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Must We Overcome?

July 15, 2020

This post was originally published in my newsletter, The Question.


I hear the word and its synonyms often.

Getting over our fears. Winning the fight against the crisis. Overcoming our inner struggles.

Our culture is thick with such phrases and metaphors. 

This all might seem natural and obvious enough.

But I wonder. What does it all mean? What does it lead to?

Dare I ask: Must we overcome?

Any time a problem arises, we want to remove it. We seek to overcome the obstacles that stand in our way.

Whether it’s our own lack of confidence, our business’s strategic issue, or a societal crisis, our inclination is to overcome it.

We assume that once we overcome what’s in our way, then things will be better.

If only I had more confidence and my team was more talented, then I’d be fine.”

So, we dedicate our efforts to strategizing, problem-solving, and fixing our way out of our challenges.

This urge to avoid and remove undesirable experiences is, of course, a natural and important reaction.

Indeed, someone who doesn’t flee a burning building won’t get very far in life. And wanting to improve things for ourselves and others is a quality that we would do well to cherish and cultivate more of.

But there is another, darker side to our urge to overcome – especially when it becomes the default, immediate, and unquestioned answer to anything that we don’t like.

When we seek to overcome, we resist and look away from where we are right now.

In seeking to overcome, we live where we’re not.

In myths and stories, the hero confronts an obstacle.

The hero wants to achieve the dream, find the treasure, defeat the opponent, and return home. But something stands in the hero’s way. Naturally, the hero seeks to overcome that obstacle.

But more often than not, the hero’s desire of overcoming leads, at first, to failure or avoidance. The hero either tries and fails, or becomes disheartened and prematurely quits.

It’s only when the hero truly faces the challenge, at its root, that it is finally overcome.

The transformation only happens when the hero faces the dark abyss. The hero looks at the real challenge point blank in the face, allowing the seeds of the new beginning can sprout. The hero confronts the naked truth, sacrificing all that he or she holds dear, bringing forth the death to the old and the birth of the new.

At this dramatic, climactic moment, the hero doesn’t look beyond the challenge.

Instead, the hero stares straight at it.

The hero faces it.

Facing and overcoming might seem similar enough.

We cannot overcome until we have faced. And any facing implies a subsequent overcoming.

Yet they are two worlds apart.

The difference between facing and overcoming lies in where and how we place our attention.

Overcoming focuses our attention beyond what is immediately in front of us.

Facing, on the other hand, focuses our attention on where we are right now.

When we face, we meet the challenge. We greet it, confront it, and get to know it.

When we seek to overcome, we are saying goodbye before we’ve said hello.

Overcoming and facing are two different stances towards life.

Do I look out into the world wanting to overcome everything, in an implicit stance of opposition?

Or do I approach the world with the stance of facing, meeting, and acknowledging what is actually happening around me?

When a problem arises with my spouse or partner, do I immediately seek to overcome it by looking for faults, fixes, and solutions? Or do I face it fully, by opening my heart to what we are both feeling right now?

When a challenge arises within myself, do I avoid and look away from my critical self-judgement and seek to overcome it with “more confidence”? Or do I face my inner critic—an intelligently crafted protection mechanism, which itself sits on top of worry, and perhaps a deep fear of aloneness? Do I face the wounded child within me?

When a conflict arises within my team, do I seek to assign blame, determine fault, and fix the problem myself in order to feel the relief of overcoming it? Or do I face the inner states and feelings of the people on my team? Do I face the fear in the room? Do I face the worry in my colleagues’ eyes? Do I face my own version of what they are facing within myself?

A crying child doesn’t want to overcome its tears. It wants love, attention, comfort, closeness, food, or whatever is needed at the moment.

Tears are a signpost of wanting to be acknowledged and met. The child wants to be faced in its tears.

Telling the child to “stop crying,” or to “get over your tears” will never work. It will merely perpetuate the problem.

Only when the child is fully met and faced in its tears will the tears be overcome. Only when the child is acknowledged, consoled, and faced in what he or she is facing, will the current state begin to relax, melt and flow.

The same is true for us as adults. Although our collective and individual stories appear to tell us that we want to overcome our fears, deep down we don’t.

We want to be met, first. We want to face and be faced. Then, and only then, will we overcome.

Our struggles are not faults or errors.

They are intelligent signposts, inviting us in to be faced, met, held, completed, and ultimately dissolved.

Our challenges are not blocking the path.

They are the path.

Facing can feel frightening.

As the word implies, facing brings us literally face-to-face with what we are avoiding.

Facing puts a face on our struggle. We feel the feelings that have been in perpetual exile. We face the monsters in our closet. We bring the secrets we’ve locked away out into the light.

Yet, as terrifying as this might be, it is also intimate. It is honest and truthful. We invite what is hidden out into the light, out into an embrace, out into the world, one compassionate and inviting look at a time.

Like sinking into a lover’s eyes, or like dropping into a moment of deep immersion and flow, it is all right there. There is no need to get anywhere. 

Despite its appearances, facing is not nothing. It is an act of embracing the inter-subjective nature of ourselves and reality itself.

And all by simply being there, facing the face in front of you, and bringing more of your own face into the light.

Must we face?

No. We mustn’t do anything. We can and should only face what we are ready to, and we cannot face alone.

But if we would like to bring forth the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible, for ourselves and for others, it will not be a question of how much we can overcome.

It will be a question of how much we can face.

Ultimately, changing society—or changing anything—is not about changing out there.

It’s about facing in here.

Our planet, our society, our culture, our economy, are not separate from us.

We are it. It is us.

“We can never speak of nature,” says physicist Fritjof Capra, “without, at the same time, speaking about ourselves.”

What are we facing?

What are we not?

This post was originally published in my newsletter, The Question.


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