On a gorgeously sunny weekend in the late summer of 2012, I was enroute to a friend’s cottage north of Toronto with my husband and two other friends. My term as the elected leader of Canada’s largest Protestant denomination had ended just a few days earlier, and I was looking forward to some R&R.
It was a strange feeling to have a whole weekend stretching ahead with no commitments. I’d spent three years at a breakneck pace and the prospect of enjoying some expansive, unscheduled time was both thrilling and, in a way, unnerving.
As our destination neared, my husband signaled for our final left turn and stopped to wait for oncoming traffic. A young man (possibly distracted by the two young women beside him) promptly ploughed his pickup truck into the back of our mid-sized passenger car, crumpling it beyond repair.
An obvious metaphor! But of what?
One of the meanings I’ve taken from this incident over the years is the challenge of speaking truthfully about what’s really going on inside us. As the four of us shook pebbles of shattered safety glass out of our hair and assessed the seemingly miraculous fact that none of us had any visible injuries, we assured each other: “I’m fine. Yes, I’m fine.”
But we weren’t, of course.
We were in shock. And while we were without serious injury, we would discover many new muscular aches and pains in the weeks ahead. My husband particularly suffered, perhaps because he had glanced in his rear view mirror, seen the truck bearing down on us and, unlike the rest of us, stiffened in anticipation of impact. It took several months of physiotherapy before he felt fully restored. But on that sunny morning, he was as confident as any of us in claiming: “I’m fine. Really, I’m fine.”
On a different scale, I was just as bad.
I had thoroughly enjoyed my time in office as Moderator of the United Church of Canada. An extrovert, I thrive on interaction and engagement. Meeting people in church halls, facilitating workshops, presiding at sessions of the church’s legislative council, giving media interviews – all of this was a joy to me. Then it ended as abruptly as, say, a rear-end collision. “I’m fine,” I said. “Really, I’m fine.”
But I wasn’t. I was already grieving the loss of the meaningful work and purposeful activity that had defined me for three years. I was wondering how much (if anything) I’d really accomplished. And I was deeply exhausted.
Looking back, I blame Parker Palmer for most of it….
In the United Church of Canada, one doesn’t “run” for the position of Moderator. Anyone who wanted the job badly enough to campaign for it would be deemed unfit. Instead, one allows one’s name to stand in nomination, and then – apart from a short printed statement and a five minute speech — keeps quiet until the election.
I’d been asked to let my name stand in the past and had always said no. But by the fall of 2008, a couple of things had come together.
One was the growing urgency of encouraging faith communities to become more actively involved in reducing greenhouse gases. True, in 2008, there were many people who still questioned the science, but I’d already become convinced it was more a matter for the heart. Climate scientists told me many times: “We can’t persuade people with facts alone. We need your help.”
The other was the fact that, after years of participating in Courage to Lead retreats, I had reached a point of no return about “going public.” I didn’t particularly look forward to public engagement on a controversial issue. I knew it could lead to my being attacked or ridiculed (which it did). But the courage work had taken hold in me to such an extent that I couldn’t avoid it. If I was to live with integrity, then I had to bring my concern for climate change to offering myself for the role of Moderator.
And so I stood with seven other candidates before the church’s General Council and, in my five minutes, I told them that climate change was the greatest moral challenge of our generation. And I proposed that when human beings take an ‘abundance approach’ rather than a ‘scarcity approach,’ we can generate the hope to meet this challenge, together.
They elected me anyway.
“Community not only creates abundance, community is abundance,” says Parker, and these words accompanied me throughout my national and international travels as Moderator, and in “town halls” across the country.
I’ve learned that when our hearts embrace the truth that abundance is found in community, inner climate change becomes the most powerful resource by which to address outer climate change. And when our understanding of community extends to the whole human community, we gain an even deeper appreciation for our abundant relationships and potential.
There were many opportunities for me to advance this perspective.
I attended the United Nations’ COP15 climate change talks in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2009, and COP17 in Durban, South Africa in 2011, and was bemused to find myself as the only North American church leader present. I was invited to participate in news conferences and issue statements with other global religious leaders of such stature as Archbishop Desmond Tutu. My words found their way into national and international newspapers on numerous occasions, and more frequently in regional news outlets at home as I traveled the country. I was told that I’d become both a symbol of hope, and a threat, a thorn in the side of our federal government which, at the time, was muzzling climate scientists and blocking constructive global action. I could neither remain silent about that obstruction, nor could I behave in any way other than respectfully, given our practices of courage and renewal.
When my term as Moderator ended, I returned to facilitating Courage & Renewal retreats, accepted an invitation to be a national magazine columnist, and wondered about other next steps of engagement.
But without a formal leadership role, I began to feel disoriented and restless about what more I might do. That’s the other way in which, on that August morning when a distracted driver rear-ended our vacation, I was not “all right.” I had to find a new way to speak and act with integrity.
In the midst of this struggle, I received an invitation to become a Kirkridge Courage Fellow [a community of practice among Courage & Renewal Facilitators that meet at the Kirkridge Retreat Center in Bangor, Pennsylvania). The Fellowship gave me an opportunity to rediscover my capacity for good work without organizational standing, as I eased into retirement. Just as our principles and practices had readied me to respond with integrity in the past, being in the company of seasoned facilitators would ready me for new circumstances.
Thanks to the trustworthy questions offered to me by the Fellows, I knew how to respond when I received an invitation to lead the United Church of Canada’s delegation to the COP21 Climate talks in Paris. I knew in my heart that it was ‘right work’ for me to accept, as an elder of the church. The challenge was to discern how I would do it in a new way. Without the Moderator’s preaching stole, a symbol of leadership, I would don instead the role of mentor and guide to the young adult activist and the elder from the Haida First Nation who accompanied me.
Later, as I told the Fellows about the Paris experience, it became clearer to me how important it is that we go public with what courage and renewal can offer to the healing of the planet. We create the conditions for inner climate change which are critical for addressing outer climate change.
All of us have a stake in this. A democratic government will risk only what its voters support, so citizens will need to actively support positive risk-taking, and challenge their elected officials when they retreat from their ‘better angels.’ Political capital will be risked, and courage must be rewarded. We must guard our own integrity, and resist the temptation to withdraw our support when decisions require our personal sacrifice.
In order to stay true to my best contributions for this stage of my life – and support others in theirs, I’m inviting old and newer friends into fresh conversation. Plans that my husband and I are making to live communally are reinvigorating, as one way for us to live with greater integrity and within the limits of Earth’s resources.
Listening, speaking and facilitating as an elder, and resisting thoughts that the only kind of ‘right work’ for me is the over-active kind, provides me with a guideline. I will continue to encourage and accompany others, including those elected to public office, without pursuing such an office.
As Desmond Tutu once said: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
Practices of courage and renewal are starting to overwhelm the world.
Mardi Tindal is a writer, presenter and facilitator, and a past Moderator of The United Church of Canada. She lives in Toronto Ontario with her husband Douglas Tindal and delights in being the mother of two adult sons and daughters-in-law and in being a grandmother. She can be contacted through email: email@example.com
This post is an excerpt from Thin Places: Seeking the Courage to Live in a Divided World, an anthology of personal reflections written by seasoned Courage & Renewal facilitators. Used with permission.