In the summer of my 17th year, I lived in Arzew, Africa. My dad, an overseas contractor, worked for Pullman-Kellog on a project in Algeria and my family moved to the American compound with him. I graduated high school that spring with plans to attend college back in the US in the fall. So summer became a grand adventure for me before I had to start adulting!
My friends and I made multiple inpulsive, irrational decisions that year, as teenagers do, believing we were invincible. Looking back I am often amazed I was not hurt, lost or even arrested for some of our stunts. Wouldn’t it be so helpful if hindsight were foresight? When you read of my hi-jinks below, you may see why I often say my own impulsivity and poor judgement as a teen has helped me in my career working with kids from hard places.
The compound life could be rather stifling for kids of the expatriates. Daily routines consisted of swimming in the community pool, playing ping pong or tennis at the rec center or hanging out at a friend’s house. Venturing outside of the compound, while not forbidden, was strongly discouraged. Well, you can imagine how long a group of extroverted teenagers can be corralled without rebelling.
One day, my friend Brian, approached the group with a crazy idea. He had heard through some locals, that a cemetery outside of the compound, was haunted. People claimed to have heard ghosts wandering amongst the graves. Naturally, to my adolescent brain (studies show that the adult decision making part of the brain does not fully develop until age 24) a field trip was in order. My friends and I made a pact to sneak out of our houses that night around 11pm. We would evade the guarded gate and visit this haunted cemetery. The moon seemed to bless the mission, shining brightly from a clear sky to light our trek. Jittery with excitement, we made our way through a back (unguarded) section of the camp to try and locate this scary place.
We found the cemetery all right. And to my utter horror, I instantly knew why it was thought to be haunted. As we gingerly stepped around an open hole and the half- open casket of the recently interred, we realized that grave robbers must frequent the grounds after new burials. For me, it was like passing a serious car wreck on the highway. I didn’t want to look, but I couldn’t help myself.
As said by the little boy on the movie, “The Sixth Sense” …
…I saw dead people…
(OK, dead person, but one was enough!)
Because everything was so fresh, we understood that, apparently, the criminals had just left. I didn’t want to think about what would have happened if we had arrived an hour earlier. The adventure became a lot less fun once I understood how dangerous it could have been. As a matter of fact, several of us were pretty freaked out. We decided to just leave and return to our homes and never tell another soul about what we saw. Hurriedly we exited the grave yard towards the compound.
We were through with that night!
But the night was not through with us.
As we walked back to the camp, nervously inventing scenarios of what could have been, all of a sudden the wind changed. Living in North Africa, we occasionally had to deal with dust storms from the Sahara or a Sirocco, which is a hot, dry wind full of sand. That night, we went from walking under a clear sky and a bright moon, to being pelted in the face with hot sand coming at us in deluges. Seeing became impossible, but we tried to march on with each of us holding on to the shoulder of the person in front of us. Eventually even that did not work. So we entered the camp and crouched under the steps of a house until the wind shifted again.
Without exaggeration, I can attest that the experience was terrifying.
While you may not have ever experienced a Siroco, you may have been faced with a barrier so fierce that you felt like you were walking into a hurricane. Sometimes in our life things seem to come against us in waves, don’t they? Life unfolds in a predictable and routine way…and then suddenly you find yourself caught in a whirlwind of chaos! Has that ever happened to you? While walking your path, have you been hit with money issues, family issues, illness or career issues? Sometimes all at once? Have you been so inundated with the force of the wind that you can’t even see your way to keep going? What did you do?
I used to be that “shoulder to the hurricane” kind of person. In the past when faced with that sudden adversity, I leaned into the storm, squared my shoulders, and kept going out of sheer will. No matter how ill-equipped I was for the task, I would forge ahead full steam and tackle the crisis.
All by myself.
I mistakenly believed that the method worked for me because it took me through the bad times and moved me forward. But I am here to tell you that, after a few years of shoulder to the hurricane, my eyes were opened to the peripheral damage. What I hadn’t realized was how much of the debris from the storm struck me in places I didn’t see. Those injuries created hidden scars and indelible bruises. More often than not, by forging ahead, when faced with an impossible situation, I pushed further along the road, (sure) but sometimes emerged worse for wear.
After multiple offensives, I came to the conclusion that there had to be a better way to overcome the storms of adversity. (I guess you can tell I am not the quickest of learners)
Hard headed my mom would say.
A wise supervisor once told me that not all battles were for fighting. She elaborated that sometimes just watching and waiting could prove to be the best solution for the problem. I tried her advice. When I found myself inundated from multiple life-domains, I gave myself permission to take care of my own mental, emotional and physical safety first. Watching and assessing the situation without reacting or taking the offensive often allowed a natural resolution to the crisis. And by appraising the entire situation (the context, the pattern, the connections) before reacting, I was able to achieve much better outcomes for myself, my family and my team.
When immediate action was needed, I found that working with others during the crisis, did not make me less of a leader. Strength also lies in having the courage to ask for help. Working as a team in times of stress and emergencies, you can utilize the unique skills and strengths of multiple allies who have come together With You to get through the storm and back on the right road.
Wisdom comes in knowing the difference.
Do you currently find yourself in the midst of a Siroco? Are you unable to see how to move forward with everything coming at you at once? Take it from someone who can admit their stumbles on the journey of their life. Don’t try to force your way, alone, shoulder to the hurricane. You could make it through, but at what cost? Ask yourself this question.
What would happen if I don’t react right now, but take some time to think about the next step?
If the answer is that you have some space to assess, Look at the whole context of the issue. How does it fit with the other domains of your life? How will this crisis affect me? my family? my team? What patterns have you noticed prior to this? Have you faced this type of crisis before? What did you do then to make things work?
If action is needed now, Then ask yourself: Who do I trust enough to take with me? What connections do I have that I can turn to at this time and what do each one of them bring to the table? I’ll bet there are people in your tribe right now that have the knowledge, skills or life experience to help you through.
Shoulder to the Hurricane? Good for Super-Heroes but unsustainable for us mere mortals.