, your pain has the raw material of a miracle story. I know what you’re thinking. Everyone else looks so right, together, so perfect. But that is a lie. Every human being we encounter has rough edges, but most of us have learned to hide our struggles and bury our gold. I looked pretty perfect to my middle school and high school friends, yet I was dying inside. And I was so committed to hiding my rough edges that I didn’t tell my story until I was 40 years old, despite a boatload of evidence that my identity as “the dumb kid” was long gone. And who lost in that secret? This “not so dumb” kid and the students struggling all around him who needed to hear this story.

Shushok: Thank you for visiting with me today, Parker. One of the privileges of serving as Executive Editor of About Campus is the opportunity it gives me to interview some of my heroes. Although we had never met before today, your work, and thus your life, has been challenging and encouraging me for decades. I’m certain many About Campus readers will feel the same way. I thought the timing of our interview is terrific, given you just celebrated your 77th birthday this past Sunday. I’d love to begin our time by asking you to reflect on how the 30-year-old Parker Palmer is different from the 50-year-old Parker Palmer and now the 77-year-old Parker Palmer. What are some of the most salient lessons growing older has taught you?

Landscape with roadPalmer: Thank you, Frank. I’m delighted to take a little stroll down memory lane with you—although at my age, that could be a very long walk, and we may have to stop at a couple of B&B’s! Over the long haul, there are several lasting lessons. One that I’m always eager to communicate with young people is that there’s really no way to predict how your path is going to unfold. What my life has turned out to be is very different than what I thought it would be when I was 30. I always tell young people, “When your elders say you have to decide at age 18, 20, or 22 what you are going to do with your life, tell them as politely as possible to ‘get a life!’ Or at least to think back on their own path.”

Becoming a Community Organizer

When I was 30 years old, I had just finished a PhD in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. I spent most of the 60s in Berkeley, having come there with the thought that I would go into an academic career. But the cities were burning and my heroes had been assassinated, and it seemed to me that it would be better to use my sociology on the streets than in the classroom. So, I became a community organizer, working on diversity issues in Washington, D.C. Things unfolded from there in an unpredictable way.

I guess you could say that at 30, I started experimenting with my life. I’ve always loved the title that Gandhi gave his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. I think you can invest your life in experimenting with truth—your own truth, the world’s truth, and the truth about where the most fruitful intersections between you and the world might be. Looking back, those are the questions I began exploring and was getting a few answers to at that time.

When I was 30, what I was doing felt daunting and scary to me. People asked why I was taking such a different path when I “had been prepared for an academic career.” In many ways, I had been groomed by my mentors to be first a professor, then a young dean, then the young president of a liberal arts college like Carleton where I was an undergraduate. People asked me, “Why are you throwing your life away by becoming a community organizer?” That’s a question I was asking myself! The only answer I could find was a double negative: “What I’m doing is something I can’t not do.” Was I crazy-wild about being on this unpredictable career path, without a steady paycheck, and all the risks inherent in that, while I’m helping to raise three kids? Was I eager to wake up each morning to face a day of deeper uncertainty? Was I glad to risk falling off the radar of higher education? No, I wasn’t running enthusiastically toward any of that! Still, there was something in me that said, “You can’t not do this.”

Around this time, I started writing and talking about what I saw as the need for “humanism”—or to use an even more dangerous word, “spirituality”—in higher education. At the time, spirituality in education was not a popular topic: it required getting out on a number of limbs and taking risks that weren’t well supported. Yet, I felt so strongly that higher education was increasingly offering students thin soup, when their hungers and the needs of the world are so great, and the great tradition of higher learning has more nourishing things to offer.

bridge-sunset-people-talking-1000I learned pretty early on that “spirituality” wasn’t a word that I could utter in most secular academic settings without getting ridden out of town on a rail—which is an honor, of course, just not one you want. But I soon learned that I could talk about “epistemology” and take people to the same place that I wanted to go with the word spirituality. I think the challenge when I was 30—one I have been working on ever since—is how to translate the things that are really important to us into the lingua franca of whatever community we are working in. How do we use language to build bridges instead of walls?

When I actually did get around to talking about spirituality, I would say to people, “Before you stop listening, let me explain what that word means to me: spirituality is any way you have of responding to the eternal human yearning to be connected with something larger than your own ego.” I think that’s a pretty good operational definition of spirituality. It’s open and neutral (as a good definition should be) in the sense that the question of how to get connected with something larger than one’s own ego has been answered historically in a wide variety of ways, for better and for worse, a lot worse. The Third Reich, for example, was an answer to that question. That answer was inherently evil, but it swept up a lot of Germans who were in a spiritual identity crisis that was both personal and national. Their sense was, “If I can embrace this notion of Aryan superiority, then I’m joined with something transpersonal, which is going to bring meaning to my life.” What it brought, of course, was an enormous amount of death in the most tragic ways. And, to say the obvious, there are other ways of answering the question that are more life-giving.

Higher education needs to give students opportunities to sort out these questions of meaning and purpose, to learn to distinguish the wheat from the chaff. Just look at the current presidential campaign. We have at least one candidate out there who is calling people to a kind of crypto-fascism in response to the problems they, and we, have. A key characteristic of a would-be leader of a fascist movement is that he doesn’t really need a solution to anyone’s problems—all he needs is a scapegoat to blame and a blustering promise to eliminate that scapegoat. There are lots of people who uncritically fall in line and cheer and say, “Oh great, as soon as those people are gone, then our lives will be fine.”

These are essentially spiritual questions, as well as political and economic questions. Higher education makes a terrible mistake by being so afraid of them that we exclude them from the curriculum, making it possible to help students learn to winnow truth from falsehood in this arena.

It’s imperative for educators to dive into these deeper dimensions of what it means to be human in a world that challenges our humanity on a daily basis.

This concern for the depth dimension of higher education—humanism, spirituality, whatever you want to call it—has actually become a larger movement itself over the last 45 years of my life. One of my first pieces of evidence was almost 20 years ago when Harvard and Wellesley sponsored a conference on spirituality in higher education that was attended by 800 people from around the country. Who’d think, back in the late 60s, that Harvard and Wellesley would do such a thing? What I began exploring nervously in the late 60s is now being explored by lots of people, and that’s personally gratifying. But my main point is that it’s imperative for educators to dive into these deeper dimensions of what it means to be human in a world that challenges our humanity on a daily basis.


The Crystallization of a Career

My career didn’t really come together until I was almost 50 years old. I’m one of those lucky people who can identify a particular moment in time when my career began to crystallize. It happened when I was invited to address the annual gathering of the National Association of Higher Education in Chicago in 1987. For reasons I will never fully understand, a 1000 deans and presidents gave me a standing ovation, one that went on and on, for a talk about “Community, Conflict and Ways of Knowing”—which was really a talk about the love of learning and of learners. That talk, and the audience response, was documented in the September/October 1987 issue of Change Magazine.

What’s particularly interesting for me personally is that when I gave that talk I was in the middle of one of the clinical depressions that I’ve written and talked about. I have often thought that the reason the talk was successful was that “I wasn’t there”—in the sense that my ego wasn’t there. In depression, your ego is dead and gone. I had enough of myself left to write the talk and deliver it, but I was in one of those places where you don’t have any choice but to get out of your own way. That’s an important thing to do generally, but it’s hard to do when you’re feeling full of yourself. Well, I was at a point in life when there was not much of “me” left, and I think that’s why what I said had a certain purity to it that resonated with people.

That was the moment in my professional life when everything changed. I started getting invitations to talk all over the country and to give workshops. That talk just opened the floodgates to the independent career that I’ve been pursing as a writer and traveling teacher for the last 30 years.

seedlings-in-pots-1000In the early 1990s, I planted the seeds for what is now called the Center for Courage & Renewal. To get a look at the scope of our work, folks can visit the site. Right now, I’m devoting a lot of time and energy to Courage & Renewal retreats for young leaders and activists—people under the age of 40 who are doing important things, people from whom I’m learning so much. In addition to my writing, the last 25 years of my life have been devoted to developing Courage & Renewal work in this country and around the world. This has given me a huge community of discourse—of teaching, and action—because the folks we work with are not only in K-12 education and higher education, but also in the nonprofit world, in health care, philanthropy, ministry, and the law. These folks are doing heavy lifting in our society that needs to be supported from the inside out.

I deeply believe that to be the case: what we need to deal with the world’s madness is within us (in the soul) and between us (in community) and it’s always available.

As I argue in my book, The Courage to Teach, it’s not about tips, tricks, and techniques—it’s about having your identity and integrity firmly in hand as you go about whatever work you’re doing. So my work through the Center is about creating “safe space” in retreat settings where people in the helping professions can “rejoin soul and role” and find forms of community that support them in bringing identity and integrity into the workplace. Wendell Berry is one of my favorite poets, and he has a poem that ends with lines that I live by. In “The Wild Geese,” he says, “What we need is here.” I deeply believe that to be the case: what we need to deal with the world’s madness is within us (in the soul) and between us (in community) and it’s always available. I’d love to see higher education devote more time and energy to putting students on this path.

At age 77, I think finding your vocation is all about finding out what you can’t not do! That’s a slow, incremental process, and experiment in being as faithful as you know to the gifts you have, taking risks along the way—even when others don’t understand you—and trusting life’s resourcefulness, which includes not only the resourcefulness that’s within you, but the kind that can be generated between you and other people in community.

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Sometimes Doctors Need Saving as Much as Their Patients


Photo Credit: Georgie Scapens

Click here to download and read Glenn’s poem “Doctor to patient (on ornithology and the practice of medicine)”

For most of my career medicine has not been so friendly. I have struggled with doubt. I have always felt that at any point I might do the wrong thing. For a long time this meant that consultations were noisy with my own thoughts. Life was lived in two parts. In one I would go to work and be unsure and struggle with the waiting room and paper trails and fires popping up. In the other I would imagine. I would dream that I could fly. I would soar up over the world like a young seagull and look down and be amazed. Moments would open up like a ranch slider. Inside I found they were timeless. Poetry was good and medicine was bad. I joked that poetry was the first girl I ever loved, the one I always wanted but never felt confident enough to ask out, and that medicine was the girl I got pregnant behind the bike shed and thought I had to make an honest woman of.

A few years ago I began to compile a book based on the stories of a group of patients I saw over the course of one day in general practice. For a year I visited as many of them as I could and asked them about their lives leading up to that consultation. I saw them in their homes and among those things they cared about, then afterwards flew up into the sky like a seagull with an old piece of string and looked down. When I came to write about them I saw them with wet eyes — the sort of love that poetry demands of those who write it.

I noticed that in consultations after that my head would calm sometimes and I would see my patients’ faces slow down while they were talking. I was reminded of that day outside the lecture theatre at Auckland University. Now wrinkles began to shimmy on the faces of my patients. Parrots or bellbirds or fantails would appear on their shoulders and dead people shuffle shyly out from behind them. Some would hide beneath their skirts or behind their trousers and others would trail warily after. Some would haunt and others would protect.

I came to understand that the anatomy I had learnt about at medical school was limited. Ache and memory gave human beings other anatomies that were entirely specific, and with increasing confidence I began to palpate these like the quadrants of the abdomen. After a while I realised I had ghosts of my own and that they were present in my consultations as well. I kept stumbling on them red-handed.

Card games would spring up in the corner of the office. My wrecked old dad, my estranged wife, my bright and shining daughter would take the spooks they met on the other side of the room by the hand and do the real medicine while my patient and I were left to talk about more important less important things. Often they would look at me and shake their heads as though I was their ghost, a distraction or apparition from some less real world.

These ghosts are with me still. Their medicine is usually either play, i.e., card games, Ludo, mini-golf or indoor bowls, or conversations over food, i.e., biscuits, tea, potato chips or jet aeroplanes. Even now one or more of them will follow a patient out the door to offer them a cup of tea or slice of cake or game of pool. I am too stubborn and fallen to call this prayer, but perhaps it is. I call it ghost talk. Poetry showed me that a person is the tip of a fabulous iceberg. The shape we see is the line the pen has drawn onto the map but it is determined only by the state of the tide at any given time. Beyond this everyone has a layer of continental shelf.

But I am a GP who has spent his life working with Māori and young people, so I suppose this sort of medicine has become important to me. I don’t often find myself wrist deep in an abdomen or busy correcting acid-base equilibriums. Sometimes we need to be mechanics. People are wheezing or bleeding or in pain. Stuff is dripping out of them that shouldn’t be. Our physiology and our randomised controlled trials hold there like Newton’s laws of physics. But on the magic edge of medicine other wonders play out. Medicine blurs into the spirit and here medicine is as old as the hills. It is black magic and weirdness. It is a type of quantum medicine where illness, happiness and longing tangle and weave, blinking in and out and in and out of existence.

There are times for me in the consultation when the intimacy of two human beings talking rivals the intimacy of the creative moment. In fact, I have come to understand the consultation is a creative moment. It seems after so many years of chasing my childhood sweetheart I have found her hiding in the eyes of that girl behind the bike shed. I have expected for years that medicine should leak into my poetry but never dreamed that poetry might leak into my medicine in such a way. On my best days there is no separation at all between both disciplines. I feel as though I have discovered a late love and, like all of those who have, it is all the more sweet for taking so long to wander by.

A non-randomised uncontrolled trial


It has taken a long time for me to rebel in medicine. It is full of high priests and orthodoxy and impetus to act in the way it does because of impetus to act in the way it does. And there is so much to learn that you might always be distracted learning it and rarely step back and question. My doubt has been busy with self-doubt. And I have always had writing to run to anyway when it gets too much. But for a long time I have grown frustrated by the ten-to-fifteen-minute model of medicine in primary care. It has always seemed to me designed by designers, and without imagination. And I have been slowly frustrated by a medicine that usually expects patients to come to it and rarely reaches out to see people where they are.

I have also been inspired by others — the quiet and gentle rebellion of old teachers like Professor Sir John Scott, who retained their humanity in all the busyness, and the new anger of colleagues in primary care such as Lance O’Sullivan.

Most recently I have come to believe that the stories my young people tell me demand some response from my profession. They are at times a plea to the world of big people to bring some explanation or justice or relief, however naive that might be. Not to respond is a defeat in the natural order of things.

In 2012 I took some time out from medicine. I resigned from the clinic I had worked at for many years because they wanted me to see more patients. My sessions usually ran over time anyway, and I felt too old and stubborn to change. I wrote for much of the year and let medicine tick. By the end of that year the distance had made me want to practise medicine the way I wanted to. I knew I could rely on being employed for two days a week by the local youth health service, but I also knew that, no matter how understanding my funders, this would come with expectations about time and location, and so I took a job for another two days a week as a youth worker in the same area.

From that time on I have been employed by two different organisations under two different contracts with wildly differing pay scales, but in reality I do one job. I see young people. We have clinics in the community and in two of the three high schools where the best of the old model can be retained, but I am also free to leave the clinic each week to follow up young people who need more time to talk or a ride to the hospital or who need to know that they are worth a big person checking on how they are doing.

I get to help out on a local alternative education programme for students who have been excluded from mainstream schools, and I run a creative writing group for those who share a similar wound. I can see young people individually or in groups. I can see them for two minutes, ten minutes, thirty minutes or an hour. I can bake with them, eat burgers with them and watch movies. I can knock on their doors and explain again what they are bound to have forgotten the first time round. I am poorer but richer. Some joy has returned to medicine for me.

I think about patients outside of work now and wonder how to reach them as though I am stuck on a line in the middle of a poem. Medicine has entered my imagination. My room has filled up with toys and models and props that explain the abstract to more concrete minds. My subconscious is figuring out what to do next in cases where I am stuck. This has only ever happened in poetry, answers to problems appearing days later when I thought I had given up on them. I have stockpiled a shelf full of books to give away to young people who might find something they can identify with in a particular story. To be able to hand someone a book instead of a script for fluoxetine or methylphenidate or something to help them sleep and say “this is a story you might like” seems a great freedom.

Many of the young people I work with have my cellphone number. For years I guarded it as though it was some sacred barrier that could not be crossed. I am discovering that it is much more convenient for my patients to have it. No one has abused it. Texted consultations have evolved in which patients are more direct in what they want to say than they are when they are face to face. In the context of being able to see them face to face later, it is a useful adjunct.

I’m not sure if any of this will make a lot of difference to youth health in the Horowhenua. In fact I know that most of it won’t. It will improve some access to primary care for some people, but so many of the young people I see needed to be seen ten years earlier than they were, and their families needed services that engaged with them in caring, constructive and enduring ways.

But it is, I suppose, a personal response to the limits we have allowed to build up around primary care — my own small non-randomised uncontrolled trial. Strengths in young people can sometimes be seen only by being with them outside a clinic. This is important because so often the path to establishing the confidence and engagement of a young person is through growing their strengths rather than concentrating on what is wrong with them. When we do not see people in their contexts, we do not see the medicine they possess that can help them get better.

Copyright © 2016 Glenn Colquhoun.  This is an extract from Glenn Colquhoun’s book Late Love: Sometimes Doctors Need Saving as Much as Their Patients, published by Bridget Williams Books.

About the Author 

Glenn Colquhoun“I have fought a running battle with medicine for much of my career. I have wanted to leave it for poetry. This is the story of how that has come to change for me. And how both those worlds have at last arrived at some sort of reconciliation.”

As a youth worker, doctor and award-winning poet and children’s writer, Glenn Colquhoun has led a ‘life lived in two parts’. Writing and reading has always transported him to a world ‘flickered’ by colour, warmth and connection. Meanwhile his work as a GP in the Horowhenua has confronted him daily with scenes of doubt, dislocation and disadvantage. Late Love is a meeting of these worlds, a moving attempt to show what it is, as a doctor and writer, to be alongside people.


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Favorite Courageous Books of 2016


It’s that time of year again! We’re pleased to present this year-end list of our favorite courageous reads of 2016, nominated by our Courage & Renewal facilitators and staff! Use the index below to see books under each topic.

Add your own favorite courageous reads in the comment section! Which books inspired, challenged, or nourished you this year?

Our Favorites for Everyone

kyle-aerial-ashleeVITAL: A Torch for Your Social Justice Journey
by Kyle C. Ashlee and Aerial A. Ashlee

“Our world is wracked with division and differences. Racial tension and social injustices plague our communities. Conversations about diversity, identity, and social justice are at a momentous tipping point. Too often people feel overwhelmed, angry, and uncertain about how to respond. What if instead there was a way to feel completely empowered? What if instead of being railroaded by guilt there was a way to find courage in vulnerability? What if instead of getting shut down by triggers and tip-toeing around issues we could find strength in storysharing and authentic dialogue? VITAL – Vulnerability, Identity, Trust, Authorship, and Liberation – the five core principles of this book, will give readers the tools and confidence they need to effectively integrate social justice into their everyday lives.”

annie-dillardThe Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New
by Annie Dillard

“Carefully culled from her past work, The Abundance is quintessential Annie Dillard, delivered in her fierce and undeniably singular voice, filled with fascinating detail and metaphysical fact. The pieces within will exhilarate both admiring fans and a new generation of readers, having been “re-framed and re-hung,” with fresh editing and reordering by the author, to situate these now seminal works within her larger canon. Intense, vivid, and fearless, her work endows the true and seemingly ordinary aspects of life—a commuter chases snowball-throwing children through neighborhood streets, a teenager memorizes Rimbaud’s poetry—with beauty and irony, inviting readers onto sweeping landscapes, to join her in exploring the complexities of time and death, with a sense of humor: on one page, an eagle falls from the sky with a weasel attached to its throat; on another, a man walks into a bar.”

hope-jahrenLab Girl
by Hope Jahren

“Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more. Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. Jahren’s probing look at plants, her astonishing tenacity of spirit, and her acute insights on nature enliven every page of this extraordinary book. Lab Girl opens your eyes to the beautiful, sophisticated mechanisms within every leaf, blade of grass, and flower petal. Here is an eloquent demonstration of what can happen when you find the stamina, passion, and sense of sacrifice needed to make a life out of what you truly love, as you discover along the way the person you were meant to be.”

The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dreamcourtney-martin
by Courtney E. Martin

“Are we living the good life—and what defines ‘good,’ anyway? Americans today are constructing a completely different framework for success than their parents’ generation, using new metrics that TED speaker and On Being columnist Courtney Martin has termed collectively the “New Better Off.” The New Better Off puts a name to the American phenomenon of rejecting the traditional dream of a 9-to-5 job, home ownership, and a nuclear family structure—illuminating the alternate ways Americans are seeking happiness and success.
The New Better Off is about the creative choices individuals are making in their vocational and personal lives, but it’s also about the movements, formal and informal, that are coalescing around the New Better Off idea—people who are reinventing the social safety net and figuring out how to truly better their own communities.”

kathleen-dean-mooreGreat Tide Rising: Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change
by Kathleen Dean Moore

“Even as seas rise against the shores, another great tide is beginning to rise – a tide of outrage against the pillage of the planet, a tide of commitment to justice and human rights, a swelling affirmation of moral responsibility to the future and to Earth’s fullness of life. Philosopher and nature essayist Kathleen Dean Moore takes on the essential questions: Why is it wrong to wreck the world? What is our obligation to the future? What is the transformative power of moral resolve? How can clear thinking stand against the lies and illogic that batter the chances for positive change? What are useful answers to the recurring questions of a storm-threatened time – What can anyone do? Is there any hope? And always this: What stories and ideas will lift people who deeply care, inspiring them to move forward with clarity and moral courage.”

Upstream: Selected Essaysmary-oliver
by Mary Oliver

Upstream follows Oliver as she contemplates the pleasure of artistic labor, her boundless curiosity for the flora and fauna that surround her, and the responsibility she has inherited from Shelley, Wordsworth, Emerson, Poe, and Frost, the great thinkers and writers of the past, to live thoughtfully, intelligently, and to observe with passion. Throughout this collection, Oliver positions not just herself upstream but us as well as she encourages us all to keep moving, to lose ourselves in the awe of the unknown, and to give power and time to the creative and whimsical urges that live within us.
Emphasizing the significance of her childhood ‘friend’ Walt Whitman, through whose work she first understood that a poem is a temple, ‘a place to enter, and in which to feel,’ and who encouraged her to vanish into the world of her writing, Oliver meditates on the forces that allowed her to create a life for herself out of work and love. As she writes, ‘I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.'”

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Artkrista-tippett
of Living
by Krista Tippett

“Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and National Humanities Medalist Krista Tippett has interviewed the most extraordinary voices examining the great questions of meaning for our time. The heart of her work on her national public radio program and podcast, On Being, has been to shine a light on people whose insights kindle in us a sense of wonder and courage. In Becoming Wise, Tippett distills the insights she has gleaned from this luminous conversation in its many dimensions into a coherent narrative journey, over time and from mind to mind. This book offers a grounded and fiercely hopeful vision of humanity for this century – of personal growth but also renewed public life and human spiritual evolution. It insists on the possibility of a common life for this century marked by resilience and redemption, with beauty as a core moral value and civility and love as muscular practice. Krista Tippett’s great gift, in her work and in Becoming Wise, is to avoid reductive simplifications but still find the golden threads that weave people and ideas together into a shimmering braid.”

The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging
by Charles H. Vogl

“Strong communities help people support one another, share their passions, and achieve big goals. And such communities aren’t just happy accidents—they can be purposefully cultivated, whether they’re in a company, in a faith institution, or among friends and enthusiasts. Drawing on 3,000 years of history and his personal experience, Charles Vogl lays out seven time-tested principles for growing enduring, effective, and connected communities. He provides hands-on tools for creatively adapting these principles to any group—formal or informal, mission driven or social, physical or virtual. This book is a guide for leaders seeking to build a vibrant, living entity that will greatly enrich its members’ lives.”

jesmyn-wardThe Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race

edited by Jesmyn Ward

“National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward takes James Baldwin’s 1963 examination of race in America, The Fire Next Time, as a jumping off point for this groundbreaking collection of essays and poems about race from the most important voices of her generation and our time. Jesmyn Ward knows that Baldwin’s words ring as true as ever today. In response, she has gathered short essays, memoir, and a few essential poems to engage the question of race in the United States. And she has turned to some of her generation’s most original thinkers and writers to give voice to their concerns. The Fire This Time is divided into three parts that shine a light on the darkest corners of our history, wrestle with our current predicament, and envision a better future.”

The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead

“Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil.
Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.”

Our Favorites in Poetry

Sea Summit: Poems
by Yi Lu

“Influenced by both the “gray, sinister sea” near the village where Yi Lu grew up during the Cultural Revolution, and the beauty of the sea in the books she read as a child, Sea Summit is a collection of paradox and questioning. The sea is an impossible force to the poet: it is both a majestic force that predates man, and something to carry with us wherever we go, to be put “by an ancient rattan chair,” so we can watch “its waves toss” from above. Exploring the current ecological crisis and our complicated relationship to the wildness around us, Yi Lu finds something more complex than a traditional nature poet might in the mysterious connection between herself and the forces of nature represented by the boundless ocean. Translated brilliantly by the acclaimed poet Fiona Sze-Lorrain, this collection of poems introduces an important contemporary Chinese poet to English-language readers.”

anna-k-silverFrom Nothing: Poems
by Anya Krugovoy Silver

“In her third collection, From Nothing, Anya Krugovoy Silver follows a mother, wife, and artist as illness and loss of loved ones disrupt the peaceful flow of life. Grounded in the traditions of meditative and contemplative poetry, From Nothing confronts disease and mortality with the healing possibilities of verse. Whether remembering the sound of whispered secrets on a family vacation or celebrating a favorable PET scan, in Silver’s keen observations of seemingly mundane moments we glimpse the divine. As she addresses profound questions about how to make meaning out of suffering, Silver’s poems attest to the power of art to help us face difficult realities in an often painful world.”

The Remedies
by Katharine Towers

“Katharine Towers’ second collection is a book of small wonders. From a house drowning in roses to crickets on an August day, from Nerval’s lobster to the surrealism of flower remedies, these poems explore the fragility of our relationship with the natural world. Towers also shows us what that relationship can aspire to be: each poem attunes us to another aspect of that world, and shows what strange connections might be revealed when we properly attend to it. The Remedies is a lyric, unforgettable collection which offers just the spiritual assuagement its title promises, and shows Towers emerging as a major poetic talent.”

kevin-youngBlue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1995-2015

by Kevin Young

Blue Laws gathers poems written over the past two decades, drawing from all nine of Kevin Young’s previously published books of poetry and including a number of uncollected, often unpublished, poems. This collection provides a grand tour of a poet whose personal poems and political poems are equally riveting. Together with wonderful outtakes and previously unseen blues, the profoundly felt poems here of family, Southern food, and loss are of a piece with the depth of personal sensibility and humanity found in his Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels or bold sequences such as ‘The Ballad of Jim Crow’ and a new ‘Homage to Phillis Wheatley.'”

Our Favorites in Leadership

adam-grantOriginals: How Nonconformists Move the World

by Adam Grant

“With Give and Take, Adam Grant not only introduced a landmark new paradigm for success but also established himself as one of his generation’s most compelling and provocative thought leaders. In Originals he again addresses the challenge of improving the world, but now from the perspective of becoming original: choosing to champion novel ideas and values that go against the grain, battle conformity, and buck outdated traditions. How can we originate new ideas, policies, and practices without risking it all? Using surprising studies and stories spanning business, politics, sports, and entertainment, Grant explores how to recognize a good idea, speak up without getting silenced, build a coalition of allies, choose the right time to act, and manage fear and doubt; how parents and teachers can nurture originality in children; and how leaders can build cultures that welcome dissent.”

lisa-laskowAn Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization
by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey

“What if a company did everything in its power to create a culture in which everyone—not just select ‘high potentials’—could overcome their own internal barriers to change and use errors and vulnerabilities as prime opportunities for personal and company growth? Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey (and their collaborators) have found and studied such companies—Deliberately Developmental Organizations. A DDO is organized around the simple but radical conviction that organizations will best prosper when they are more deeply aligned with people’s strongest motive, which is to grow. It means fashioning an organizational culture in which support of people’s development is woven into the daily fabric of working life and the company’s regular operations, daily routines, and conversations. This book demonstrates a whole new way of being at work. It suggests that the culture you create is your strategy—and that the key to success is developing everyone.”

Our Favorites in Education

michael-fullanIndelible Leadership: Always Leave Them Learning
by Michael Fullan

“Learn to lead well and leave a lasting impact with this compact, richly innovative book from the Corwin Impact Leadership series. Discover six specific leadership attributes to stimulate deep learning—and deep leadership—that transforms schools for the future. Concrete examples and critical, yet implementable action steps help readers to: commit to deep, meaningful work; master the content and process of change; co-learn and co-lead simultaneously; collaboratively develop individuals and groups; link your goals to the larger school system; and produce new, capable leaders.”

ken-robinsonCreative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education
by Ken Robinson, Ph.D., and Lou Aronica

“Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized leader on creativity and human potential focuses on one of the most critical issues of our time: how to transform the nation’s troubled educational system. Robinson argues for an end to our outmoded industrial educational system and proposes a highly personalized, organic approach that draws on today’s unprecedented technological and professional resources to engage all students, develop their love of learning, and enable them to face the real challenges of the twenty-first century. Filled with anecdotes, observations and recommendations from professionals on the front line of transformative education, case histories, and groundbreaking research—and written with Robinson’s trademark wit and engaging style—Creative Schools will inspire teachers, parents, and policy makers alike to rethink the real nature and purpose of education.”

Our Favorites in Health Care

paul-kalanithiWhen Breath Becomes Air
by Paul Kalanithi

“At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality. Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.”

david-kopaczWalking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma and PTSD
by David R. Kopacz MD and Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow)

“Psychiatrist and holistic & integrative physician, David Kopacz, and Native American Visionary, Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow), create a healing path to help our veterans suffering trauma and PTSD to come home. Even when out of the war zone, combat-readiness persists in the veterans’ nervous system. This book uses the circular pathway of the medicine wheel to re-train the nervous system.
Rather than viewing trauma, obstacles and disappointments as negatives, the medicine wheel offers a way of transforming these events into opportunities for initiation. Walking the medicine wheel is walking a spiritual path – integrating body-emotion-mind-spirit, within the circle of the four directions. The book provides practical exercises of guided imagery and ceremony to help returning veterans feel they have a purpose and have something, not only of value, but, of critical importance to give to their families and their communities.”

Our Favorites in Faith & Spirituality

kerry-eganOn Living
by Kerry Egan

“As a hospice chaplain, Kerry Egan didn’t offer sermons or prayers, unless they were requested; in fact, she found, the dying rarely want to talk about God, at least not overtly. Instead, she discovered she’d been granted an invaluable chance to witness firsthand what she calls the “spiritual work of dying”—the work of finding or making meaning of one’s life, the experiences it’s contained and the people who have touched it, the betrayals, wounds, unfinished business, and unrealized dreams. Most of all, though, she listened as her patients talked about love—love for their children and partners and friends; love they didn’t know how to offer; love they gave unconditionally; love they, sometimes belatedly, learned to grant themselves. This isn’t a book about dying—it’s a book about living. And Egan isn’t just passively bearing witness to these stories. An emergency procedure during the birth of her first child left her physically whole but emotionally and spiritually adrift. Her work as a hospice chaplain healed her, from a brokenness she came to see we all share. Each of her patients taught her something—how to find courage in the face of fear or the strength to make amends; how to be profoundly compassionate and fiercely empathetic; how to see the world in grays instead of black and white. In this poignant, moving, and beautiful book, she passes along all their precious and necessary gifts.”

At Home in tthich-nhat-hanhhe World: Stories and Essential Teachings from a Monk’s Life
by Thich Nhat Hanh

“This collection of autobiographical and teaching stories from peace activist and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh is thought provoking, inspiring, and enjoyable to read. Collected here for the first time, these stories span the author’s life. There are stories from Thich Nhat Hanh’s childhood and the traditions of rural Vietnam. There are stories from his years as a teenaged novice, as a young teacher and writer in war torn Vietnam, and of his travels around the world to teach mindfulness, make pilgrimages to sacred sites, and influence world leaders. The tradition of teaching the Dharma through stories goes back at least to the time of the Buddha. Like the Buddha, Thich Nhat Hanh uses story–telling to engage people’s interest so he can share important teachings, insights, and life lessons.”

dalai-desmondThe Book of Joy
by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams

“Nobel Peace Prize Laureates His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have survived more than fifty years of exile and the soul-crushing violence of oppression. Despite their hardships—or, as they would say, because of them—they are two of the most joyful people on the planet.
In April 2015, Archbishop Tutu traveled to the Dalai Lama’s home in Dharamsala, India, to celebrate His Holiness’s eightieth birthday and to create what they hoped would be a gift for others. They looked back on their long lives to answer a single burning question: How do we find joy in the fact of life’s inevitable suffering? In this unique collaboration, they offer us the reflection of real lives filled with pain and turmoil in the midst of which they have been able to discover a level of peace, of courage, and of joy to which we can all aspire in our own lives.”

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Listening for Our True North

Click here to download the Touchstars image.

Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.

I can’t help looking for the first star in the evening sky.  

I have two granddaughters now, growing faster than I can believe. I find my heart wishing fiercely for a healthier world for them to grow up in. And the courage to make it so by living their own lives.

Each December, the stars seem somehow closer and crisper. I marvel that in spite of the oceans and borders that seem to divide us, all 7 billion humans sleep beneath the same night sky. And we always have.

In the days before compasses and maps and smart phones, our ancestors relied on the stars to orient them.

The Courage & Renewal Touchstones are what orient us in a Circle of Trust. Each principle and practice is a guideline for holding a space and creating a trustworthy container of community. The Touchstones are like stars, guiding us to know who we are and where we stand, and showing us how to listen with open hearts.

With this metaphor in mind we’ve turned the touchstones into “Touchstars,” as a reminder of these ways of listening to ourselves and each other – ways of being more compassionate, more self-aware, and more aligned with our “true north.”

My deep wish this December is that we become more adept at heartfelt listening, the way that humanitarian Jean Vanier once described:

“As we start to really get to know others, as we begin to listen to each other’s stories, things begin to change. We begin the movement from exclusion to inclusion, from fear to trust, from closedness to openness, from judgment and prejudice to forgiveness and understanding. It is a movement of the heart.”
One of my favorite “touchstars” is the practice of turning to wonder. Isn’t that what the stars invite us to do?

What’s your earliest or fondest memory of stargazing?

Which touchstar catches your attention today?

As you look up at the stars this month, know that I’ll be doing the same when the sky is clear. And I’ll be thinking of our shared sky.

With gratitude and best wishes,

Terry Chadsey
Executive Director

P.S. You can experience the Touchstones and a sense of deep listening to yourself and to others at a Courage & Renewal program.

mail iconToday’s blog is a mirror of our monthly Words of EnCOURAGEment e-newsletter. If you’re not a subscriber yet, sign up so you don’t miss anything!


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The Hidden Gift of VUCA


I was asked to speak recently at an executive seminar on the human cost of VUCA and the role of sanctuary in human formation. The session preceding my own, was a presentation by a leading executive from a major global energy company. The presentation focused on the game-changing nature of the industry today and the many challenges the company faces in staying competitive in a fast changing world. The key word in the presentation was transformation.

Everyone in the room recognised the landscape that was being described. Which business is not defining its territory today as “disruptive”? Which business is not being pushed to “simplify its portfolio,” improve efficiencies, and pave the way to a new and yet unimaginable future all within the context of an unprecedented digital transformation?

The corporate response in this case was typical of any business driven by these powerful forces; being a matter of survival, ultimately any action becomes a question of fight, flight or freeze. Since flight and freeze are synonymous with death, the message was clear and predictable; we must fight. In corporate language this meant simplify and accelerate; become more agile and adapt more quickly. To achieve this the company must “listen better” to stakeholders, simplify the portfolio, accelerate innovation, support necessary changes through every ecosystem both internal and external, and being willing to re-invent their own identity – all the time.

This is a perfect description of the business world described today by the acronym VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) and led to a discussion involving another word becoming commonplace alongside transformation – that word is overwhelm.

The Q&A that followed the session was interesting. It was quite clear that the future life of this large and influential multi-national was genuinely at stake in a rapidly changing world. “If we do nothing,” the presenter said, “We will make money over the next 3 to 5 years…and then we’ll be dead.” It seems we are living in end-game times and how we relate to that reality, how we bring our attention to it has a lot to do with the way things will probably play out. Living in a VUCA world, in this kind of context, is like holding a tiger by the tail.

“Do we have the answers?” asked the presenter rhetorically. “No, we don’t.”

How to Move Beyond Joyless Urgency?

“The spirit of the times,” observes the writer Marilynne Robinson in her essay on humanism, “is one of joyless urgency.”


“Many of us,”
she continues, “are preparing ourselves and our children to be means to inscrutable ends that are utterly not our own….that are…preparation for economic servitude… We are less interested in the exploration of the glorious mind and more engrossed in the drama of staying ahead of whatever we think is pursuing us.”

I think the sense of pervasive threat described by Robinson comes close to defining a powerful hidden drive behind our current rendering of VUCA and goes far to explain the way in which it seems to cause so many people to suffer personally and professionally in a world that is incessantly driven by the demands that VUCA makes.

As much as VUCA claims to be about opportunity, innovation and possibility, it is, at worst about survival and fear; the grinding sense of ever-present, vague, unaccountable, undefinable threat. It is the relentless pursuit of and running from something only ever half-seen that so exhausts the spirit and undermines any possibility of a collective effort that might imagine a more respectful workplace and dignified concept of work for the 21st century.

At heart, the concerns of each executive in the group were the same that day. In terms of business they talked off the record about the personal human impact of endless change, the effects on their families, what VUCA meant as a reflection on our shared humanity.

The central and abiding question asked of the presenter at the end of his presentation was: with all this changehow do you value your people? We picked that theme up in our session with the observation that we value others to the degree that we can value ourselves. The value we place on ourselves is evidenced by the practices we engage in to live our lives faithfully and purposefully, individually and in the communities in which we live and work. The essential question really is something more like:

What does the way you live your life tell you about how you value yourself, about your integrity, about what matters most to you?

Walking the Day after Brexit

In June I went walking in the mountains in Wales with my partner. It was the day after Brexit and the world—so it seemed—was noisy, frightened, angry and chaotic. Part of the walk took us on a steep climb up the side of a mountain called Garn Wen into ancient woodland to a holy well. The well itself is pre-Christian and dedicated to Aeron, a mythical personage whose story has long been lost in the mists of time. It was a slow, steep, peaceful climb that followed the track of a stream as it cut its way down through the hillside from the mountain above us. The entrance to the woodland was guarded by a stand of purple monkshood, a tall, beautiful, highly poisonous and quite rare wild flower that gave the whole place a feeling of mystery.

Cairn on Garn Wen. Photo by George Tod (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

We eventually reached the well itself, which was small but wonderfully preserved—a result it seemed to me—of simple disregard over time. It was a place both insignificant and yet highly charged all at once. Stone slabs a few feet across marked the roof and sides of the well itself whose water was clean, cold, refreshing and absolutely still. Time and space shifts in such places; one thinks of Philip Larkin’s poem “Church Going”:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.

A serious house on serious earth indeed.

Larkin tells us that;

“… someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in”

I think most of us at one time or another are that someone, who, perhaps surprising themselves, feels called to be more serious. It is the purpose of small places such as the holy well to mark out space and time sufficient to this calling.


It’s an interesting paradox that seemed very apparent that morning by the well that the world can be both volatile and still, complex and simple, uncertain and trustworthy in its presence, ambiguous yet clear in the same moment. Everything was indeed changing; the water quickly, the sunlight quickly too, the trees and rocks very slowly but nonetheless changing—and yet there was such a stillness in the place that I could not discount it. And more importantly the feeling it left me with, call it calm, peace, stillness, presence—but something that spoke quite clearly to me in the depths of what I will call my soul.

I could feel the long history that was gathered in this simple place—that was buried here and ran before me into an uncertain future, filled as it was outside this valley by the shock waves of Brexit. Actually Brexit; the dynamic ebb and flow of life was a part of this too but this was a different space designed for other kinds of inquiry though not intolerant to the world or dismissive of it. This place was set aside to allow for our mysterious need for quietude, to listen deeply, to acknowledge, to commemorate, the intelligence of the feeling heart. The place was important for all those reasons and more.

Living a new story

The issue with our current rendering of VUCA—what makes it such a contributor to the joyless urgency of our times—is that it cannot account for or accommodate my experience at the well. VUCA disregards moments like this at the well or marks it out as irrelevant in the world of work and in the work of human becoming and in so failing, it casts out so much of what allows me to live well and make sense of a changing world. I seek both joy and urgency as one who participates in both its solid realities and its mysterious ebb and flow.


Whilst VUCA might well be a description of naturally arising phenomena—everything flows, said Hereclitus—it becomes a source of suffering because it lacks a compensatory story that can synthesise and reconcile the objective experience of volatility, complexity and so forth with our subjective experience of those conditions and our need to humanise our experience. When our suffering is unmet and indeed amplified, it shows its face as any number of forms of violence. It it is this subtle and sometimes explicit violence that so marks the business environment today.

If VUCA is to be embraced for the unintended gifts it brings, we need a fundamental shift in perspective that accounts for the whole of human experience including the need for ‘serious time’ that actually makes sense and gives purpose to our days.

Work matters in many ways beyond the simple fact of “having work to do.” Vocation and calling are both related to work, which is an expression of the ceaseless and shared movement we feel in life for exploration and integration. Given its pervasive presence in the world, given our apparent desire to contribute, to be active and productive, we might conclude that work should be able to speak to our shared striving for self-realization in ways that it simply cannot now.

Surely one possibility for the 21st century is a workplace that can add up to more than work as economic servitude. For this we need to consider what the psychologist Karen Horney means when she offers us the idea of a “morality of evolution.” It might be that a morality of evolution, one that can account for balanced growth in a broader sense than is currently granted, could inform us towards an understanding of economics that would be more sustainable for the future of life.

A sacred world

To humanise the workplace we might begin by re-imagining what is sacred in the world and what we name otherwise. We begin of course, with ourselves and the ground we stand on. If there are, as the poet Wendell Berry suggests at the start of this piece, no unsacred places, then it’s possible that everything that is—is in some very real sense—sacred, that is to say, worthy of our attention, our gratitude, our reverence and our love. What is not sacred is, according to the poet, only that which we ourselves have desecrated, through ignorance, misuse, lack of care, urgency, forgetfulness. It is a strange and uniquely human gift that we can act in ways that desecrate what is inherently sacred. No other creature wields this kind of power, nor does any other creature have the capacity if it so chooses to be astonished, left speechless and transformed by the innate sacredness and beauty of life.


The work of building our understanding the world, of discovering the truth of things is a platform that science and religion share when they are at their best. The physicist Wolfgang Pauli once commented that

“The ambition of overcoming opposites, including a synthesis embracing both rational understanding and the mystical experience of unity, is the mythos, spoken or unspoken, of our present day and age.”

This is, I believe, the real gift that VUCA offers us—an appreciation of the need for a new synthesis of understanding; precisely what Pauli intuited from his work as a quantum scientist. The mythos of our times is much more complex and interesting than a bland story of urgency and blind intensity, but it requires us to take the implication of words like volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity more seriously if we are to shift our current compass bearing and save ourselves.

Possibility lies at the edge of the known but it must be met with a degree of maturity that currently defies us. Life’s mystery sits at the heart of all serious study, be it scientific, philosophical or religious. Sir Arthur Eddington, the physicist and mathematician (best known for his exploration of the theory of General Relativity which Einstein called ‘the finest presentation of the subject in any language) is close to the mystics when he says quite simply, “something unknown is doing we don’t know what.”


This seems an accurate description of business life today and of VUCA particularly and it requires a proper response that takes the well-being of those that serve business seriously. The hope I think, lies in our continuing capacity for inquiry, our endless call to the cycles of exploration and integration; a willingness to ask questions of ourselves and one another, some of which will have no answer.

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“What is the ultimate truth about ourselves?” asks Eddington. “‘Various answers suggest themselves but there is one elementary inescapable answer; we are that which asks the question. Whatever else there may be in our nature, responsibility towards truth is one of its attributes. This side of our nature is aloof from the scrutiny of the physicist. Concern with truth is one of those things which make up the spiritual nature of Man.”

We have yet to get to the truth of what VUCA means in our modern context. We see and articulate more often than not its shadow and misread its principles thereby creating suffering where we could do so much more. The mythos of our times is one of synthesis not division, the unification of our scientific and religious sensibilities towards a private and shared philosophy that is fundamentally humanistic and indeed, as the poet Wendell Berry imagines it, sacred.

VUCA as much as anything, gives us the opportunity to re-imagine our working lives together in ways that honour both our rational intellect and the artistic passion which sits at the heart of that world and of our creative potential. It is true enough that none of us individually know how to evoke the change that we need to make but that we commit to collaborate and try to find a way forward is a fundamental expression of the better sides of our nature, part of the morality of evolution in which each of us takes active part.

nick-rossNick Ross, BA, FRSA, has been a leadership trainer and personal development coach for over 20 years and he is a facilitator in preparation for the Center for Courage & Renewal, as well as an alumni of the Courage & Renewal Academy for Leaders. Coming from a professional background in addictions therapy his work today includes delivery of extensive leadership development programs and executive coaching to global companies and senior leaders. Nick is the Director of a different drum, whose work he summarises as ‘helping others to take the next step’. As a writer, poet and lover of the outdoors Nick brings his love of the arts and nature to his work with executives and senior teams to address and reflect on the place of soul in leadership and the role of sanctuary in supporting healthy human development. You can learn more about Nick here.

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In Gratitude


As we turn toward Thanksgiving this week in the United States, I’m remembering the lines by poet Suji Kwock Kim from “Slant”:

I can’t help thinking no word will ever be as full of life as this world,
I can’t help thinking of thanks.

Here are some of the words of gratitude I hold this week.

I’m thankful:

For communities which come together and support each other, despite adversities and challenges along the way.

For fortitude to carry on even when the going gets rough.

For poetry of courage that helps to carry us through the unspeakable sorrows of our lives.

For artists and musicians and writers and all creative people for the way they show us the world in all of its beauty and all of its hardship.

For the awareness of creative, reflective, mindful practices that help us stay present and compassionate.

For the courage I see in my colleagues and friends, as we live with our hearts broken-open, choosing to ask: “How can I help?”

For life-giving conversations – for those who speak and for those who listen, which are not always easy choices to make.

For the turning of the seasons, wherever we are in the world; the shifts of light and color, the cooler or warmer air, the presence of rhythm in the midst of change.

I leave you with these words, and wish you kindness this week – wherever you find yourself these days:


JoVanceJo Vance recently joined the Center for Courage & Renewal team as Marketing & Communications Associate. A stalwart believer in the power of stories to spark change in the world, Jo is passionate about creating space for those stories to be shared through effective communications. When she’s not hiking in the mountains or by the ocean, Jo volunteers with fellow environmental and social justice activists, works on her poetry manuscript, and delves into her ever-evolving stack of library books.

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