How Do You Find Your Pack?
We are in the midst of a moment of intense recalibration. While it's easy to refer to this as a return to normal, in fact, it is an emergence into something altogether new. As the fog of the pandemic lifts, many of us (myself included) are in deep discernment about what will be important in this next chapter of our lives:
What do we want to return to? What do we want to leave behind? What do we want to keep that we’ve newly discovered? What do we want to fully reinvent? What do we want to fully let go of?
These are big, beautiful questions without right or clear answers. It’s likely that the last year and a half has exposed each of us to depths of grief and isolation we had not previously known. It’s possible, too, that amidst all this struggle, we found pockets of unexpected joy we do not want to lose.
Making big choices about the direction of a life can feel like a daunting task and doing so alone, even more so. I am grateful to have the support of a very special group of people who help me explore and wrestle with the disparate feelings that come with moments of such profound change. And yet, it wasn't always this way.
Almost a decade ago, I attended a retreat with Parker Palmer; an author, activist, teacher, founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal, and above all, a profound thinker on what it takes to live a full and purposeful life. (You too can get to know Parker, in our “Through the Prism” feature this month.) At the time of the retreat, I was pregnant with my first child and was just entering my fifth year in my role at the foundation, the majority of which I was a sole practitioner.
I had read Parker’s book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. In its pages, I discovered the distance I felt at times between my inner life—the place where my soul is seeking to be fully seen and known—and my outer life, the exterior armor I would comfortably wear to shield important parts of my soul from both myself and others. While I never felt quite right about it, I didn’t know how to bridge the two. At the same time, I began to realize the profound grip the hyper-individualist myth had on me—pervasive in nearly every pocket of our culture—reminding me any internal struggle I was facing was mine to solve.
And then Parker taught me another way. Over the course of three days, he formed a “circle of trust,” a dedicated “safe space for the soul” where a group of people commit to a set of principles and practices that enable shared exploration.
If we are willing to embrace the challenge of becoming whole, we cannot embrace it alone—at least, not for long: we need trustworthy relationships to sustain us, tenacious communities of support, to sustain the journey toward an undivided life. Taking an inner journey toward rejoining soul and role requires a rare but real form of community that I call a “circle of trust.” — Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness (adapted)
Parker helped me realize that my work in this world was not merely a job or profession, but a vocation, a calling. To fully live into this soul work as my best self, I needed others on the journey with me. Like wolves, we need a pack. I left the retreat holding the stark reality that I had spent a little too long feeling like a lone wolf.
It’s not that there weren’t other people with whom I connected; it was the depth of connection that was lacking.
I routinely took calls with new leaders of peer foundations who hoped I could help onboard them in their new role. While I always felt a light sense of joy holding space for someone on their journey, I often left those calls feeling empty, longing for a deeper level of connection.
Then, one of those one-off conversations with a newfound colleague turned into two, and then more. Slowly, our series of conversations transformed from reciprocity to mutuality: asking questions of each other, creating a sacred space of relational trust, connection, and support. I had fond memories of the lessons learned at Parker’s gathering, but I had not fully brought the practices into my everyday life. And then my colleague asked a simple question, and all of Parker’s wisdom came rushing back: “Couldn’t we do this together?”
We resolved to form our own clearness committee; each of us invited two peers who held similar roles to join us. In accepting our invitation, we learned each of them also shared our sense of isolation, longing for a dedicated space for personal and professional development.
Our group of six meets virtually every month for 90 minutes, rotating alphabetically, so each person gets two opportunities a year to share with the group a big question or challenge they’re grappling with, something they have agency to address, but for which they lack clarity on how to move forward.
After initially sharing the problem, the group asks open, honest questions—questions the asker could never know the answer to—creating the kind of container necessary for the person to hear their inner teacher: Have you found yourself in a similar place before? How did you navigate it then? What advice would you give someone else facing the same situation? How did it make you feel when you said X? What did you mean by Y?
Nothing breaks through to inner wisdom like an open, honest question. Instead of a performative space that demands perfection, we welcome the messiness of apprehension, ambivalence, and doubt. By focusing on deep personal reflection and discernment, we invite wandering and wondering, discovery and distinctiveness, uncertainty and unpredictability.
It’s in the gifts of imperfection, as Brené Brown teaches us, that we begin to let go of who we think we are supposed to be and embrace who we really are. To do that, we need people who we can be in true authentic relationship with: people who are willing to sit with us and love us fully because of the beauty that lives within both our strengths and our struggles.
Each of these sessions closes with time for the listeners to offer reflections back to the person who presented the challenge, mirroring what they heard, and also questions they’re still holding. This is when we’re able to remind the person of their greatest gifts, the ones in plain sight to those of us listening, and yet so difficult for the person to see with their own eyes. We finish the session with the presenter offering gratitude back to the group, capturing the things they’re taking with them from the experience.
During one of my turns a couple years ago, I shared the internal struggle I felt in wanting to share more of what I was learning with others, and not knowing how. I would hear from peers and partners that I “need to write about that.” And yet, I wasn’t sure how to do so from a place of humility and emergence. In that session, through a series of questions, aided by their deep knowledge of my life and experience, this remarkable group of people helped me find the courage to try.
These colleagues aren’t just my friends. Rather, we are six people in unwavering solidarity with one another, sharing our deepest struggles and our greatest victories. In our sustained dialogue, I’ve found a place where my soul is both seen and known. And I have the remarkable benefit of also knowing each of them as whole human beings. In this sacred space, we’ve been able to remove the fictitious barriers between work and life, professional and personal, inner and outer, soul and role (as Parker Palmer beautifully describes it), to tend to our yearning for wholeness in order to be our best selves.
"In this culture, we know how to create spaces that invite the intellect to show up, to argue its case, to make its point. We know how to create spaces that invite the emotions to show up, to express anger or joy. We know how to create spaces that invite the will to show up, to consolidate effort and energy around a common task. And we surely know how to create spaces that invite the ego to show up, preening itself and claiming its turf! But we seem to know very little about creating spaces that invite the soul to show up, this core of ourselves, our selfhood." — Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness
We’ve been meeting as a group like this for more than four years. As the seasons change, new opportunities and challenges emerge, and the depth of mutual trust makes our work together that much richer. Every challenge we present to the group builds upon the last, and the questions we ask of each other are able to go to deeper places because the trust we’ve established is greater than I’ve ever known or could have imagined.
The circumstances of the pandemic—being socially distant and housebound—has made the deeper relationships we already had so much more important. At the beginning of lockdown, our group added a weekly happy hour drop-in that helped substitute for the absence of broader social engagement. Soon after, we added a daily text thread on which we each share something we’re grateful for. Severing our weak ties for almost a year and a half has shown us how vitally important our close ties really are.
If you don’t have one yet, you deserve a pack. A group of people who know you, see you, understand you, and who will help you listen to your inner truth when you most need to hear it. This sustained series of monthly conversations in community with one another is the opposite of the superficial relationships that drain us. To do it well requires ritual, structure, and commitment. You can follow the model we use, or another. Just start somewhere.
It’s also important to note that each of us took a leap of faith in joining the group. Without knowing each other well, or exactly how others would show up, we started from a place of good faith. We trusted the process and each committed to it, together. That helped us forge trust much more quickly. Find the courage to take this leap. Yes, it’s scary. But it’s worth it.
As we reemerge back into a new semblance of normal, let’s remake our realities into ones that bring us joy and wholeness. Every one of us deserves to be in relationship with people who can help us wrestle with life’s big, beautiful questions. I invite you to share this note with someone you see in a similar place in work or life and ask: “Couldn’t we do this together?”
Jenn Hoos Rothberg leads Einhorn Collaborative. You can learn more about our work here and more about Jenn here. Sign up here to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Jenn's blog posts.