Richard Chadek | Richard Chadek
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Author:Richard Chadek

Beyond Tragic

The metaphor that comes to me about my work is that of being a doula for bringing new ways of being into the world.

When you’re giving birth, it’s really useful to be supported by someone who understands the pain, who gets it that despite having predictable stages, the experience ranges enormously from person to person.  Someone who has also experienced the contractions that are fundamental to this process and who’s able to remind you to—for god’s sake—keep breathing.

We know what the best outcome is giving birth, but what about this coaching thing?  What’s trying to happen here?  Well, my fascination has always been with the growth of the psyche from adolescence through adulthood and into maturity.  So I think, wherever we are in this process, what we’re aimed at is the birth of something I refer to as a post-tragic personality.

I use that word because I think tragedy is the pivotal experience of maturity.  Life is simply woven through with loss.  When we’re unable to be with, or even tolerate the existence of loss, one could say our personality is centered at a pre-tragic station. 

Now, from an adolescent, pre-tragic point of view, in the good life the boat doesn’t go down in a storm.  We don’t have to give up the idea of having things our way.  And nobody we love should have to die—at least not before we do.  Whatever tragedies do exist out there, we seek to protect ourselves from them by denying they’ll happen and our focus is on making our lives perfect.

Yet at some point, despite our best effort, tragedy will break through the perfection.  And when it strikes, the image we’ve had of ourselves as competent or resilient or as the architects of our own lives is simply destroyed.  Everything is subsumed in loss and it’s often paralyzing.  This is the tragic station of personality.

In my own case, my younger sister was schizophrenic, a hoarder, and unable to tolerate very much in the way of contact with other people.  Jeanne would only leave her apartment if my mother took her out for groceries or the occasional lunch. 

It’s now nearly 10 years since her death, and I bring her up because after my mother could no longer do those things for her, they fell to me.  And I wasn’t happy about it.  I told myself it simply wasn’t fair that I now had to be my sister’s parent.

One could say that I was captured in a mood of resentment.  But it’s closer to the truth to say I was terrified to feel the raw tragedy of my sister’s achingly narrow life.  I didn’t want to experience my own helplessness in the face of it and, you might say, the guilt I felt for my comparative privilege in the face of her suffering.

Whenever our identity is centered in a pre-tragic personality like mine was, we insist that the bad thing hasn’t happened or isn’t happening or isn’t going to happen.  At least to us.  But we can only sustain this by pretending that large parts of life don’t actually exist.  

We see this all around us: after a pandemic we say to ourselves “Thank god it didn’t get me,” but we seek to go back to ‘normal’.  Climate change isn’t really happening, or maybe it won’t be that bad, or there’s hope that we’ll be saved.  Ironically, our usual vision of being saved has to do with doing more of what brought us here to begin with. And we comfort ourselves with the thought that, in the end, everything will work out.

But when tragedy happens, these illusions of childhood get stripped away.  There’s recognition that the very nature of life is tragic.  The terrible thing most definitely happens.  And while this experience is more coherent than pre-tragic fantasy, the trap in the tragic is that we can be stuck in its shock, immobilized, or burned up in its fire.

Now, there is a way beyond the tragic, but it’s not by putting out the fire.  It’s learning how to let the fire burn what it’s there to burn.  To live with tragedy, and what it causes us to feel.  Because this fire also serves to transform the psyche, by annealing it with the experience of loss.  The way of maturity isn’t about living a perfect life, it’s about being with and transcending tragedy, from within, and living, consciously, toward our death.

When we’re stationed in the post-tragic, we aren’t passive.  We don’t wait for safety in order to love.  We love because there’s no such thing as safety from life.

Let me add another observation.  In our time, we believe democracy is about consensus and getting everyone to act the same way.  But in fact, democracy is a way to contend with opposition and create the circumstances for that opposition to become co-operative.  And it really only works with a post-tragic consciousness. 

Because it’s not about winning.  It has to do with losing and what we do with loss.  It’s not about demanding conformity in a time of enormous complexity but learning to live with that complexity, engaging in co-operative opposition and accepting loss as an essential part of the human condition.

I’ll leave it there.  And while I don’t know whether this may inspire you to reach out to me, I can tell you this:  I do know how to breathe.

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Burning Man

Here’s another Island story.  When I moved to Vashon, I had no idea it would shift my understanding of ‘gardening’ from something about seedlings and weeds to something more about trees and tractors.  In the woods, gardening means cutting away what’s dead, or sickly, or things that aren’t native, or what stands in the way of a greater “wholeness.”  Sometimes it means removing a thing for the sake of creating what sculptors call negative space: an absence that becomes a presence.  Whatever the form, it’s an act of creation.

Perhaps you’re already tuning in to the metaphors here.

On my land, this kind of gardening creates piles of limbs and brush.  A lot of piles.  Enormous piles.  This is stuff that, in rural areas, one disposes of by burning.  But this year, just as the weather got dry enough to burn, it was too dry to burn and the whole burning thing was banned.

And by the end of July, I’d reached the limit of places for the piles I was making.  

Whenever something fell in the wind, I had to leave it in place simply because there wasn’t anywhere else to put it.  Ideas that came to me about opening a space in the trees or clearing out blackberries or other kinds of unruly understory went on hold.  The chainsaw was silent.

It’s said the mystics have this understanding: the outer world and the inner one are not two.  Now, whether that’s so or not, I can tell you that since there wasn’t any space ‘out there’, I began to feel there wasn’t any space ‘in here’ either.  Whatever creative ideas I had arrived stillborn. There was no room for anything new with all the dead structure in my way.  Stagnation began to spread through my life. I grew bored, listless, even a bit depressed.

In October, though, burning again became a thing, so I took a shovel, a hose and this weed burning thing that’s an actual flame thrower down to the fire pit.  But as I looked around at everything there was to burn, I was filled with an enormous lethargy.  After the first armful of brush was consigned to the flames, I’d have to trudge back and forth, back and forth.  Brush pile to burn pile to brush pile…  And it didn’t take long before I found myself staring into the fire, slack-jawed and empty of thought, until the intensity of the heat forced me back to work.  

There’s a figure in mythology whose fate it was to push boulders up this massive hill, only to see them roll back down just as he got them to the top.  Like Sisyphus, I despaired of ever finishing this job. 

But as the rosy dawn turned to noon, I understood the true horror of my situation was more like that of a different mythological figure.  The gods had chained this man to a rock.  Every day they sent an eagle to eat his liver and every night it grew back.  I now realized that my brush piles, just like Prometheus’s liver, were immortal.  Everything I’d cut down and burned would eventually grow back.

After lunch that day, returning to this seemingly endless work, I heard what seemed like the voice of some god whispering to me.  The whisper sounded awfully like “Take your chainsaw”.  So I did.  On the way to the fire, I lopped off some limbs crowding the path.  And that scrawny holly tree shouldering its way between the cherries?  I cut it down.  

Was it my fate, that day, to feed that fire?  Of course it was.  Yet something else happened as well.  Every stick that disappeared took something with it: a little bit of the lethargy, a part of the despair and some of the stuckness I’d been feeling also disappeared.

And in their place? Inspiration was returning, even ambition.

If you haven’t been reading this as metaphor, here’s what all of this has to do with coaching.

The real power of human beings is that we’re able—you might say it’s our destiny—to transform inspiration into structure.  We use our vision, our imagination, our desire to bring some-thing into the world that never existed before.  We obviously do that through music and art, yes, but inspiration also pours through our dreams, our visions, the relationships we’re part of and even our work.  It’s miraculous and the beauty of it can be stunning. 

Inspiration has to become structure if it’s going to ‘land’ in the world but, paradoxically, structure gets in the way of inspiration.  We all know what it’s like when there’s too much structure, like too many rules in our work or relationships: there’s no room for innovation.  The structure is deadening.

While structure has a way of accumulating in our closets and garages, it also shows up in our lives.  It shows up in the form of habits, identities and the limitations we put on what we think is possible, often because of past trauma.  Whenever we feel stuck, it’s this kind of structure that’s in our way, just like those brush piles had been in mine.

Burning seems an apt metaphor for one way we release internal structures that were once quite necessary but have lost their utility as life carries us into different circumstances. 

As a coach, I help my clients see what’s on their burn pile, and what wants to be.  And then I help them set the match. 

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Every client I work with comes to me because they want change: something they want to experience is missing, or something they don’t want to experience keeps happening.  Everybody wants change.  Even those of us who want things to stay just as they are, are looking for it. We want change itself to change.

The cliché that change is the only constant thing in life aligns with something science tells us. Life isn’t a thing; it’s a process in which only the pattern endures while none of the energy or matter that constitutes it does.  Not one atom in my body now will be present in a year’s time, even though I hope to be.  The pattern I call me may remain, but none of the stuff in me will.

Life is organized to conserve just one thing: the pattern of being alive.  You could think of this as Life’s superpower.  The survival of trilobites or dinosaurs or even humans is not required.  By insisting upon conserving living, but not the form of the being that lives, enormously complex ecosystems now fill our planet.  Said another way, if you keep just one thing from changing, a space of possibilities opens in which everything else can—and will—change.  This is evolution: not a history of all that’s changed through time but instead the story of what’s been conserved.

If all things are free to change—provided they’re not being conserved—a fascinating and useful question presents itself:  What are my clients conserving, consciously or not, that results in the experiences they complain about?

If these clients were fish, or squirrels or even lions on the savannah, we wouldn’t be asking this question.  If they were squirrels or fish, they wouldn’t be complaining that there’s too much or not enough change.  They’d just go about doing what Life has them do.

But this isn’t so with my clients, nor is it with most of us.  Although the choice to conserve just one thing generally operates at a level beneath awareness, with the self-conscious-ness of humans, we can deploy it to avoid experiences.  Like ones that cause us to feel what we don’t want to feel.  And when we do that, it serves in a way that ‘protects us’ from change.  Any change.  And then we suffer.

Consider, for example, that most of us are either committed to an intimate relationship, or we’re looking for one.  And the criteria many of us have for this kind of thing is that we should feel, well, good when we’re in one.  Maybe that means having enough sex.  But not too much.  Or feeling like we’re being deeply seen and appreciated.  But not those parts of us we don’t want to look at.  Or perhaps it has to do with finding someone we can actually depend upon.  But not to the point of feeling helpless and afraid should they leave us or die.  We want to be safe, but not to the point of suffocation, and we want to belong, although we don’t want to give up our freedom. 

I think you catch the drift here. Maybe trying to feel good isn’t as good as it seems.  Maybe feeling good is too small a thing to conserve or has consequences that put something even more important at risk.  Maybe that truly important thing requires us to tolerate being afraid or vulnerable.

Many years ago, my wife and I were in therapy, trying to lessen a deep unhappiness in our marriage.  As was often the case, it was Dianne who alternately pushed and dragged me toward what was necessary for our marriage, and she was despairing of the effort.  I didn’t understand, really, what surrendering to this process meant but I was afraid it meant exposing some part of me I wasn’t sure I could endure revealing.  I knew I was about to either lose my marriage or confront some experience I couldn’t name but that I feared like death.  For weeks, this dilemma snapped me awake at 2:00 AM, roiling with anxiety.

I remained locked in the grip of these two nightmare outcomes until one sweat-drenched night I understood that the only way I was going to avoid the poles of my dilemma was to take my own life.  In the shock of that realization, as clearly as if I’d said the words aloud, I knew I would not kill myself.  And since I would not serve my own dying, the way opened for me to enter, with as much dignity as I could muster, what I had to enter to conserve my marriage.

This is what we all know about intimate relationships: they have a way of concentrating our attention on the ways in which we aren’t yet mature.  It can serve neither Life nor our own lives to conserve these immaturities.  Yet when we seek to avoid fear, shame, anger or sorrow we do exactly that. 

Among other things, maturity requires us to endure experiences we do not want for the sake of aligning what we do with how we feel and what we believe.  The evidence of maturity is the willingness to be with whatever experience our living asks of us.

The real challenges in our relationships don’t point toward exchanging the partner we have for another, although that may be necessary.  Instead, these challenges point at capacities that are latent in us.  Ones we haven’t developed, either because we haven’t yet needed them or because the injuries or traumas we’ve suffered haven’t healed. 

The coaching topic doesn’t have to be an intimate relationship in order to develop our maturity, despite how efficient they are at pointing out our limitations.  The topic might involve a lack of success, or an excess of success that is exhausting us.  It might be that our notion of success, or how we are in relationship, no longer conserves what we know is true and meaningful.

But whatever the topic, when someone looks for help from this kind of coaching, a question ripe to be wondered about is this: What one thing matters so much that I’d allow everything else to be open to change? 

As a developmental process, there are two distinct steps involved.  First is discovering what hasn’t been visible before, what wants to be conserved.  Then, often for the first time, we can choose what’s to be done.  It often takes some time to live into this question, and still more to bow down to its answer.

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