When I started my coaching career—all those years B.C. (Before Covid)—I was heady with the possibilities that naturally arise after rigorous training in one’s field of passion. My clients, I imagined, would be folks stuck in their work or struggling with intimacy or trust; people who’d used psychotherapy, not just to feel better, but also for the sake of understanding themselves, and who continued to feel the pull of something below ‘see’ level.
Seeing the world through a developmental lens, I understood suffering as the consequence of blocked or impaired growth and I believed my greatest service lay in helping remove whatever blocked the natural movement of life from fundament to significance.
It’s past 20 years now since those days, and while I still see the world through that developmental lens, a different cohort of clients has found its way to my door. These folks experience life as profoundly ephemeral. For them, something fundamental, which they’d always counted on to be solid, is now up for grabs and the river of their life is moving, somewhere, that isn’t really of their choosing. And while this can happen at any point in life, it usually isn’t until after middle-age, when significant losses have really started to accumulate.
That’s not to say their life isn’t still busy or vital, but they’ve lived long enough to experience the moving horizon of life, carried inside themselves, become fixed. No longer does the horizon stay the same respectful distance from them as life unfolds. No, as they move through life, the edge of all known things gets closer and closer. And beyond that edge? Well, there be dragons.
Maybe their children now have children, and they wonder: what’s to become of them in the world being left them? Or perhaps they never had children, and they wonder: what’s to become of me as I journey further and further into alone?
Perhaps life for them has already been a series of sacrifices and now they struggle with yet still more surrender. Perhaps they’ve recently lost parents or a spouse. Or there’s been an unrelenting series of these losses. Maybe they themselves have been given a diagnosis that completely changes what they think about living.
They may not have language for this. They talk about being resigned or say they’re angry, but what they feel is that it’s just too hard surrendering to all they face. The taste of ‘giving up’ is bitter. But it may be that what they face isn’t about how to give up as much as it’s about how to bow down.
I’ve always been fascinated with language and that what we say actually shapes the world we experience. Everything we do involves language which we use to either open up or prevent what’s possible. With many clients, it can be useful to explore what declarations do or don’t show up for them. Like whether and how they say No or Yes, especially in circumstances where the opposite seems to be expected of them.
But with the folks I have in mind, this won’t be deep enough for what’s on the line. We’re living in a time of real confusion between what we say is true, what we say is real and what falls into the category of personal experience. In these times, our experience, or what we fear experiencing, has become interchangeable with the True and the Real. We can see this in the rise of the conspiracies that abound and the common insistence on fidelity to a worldview rather than fidelity to the world.
The clients I’m speaking of have become desperate for reality. They badly want truth. But here’s a problem: if we look at the etymology of truth, we quickly discover that it started as a verb. It was more like “truing” a thing, like making something straight. And then it became a thing a person did for their community. Someone of real standing—typically an elder—would attest that this is the way things are and their standing in the community became collateral, something they put at risk should the stand they took prove devious. But we don’t live in an era that holds elders in much regard, so that kind of truing is lost to us.
The etymology of words, the history of their meaning, isn’t merely academic. The current meaning of a word is like the last 5 feet of a climbing rope. We absolutely need to hold onto the current meaning, but when we’re using words to belay us in this life, we need to trust the whole 150 feet of rope.
For the clients I’m speaking of, I suspect that even more than truing, what they seek is belief. And here we need to turn again to etymology. Belief comes from the joining of the words be and lief. When be was used as a prefix it meant something like ‘intensify whatever word comes next’—like becalm or benumb or bewilder. And the word it was joined to in this case came from one which had to do with love. That gives us belief as an intensification of love. Can you feel the difference between this understanding of the word and its shabby offspring of today? And can you imagine how holding the word in this way might hold us?
With this understanding, our desperation might be resolved through our loving. What is it that we’re loving? Not just what are we holding onto, but truly loving? What might it look like to intensify that loving to the point of actually bowing down to it? There’s a surrender to which we have a chance of saying yes.