A Hurricane in Texas Reminds Us of a Flood in Minnesota

We are Norwegian, German, stubborn and fighters. This is our place, and we’ll stay here.

Steve Carbno, disaster coordinator for the Salvation Army, Fargo, ND

Hurricane Harvey, that still ravages Texas, brought back many memories from our experiences with a record flood in 2009. I am sorry for the people affected by this hurricane: their lives with be changed forever and the road ahead will be difficult and exhausting.

Our story:

The fall of 2008 brought record rainfall to Fargo, ND/Moorhead, MN–across the Red River from one another. December had more snow than any month in history. Worried about spring floods, I added more flood insurance. Throughout the winter, I watched the weather daily: Would it snow, might it melt some, what were the flood predictions? I went on a 3-week photo trip out West at the end of January, 2009. I checked the weather back home every day.

As March began, the National Weather Service predicted a flood crest in the mid to high 30-foot range. Dennis Walacker — who was the mayor of Fargo, North Dakota, and had been public works director in 1997, and who was credited with saving Fargo from the flood that year — thought the crest would be lower. Our home would be safe to almost 39 feet.

The flood came early, fast, and big.

We began to sandbag on March 20, 2009. Melanie was born and raised in this region, and her mother and eight of her brothers and sisters lived in the area. They had children and some of their children had children. They turned out in force to help. Many came back day after day. Melanie’s mom, sisters, friends, and co-workers took over the kitchen. Workers were well fed.

Melanie was a good friend to many, and those friends turned out en masse. Her professional colleagues were tremendous in their help and concern. We had members of the girls’ volleyball team from North Dakota State University and a high school wrestling team help out. Helpers included bankers, coaches, teachers, builders, farmers, attorneys, scientists, garbage men, federal agents, retired folks, and the students. Without the students — from grade school through college — Fargo/Moorhead would have been lost to the flood.

Three days later, we had filled approximately 20,000 bags with 35 pounds of sand each. As many as 150 people worked at once. It was an amazing example of self-organization — the chaos of people coming together for a common purpose came to order and did so quickly. People did what they could, leaders emerged and leadership shifted naturally, creativity took over, and rules took a back seat. Skid steers tore around our yard carrying filled sand bags. It broke Melanie’s heart to see her yard and landscaping torn up, but survival becomes the sole priority in a crisis. We worked in rain, snow, and mud. People cared, and fought to protect their property and that of their friends and neighbors. Laughter filled the air, and we felt a powerful sense of purpose and community. I’ve never been part of such an expenditure of energy before; people working together was a magnificent sight to see.

Each day the predicted crest got larger. Over a few weeks, it went from 34 feet to 42-43 feet. During the days we sandbagged, the crest prediction rose a foot or more each day. Every time we thought we were finished, we had to dig a little deeper within ourselves and pile the bags higher. We were exhausted, but our core group of men and women would not stop. We thought we were done when our dike protected our home to 40 feet. Overnight it snowed 7 inches. The flood and snow scenes were surreal. Climbing over the plastic-covered dike was a slippery venture.

Later that day, the National Weather Service — a constant source of frustration — raised the crest prediction by another foot. We went to work yet again. The heartiest among us pulled a boat through the strong current and freezing slush to the dike on the road that led to our home. They then walked through snowdrifts to their pick-up trucks a couple of blocks away. They went in search of filled sandbags, loaded their trucks, and returned. They loaded the sandbags onto sleds, pulled them through the snow and over the dike, and loaded them into the boat, which they pulled through the slush and fleeing voles to the house where they stacked them onto the dike. This work went on from late afternoon until 1:30 a.m. We again thought we were OK.

Our home surrounded by water.

The next afternoon, they raised the crest prediction again — this time, to 42-43 feet. We were surrounded by water. We went to work again in the late afternoon and followed the same process as the day before. We worked deep into the evening. Suddenly we had sewer backup in our basement. The public works department had shut down the lift station without telling us. Melanie slammed the state-of-the art sewer shut-off down and the backup stopped, but the damage was done. From now on, the toilet would be a bucket outside.

Then the authorities ordered an evacuation of all residents in a huge part of the city. A 43-foot flood would devastate the community. We didn’t know then that they had no authority to “order” an evacuation. They meant well, but they scared us, and we decided to evacuate.

At about 9:00 p.m., it was time to go. Melanie locked the door and climbed over the sandbags. She was the last person out of the house and into the boat. As we left our neighborhood, a plow closed the road behind us.

The next morning, two family members boated to the house. Our dike had held. No water had gotten under the dike, over it, around it, or through it. When they took the dike down many weeks later, the Army Corps of Engineers supervisor said it was one of the best-built dikes he had ever seen.

But a back-up sump pump had failed, and we had 9 to 12 inches of water in our finished basement, along with the sewer backup. We had moved many things of value to the second floor, but there was still a massive amount of accumulated stuff floating around the basement.

The harm was done. A costly finished basement was ruined, and many possessions were contaminated. Our furnace, water heater, and freezer were destroyed. The house smelled of sewage. Carpets on the main floor and top floor were caked with mud from the frantic efforts of a dozen or more volunteers to move our possessions to the top floor. Our yard and landscaping were ruined by the dike-building process. Our road was torn up by sand trucks. Two neighbors lost their homes. Others had water damage worse than us.

Family members spent several nights in the house and watched the dike and pumps. Melanie and I stayed with Melanie’s mother for a week. Our dogs were farmed out to relatives. We adapted by the minute.

A few days after evacuating, we returned home. We parked a few blocks away. We used the sled and walked through snow, water, and mud in waders and got to the dike. We climbed over it and got some necessities and put them into garbage bags. We carried them over the slippery dike and onto the sled and pulled it to our car. After two trips, we were exhausted.

Four days after we left, we got another 10 inches of snow — 17 inches in less than a week — along with heavy rains while we sandbagged, a record flood, and blizzard winds. There was a second, maybe even higher, crest on the way. The city looked like an exhausted war zone.

Finally, they rescinded the mandatory evacuation and opened the dike on the road so we could drive to our home. The water had receded across the road. The city inspectors and insurance adjusters began to show up. The birds and wild turkeys returned.

The city declared our home uninhabitable.

Two homes in our neighborhood of 11 houses were destroyed. Three others had water in the basement. The peninsula was a mess from the clay dikes, home dikes, and roads damaged by heavy equipment. The second crest was lower than predicted. The clean-up began.

Fighting the record flood was the easy part.

Our home had 20% damage, according to FEMA. Fighting the flood was an exhilarating, high-energy experience — the best experience of creative chaos I’ve had. Cleaning the mess up afterwards and going to our wounded home and neighborhood were sad, painful, and depressing encounters with death and destruction. We rented a townhome in Fargo while we cleaned up. We would never again live in our home.

The neighborhood looked like a war zone after the flood waters receded: fences down, roads torn up, landscaping destroyed, sandbags stuck in the trees and buried in the ground, homes surrounded by sandbags and then dirt rings after the Army Corps of Engineers took the dikes down. Mud was tracked everywhere for weeks afterward. We cleaned water and sewage from our basement, ripped out wallboard, and threw away truck-loads of possessions accumulated over 15 years.

We entered a neutral zone of uncertainty and not knowing about our lives. About half of our neighbors wanted to stay, and began to explore ways to make their homes safer by elevating them, or building a clay dike or a concrete wall. The rest wanted to leave. For us, four floods in 12 years were enough. For others, this record flood was the first time they were threatened and once was enough. As one neighbor said about our once safe neighborhood, “Maybe nature doesn’t want us here anymore.” Melanie and I vowed to turn this disaster into an opportunity for transformation.

I knew that a neutral zone (the place between endings and beginnings) wasn’t just a place of confusion and uncertainty. The neutral zone can also be a condition for creativity if we can live with the discomfort and anxiety for a time.

Often people go into submission after a disaster and let others decide their destiny. We would not go quietly into compliance and submission to the bureaucracies and to those who re-victimize victims. We would assert ourselves, ask questions, and push back on bureaucratic pronouncements. We would attend every meeting held, and we would tell our story and express our opinions to anyone who would listen. We wanted to influence the chaos around us and shape our own future.

Part of me enjoyed the challenges of the flood’s aftermath. Another part of me felt scared of entering into new and bureaucratic domains. We fought for what we believed was right with insurance companies. I sent letters to the politicians and did what I could. I attended every City Council meeting for months after the flood and asked questions and told our story to the mayor, city manager, council members, and city engineer every chance we got. We found them to be good and caring people, willing to listen.

We expressed our fears of future floods with our elected state and federal officials. I visited the disaster center three times to try to get answer to my questions from FEMA and SBA officials. The front-line people were awesome: caring and compassionate. The bureaucracy — excessive process and slow to act — exhausted us, numbed our minds, and extended our patience to the breaking point. The rules, language, processes, procedures, and regulations were complicated and hard to understand. It would take about 1½ years to work through all the issues and bring the flood follow-up to a conclusion.

Our home was put in a project for buyouts. I asked the city engineer what motivated putting our home in this proposed FEMA project. He replied, “Because it makes sense.” That’s what responses to disasters need more of: what makes sense.

From time in the neutral zone, new visions form if we will live with uncertainty for a time.

Just before the flood, a job opened up in Minneapolis (225 miles southeast of us) that Melanie was interested in. The flood was traumatic for both of us but more so for Melanie, who had built the home and raised her three children there. She lost many possessions in the flood that held meaning for her. For her the beautiful home died the day the water came in. She did not want to return. She decided to go forward with her job application. Like everything at this time of our lives, the job process moved slowly.

We imagined and thought through different scenarios for what might happen with the job and our home. In our hearts, we most wanted to go to Minneapolis. My two daughters and five grandchildren lived there. I also looked forward to renewing old friendships from decades of earlier life in the Twin Cities. Two of Melanie’s three children would be living in Minneapolis that fall. The job would be a professional advancement and a challenge Melanie would enjoy. She would get to use talents and skills honed over a 30-year career.

We envisioned new adventures in our upcoming lives as empty-nesters and grew more and more excited. We decided that if Melanie got the job, we would go regardless of the fate of our home.

Suddenly things began to happen: Melanie was offered the job and compensation was negotiated and agreed upon quickly. Within 72 hours we had rented a beautiful home 15 minutes from her new workplace. Melanie gave her notice in Fargo and began work in Minneapolis 10 days later. We moved our possessions a month after that. The city purchased our home for a fair price a few months later. A year later, we purchased a new home. Melanie thrived in her new job.

The natural disaster created the conditions for us to renew our lives. We refused to be victims. Despite the difficulties, we felt alive as we grieved our losses. We grew as people. And, in the midst of a contentious time in America, we experienced the deep goodness and decency of the people around us. We will be forever grateful to them for the help they gave us.

Best wishes Texas.

 

 

 

 

Why Didn’t James Comey Confront Trump?

Lordy, I hope there are tapes.

James Comey

 

During former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee (June 8, 2017), Senator Marco Rubio asked Comey why he didn’t air his concerns about Trump immediately while he was still FBI director.

“I think the circumstances were such that I was a bit stunned and didn’t have the presence of mind, and I don’t want to make it sound like I’m Captain Courageous; I don’t know whether even if I had the presence of mind I would’ve said to the president, ‘Sir, that’s wrong.’ I don’t know whether I would have. But in the moment, it didn’t come to my mind; what came to my mind was, ‘Be careful what you say.”

James Comey’s history reveals a courageous man. Was he showing false humility to avoid telling a deeper truth that he may not have been totally aware of?

I can imagine a different response from Comey to Rubio’s question:

I was stunned and caught off guard by the things President Trump said and the underlying messages he sent to me. I also felt repulsed by the nature of the man. My instincts told me at our dinner meeting (Jan. 27, 2017), ‘This is a dangerous moment’ and I better remember what he says and document it for he will lie about what he said if the meeting became important in the future. I focused on Trump, his words and his unspoken messages to me. I had to get through this meeting with my integrity intact and without getting fired. Not to save my job: I wanted to protect the Russia investigation from him and survive long enough to gather whatever evidence the President wanted to give me. I decided that I would document all future engagements with Trump. 

I knew some things intuitively: Confronting Trump would be futile and unproductive. He attacks anyone who confronts him. He would have refused enlightenment and efforts to educate him. I was not the President’s lawyer or advisor and it was not my job to school the President on how to do his job or to stop him from going down an inappropriate path that may become criminal. Besides, he wasn’t naïve, ignorant or inexperienced; he knew exactly what he was doing.

I talked to the Attorney General about not leaving me alone with the President. He said nothing. I did not trust him enough to say more to him. Resignation would have harmed the investigation and the FBI and there might not be a Special Counsel today had I quit. I knew without thinking about it that I would stay and do what I could to advance the Russia investigation and protect the integrity and independence of the FBI.

It was my job to document the facts and my experiences with the President. I would do so until I could no longer contain the situation and was put in a position by the President where I had no choice but to resign or sacrifice my integrity. I wondered how far he would go. I reviewed each conversation with Trump with my FBI staff and we discussed my strategy. I needed the documentation and witnesses to protect myself and the FBI. The evidence I documented led, I believe, to the appointment of the Special Counsel.

People considered Comey a smart political operative within the government bureaucracy. I suspect he was more calculating than he wanted to acknowledge–even, perhaps, to himself. I think his “calculating”–fully conscious and rational or on emotional and intuitive auto-pilot–was a good thing for it served a noble purpose and he carried his plan out ethically. For political reasons, maybe it was easier for Comey–a man who doesn’t like to talk about himself–to be self-deprecating about his personal courage than to share his deepest essence and personal reactions with the Senators. Comey may not be Captain Courageous but he has more nerve than most of us and he’s no naive boy scout.

I had several situations in the corporate world—as a leader and as a consultant—where I was threatened with the loss of my job or income if I did or didn’t do certain things that went against my values. I sat across from angry executives who insulted, demeaned and threatened me and who had no respect for niceties or talents for confrontation. I also sat across from executives who delivered dark metamessages with a soft tone and “safe’ words. Trump embraces both tactics to get what he wants. Like Comey, I felt stunned. Also confused and crazy. Imagining myself interrupting people of questionable intent who had power over me to tell them how badly they were handling themselves makes me laugh. I would have been fired and ridiculed for my naiveté. It is even more ludicrous to expect Comey to do so with Trump. Confront a mean narcissist? Get real. Comey had a greater purpose.

In dealing with such people, I often operated at a gut and intuitive level in real-time without the opportunity to think everything through as rationally as I might have liked. These were new, confusing and dangerous situations with no manual to tell me how to handle myself. My values guided me. It took me years to sort out some crazy situations and to make sense out of nonsense. I suspect James Comey will be reflecting on his “nonsense” experiences with Trump and his own feeling  and reactions for a long time.

The moment always came with those executives when I had to choose to sell my soul, quit or get fired. My commitment to truth and my values was deep and I never gave in to threats made by powerful people. Comey managed his situation as long as he could without selling his soul. Trump fired him before Comey felt he had to resign (May 8, 2017).

It’s hard to stand up for our values in a world filled with madness. James Comey faced darker craziness with far greater things at stake than I ever had to deal with. He did so in the public eye certain to be criticized and attacked. He is a noble and honorable man.

I look up to the James Comey’s of the world who—often alone–stand up to malevolent people with full knowledge that they will suffer personally for their commitment to something larger than themselves: in Comey’s case a powerful allegiance to our Constitution and to the integrity and independence of the FBI and to his own values.

I was once asked disdainfully, “Who do you think you are, the keeper of the values?”

Yes, I am the keeper of the values and so are you and you and you.

Lifelong Learning

In the 2000’s, the American Dream faded for millions of Americans. As the 2016 presidential election approached, work rates were at their lowest levels in decades. Millions of people had dropped out of the work force and income insecurity grew. An opioid epidemic of pain pills and heroin spread across white America often funded by Medicaid and disability insurance, which had become long-term unemployment insurance for many. A study showed that nearly half of all working-age male labor-force dropouts—about 7 million men—took pain medication daily.

Sickness and early death in the white working class could be rooted in poor job prospects for less-educated young people as they first enter the labor market, a situation that compounds over time through family dysfunction, social isolation, addiction, obesity and other pathologies.” Suicide, chronic liver cirrhosis and drug overdoses account for much of the increase in death rates.

Many felt left behind in a world that moved faster than most of us could keep up with. Millions no longer trusted politicians, government or America’s institutions. People felt angry, afraid and anxious because America was not going in the right direction for them. Their lives were difficult and getting harder.

The time was perfect for Donald Trump. He promised he would “make America great again.” He would withdraw from globalization. He would bring manufacturing jobs home. And he would give great health care to everyone. He would build physical and psychological walls to keep Muslims and Hispanics out. He called them criminals and terrorists. I call them poor and powerless, mostly women and children, in search of a safe-haven.

Citizens didn’t have to be anxious about climate change: it was a Chinese hoax. Trump would get rid of the EPA, eliminate regulations, exploit our national parks and national monuments and double down on consuming finite resources. If facts and truth got in the way, we would use alternative facts: truth and reality would be what we wanted them to be. Fantasized wishes and opinions would replace science. Together we could create our own imaginary world and live happily ever after. Life would be great.

Working class Americans felt “heard” by Trump. Millions so wanted to believe in him. Their desire to believe clouded their judgement, emotion trumped reason and the unfit and needy con man who lies more than he tells the truth became president.

Today only a few months into his presidency, Trump’s lies cover up his picking the pockets of the American people. Trump betrays those who voted for him and he and Republicans in Congress will continue to cater to the wealthy–indifferent to the suffering of everyone else. His biggest lie was about “healthcare for everyone.” His plan takes healthcare from 23 million Americans and is more a transfer of wealth from everyday Americans to the richest two percent of us than a healthcare plan.

Millions need to deal with addiction.  Trump made combating the nation’s drug-overdose problem a focal point of his presidency. “We will stop the drugs from pouring into our country and poisoning our youth,” he said… “and we will expand treatment for those who have become so badly addicted .” Trumpcare will, in all probability, reduce funding for treatment for Opioid addiction when the nation needs it the most.

More lies will be exposed: Globalization isn’t going away; we must be engaged in the world. Manufacturing jobs will not return; coal miners won’t get their jobs back. Climate change is real and we better get honest about the dangers: wars, famines, mass migrations and economic collapse. Walls won’t protect us, alternative facts won’t make reality go away and opioids, heroin and alcohol won’t restore purpose and meaning to our lives—only values, purpose and meaningful work will do that. Trump’s “make America great again” is a road to decline.

We can think of working class Americans as canaries in the coal mine. The issues that drove them to Trump may one day be everyone’s issues, their stories may be our stories. No group or economic class will be immune from the greed, selfishness and the lust for power of the Trump’s of the world. They have no loyalties other than to their own ego’s. We have to say “NO” to “Trumpism” and the dark side of humanity that he symbolizes if we want to have any dreams in America.

We need to be aware of two highly probable future realities: Technology will continue to evolve rapidly and many great advancements will come from robotics, biogenics, nano-technology and artificial intelligence. But technology has a dark side that we need to manage: addiction, distraction, the loss of freedom and the loss of our humanity. And unemployment and income insecurity in the working class alert us to a future that will affect almost everyone. In the decades ahead, massive numbers of people will lose their jobs to technology: lawyers, doctors and accountants along with cab drivers and clerks. Some jobs will become obsolete; others will be done by robots, machines and workers in other nations. We need to adapt.

Thomas Friedman in his book Thanks for Being Late wrote that we must become lifelong learners: we must continually learn new things and develop new skills if we want to even begin to keep up with change and have a place in the future. To be employable from now on, we must reinvent ourselves throughout our lives–life is learning.

Lifelong learning might strike us as a small fix to complex challenges today and in the decades ahead. But the impact of valuing learning and weaving learning processes into the fabric of all aspects of life: you, me, our schools, our organizations, our communities and our local, state and national government and institutions would bring forth massive creativity, evolve our capabilities and prepare us for a future life more different than most of us can imagine today. Such change will require a well-balanced mix of government help and personal drive and responsibility. The alternative might be spending our productive years sitting in front of screens stoned on drugs and living on a small stipend or disability check (See: Homo Deus by Yuval Harari for more about the future of work and massive unemployment).

But we need to do more than just develop new job skills. We must also learn how to navigate difficult changes easier and faster. Friedman wrote, “Every society and every community must compound the rate at which it reimagines and reinvents its social technologies, because our physical technologies will not likely be slowing anytime soon.”

I used the work of William Bridges to manage external change and the internal emotional transitions that accompany external changes and must be guided if we want changes to be implemented well. A deeper understanding of change helps people make changes easier and faster and also helps people tolerate uncertainty and cope with chaos and complexity better. If you or your organization can change easier and faster, you will have a competitive advantage.

Daniel Quinn wrote in Ishmael: Perhaps the flaw in man is exactly this: that he doesn’t know how he ought to live. We need to do more than learn new job skills and learn how to change faster. We need to learn how to live differently. Our way of life and our existence as a species is threatened by our addictive consumption of the earth’s biomass. Earth is over-populated and we cannot sustain our way of life for much longer. Either we will change or we will not. Either way, something spectacular is going to happen soon.

We must see reality clearly and we must create new, positive stories for our collective future and unite around them. Then we can leave Trumpism behind and consider it a bad episode in America’s history.

 

 

Bring Light to Dark Places

Every day repulsive Donald Trump shocks us with his malicious and bottomless dark side, his lack of a rational thought process and his lust for love, cruel behavior, overall incompetence and deceitful and self-delusional promotion of himself. Every word and deed services a limitless and unrestrained ego spewed on the world from the most powerful and esteemed office in the world. How did we end up with this vile reality TV charlatan as President?

Almost more painful to watch than Trump are the sycophants who fawn over and enable him: smart people who have sold their souls and don’t seem to care about the harm they inflict on the world if they get their reward whether it be money or celebrity or momentary power.

A prerequisite for being in relationship with Trump is a willingness to be diminished as a human being. Those who refuse to be made smaller quit or get expelled from Trump world. Perhaps a few brave souls choose to stay and suffer the indignity of Trump to help the nation. They too will reach their limit.

Worst of all may be the repugnant Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and those who follow them in our Congress who seem willing to sacrifice our democracy and hurt our people for tax cuts for the richest Americans who do not need the money–all at the expense of poor, working and middle class Americans.

The election of Trump was a national expression of poor judgement. I no longer believe that there is wisdom in the electorate. I fear for our democracy when fake news and alternative facts go mainstream and replace truth, reason and science for many people who don’t care or take the time to recognize and separate truth from fiction.  Did many voters choose distraction and entertainment over thinking and discernment?  I think so.

Spiritual writers tell us that a spiritual awakening is spreading across the planet. I believe they are right. But others have said the same thing for decades. I wonder if the movement grows fast and large enough to bring light to the darkness in time. Many people choose to live in the shadows of a fake reality and to be distracted and entertained instead of doing the hard work of seeing reality accurately. I have little hope for them.

This essay is for those who want to wake up and evolve as people.

My edited 2002 version of The Allegory of Plato’s Cave. I believe it fits today’s world in which many do not see reality accurately.

The allegory describes a scenario in which what people believe to be real is, in fact, an illusion.

Imagine a cave inhabited by prisoners who are chained and cannot move. They can only look at the wall directly in front of them. Behind the prisoners an enormous fire blazes continually, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, along which people walk carrying things on their heads. Sounds made by the people on the walkway echo off the walls of the cave and make new noises. The prisoners cannot see the raised walkway or the people walking, but they watch and talk about the shadows cast on the wall by the people, not knowing they are shadows. The prisoners believe the shadows to be real and the sounds to be coming from the figures on the walkway, not just reflections of a different reality, since the shadows are all they had ever seen.

Imagine that a prisoner is freed and permitted to go outside of the cave and look around. The prisoner would be shocked to see that the shadows are only reflections of a more encompassing reality and that everything he thought he and his fellow prisoners knew about reality was wrong. If the prisoner returned to the cave, he would return as a changed person who could never again believe or act in the old way because the world was now a different place. The changed  person would want to act on his new understanding, could not bear to be confined in the cave any longer, and would pity his fellow prisoners. He would want to share his new wisdom with the other prisoners, but they would reject his new knowledge and would make fun of him because the reality they understood had not changed.

The cave prisoners know nothing but the shadowy reality of their limited world. They could not relate to a world they have never seen. The more aware prisoner would be seen as a threat to the established ways of seeing the world. The prisoners would not embrace the new world but would deny it, fear it, and cling more tightly to the old world.

Each of us has Plato’s Caves of our lives—places where ego, fear, greed, habits, wounds, denial, addiction, conformity, ignorance, manipulation, and even a cherished way of life blind us to greater insight, awareness, perspective, authenticity and possibilities. Caves are places where we mistake false appearances for reality. We can’t see what we are blind to.

But every once in a while, we get pushed, dragged—or even venture willingly—out of one of our caves. For example, the alcoholic on his deathbed is forced to make a choice of life or death. If he chooses to stay in his cave, he will die. If he chooses life, he must then see himself as he is—always the first step of change— not as his delusions and self-deception tell him he is. At first he is as mad as can be at this forced change. It is always painful to be confronted with our false realities. But he slowly becomes acclimated to a new reality. Increased self-awareness and new knowledge bring forth new ways to live with meaning and purpose. This transformation is often called a spiritual awakening.

Like drunks, everyday people have their caves too. Some never leave the caves of their lives and live what Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation.” Others may leave a cave or two and then stop—content with their lives. Still others understand that our worlds have many caves in them. They know they’ll never run out of caves to abandon in search of greater aliveness. They are determined to seek out the caves of their lives and leave them proactively because caves always eventually confine or threaten their spirits.

Despite the loss and fear of change, these seekers choose intentionally to jump into new situations, new learning, and diverse adventures to expand their empathy, experience, and understanding. These people don’t stop leaving the caves of their lives until they die and no one knows what happens after death; perhaps the adventures continue. Whatever the circumstances, leaving a cave involves an inner shift that brings forth a deep examination and change of values, beliefs, and assumptions that evolve life.

The spiritual awakening of the alcoholic, the insights of everyday people, the enlightenment of the seeker, and the moment of metanoia — a change of the inner person–are similar, as each requires a temporary surrender of the ego, a re-ordering of the psyche, and a fundamental shift of perception.

No one who experiences this transformation will ever see the world in the same ways again. We should not be too proud of our initial inner expansion for we will be called over and over again to leave cave after cave, and journeys always humble the traveler. Of course we can choose at any time to refuse the summons of change and stay back.

Leaving a cave can be dangerous. Some cave-mates feel threatened when others change; they prefer the comfort of distraction and self-deception. They work hard to lure the courageous one back into the status-quo. The fearful might try to bribe or threaten the adventurer. They might lie or manipulate. They may say bad things. Those who dare to venture into the unknown are sure to become alienated from some long-time cave-mates.

We live in times of danger and difficulty. New threats loom over every horizon. Our planet is threatened and our way of life in peril–threatened from within. Fakes and charlatans with venal and regressive visions that return us to a more primitive condition clamor for our trust. We can look around and see how people under great stress—from our national leaders to everyday people in organizations, to the fringes of our political parties—become small, petty, and greedy and try to return to their old caves for safety. Some deny fact and truth. Others can feel strongly about every side of an issue depending on the audience. Some reject science for self-serving opinion. Many substitute intellectual honesty with black, white, and senseless beliefs grounded in fear and their inability to cope with the uncertainty and ambiguity of life. Their fear consumes them, and they live in darkness. In dangerous times, we need to be our best selves, not our worst.

We have only one healthy choice: to find the caves of our lives, to see reality clearly—even when it is painful—and to do what we can to become more wise, conscious, discerning and compassionate. There is no going backwards unless we want the dangers of our world to become realities.