Of course with every If… there is almost always a But… *
No life is defined and ultimately dismantled only by pain and suffering. Indeed that pain and suffering does as much to shape as it does to destroy us. Would I be me without my MS? No. Of course not. But I don’t mean this in that pop culture Nietzschean sense beloved of social media banalities – “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. As a Scot of course such a concept appeals to my Calvinist side. We need to be forged in the fire of life; made stronger, harder. In this reductionist world view our challenges simply fit us better to the world of onwards and upwards. (I shudder as I write that, a fog of shame as recall the too many years when onwards and upwards was my mantra. But, I was younger then and too busy shoring up my hardness. Oblivious to the futility of that endeavour. Being hard, being strong. Moving ever on, ever up. Such blissful ignorance.)
The sadness of If… is soothed in the arms of But… Yes I have changed beyond all measure. There is nothing unusual about that, we all do. We nurture fantasies of self determination but we are wrong of course. This ‘self’ is simply a collection of atoms and experiences floating through time in a world that variously buffets, nudges, strokes, crushes us. We seize the nudges and strokes as somehow evidence of our worth, our value. We struggle with the buffeting and crushing by reassuring ourselves that it will make us stronger. And we need to be strong, so we tell ourselves. The world is a harsh place. Yet the idea that I have become stronger, harder, no longer resonates or pleases as it once would have done. It took a long time, but I finally feel like I am beginning to grow up.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the nature of organisations. We use that word to hide from what an organisation really is – a group of people doing things together. Organisation sounds so much – more. More serious, harder, more “grown up”. If we called an organisation “a group of people doing things together” it becomes much less easy to dehumanise in its name, to excuse the inhumane. Which is why we call them organisations. We silly, sad, scared, dying creatures have created a fantasy world to inhabit – where being better validates being cruel, where being bigger excuses all. Do, achieve, win, beat, be better, be bigger. We have these ideas pumped into us constantly. The organisation is the ultimate get out clause for when people doing things together turn nasty. Our depressions, our neuroses, are the inevitable by-product of living in an organisational as opposed to an organized world.
In thinking of this I have been struck by the similarities between people and organisations. Isn’t an organisation simply a collection of atoms and experiences floating through time in a world that variously buffets, nudges, strokes, crushes it? Perhaps there’s our mistake. My mistake. To feel the parallels too strongly. A body coheres because of a skin surrounding it and a skeleton forming it, shaping it. We make organisations in our image. We give them a skin, a barrier to force distance between it and others like it. And we fill them with a rigid structure to define its shape, to give it its appearance in the world. And like cells multiplying in the body we repeat this basic structure all the way through an organisation. Everywhere you look – skin and bone. But like the poor rigid human body – when the world tries to buffer or crush us we crack. A rigid structure, as every orthopaedic surgeon or civil engineer knows, does not bear pressure from outside too well. Rigid structures crack.
What, I have been wondering, if instead of filling our organisations with rigid structures we filled then with bubbles? A skin filled (not too much of course) with bubbles can absorb a great many buffers and attempts to crush but still cohere. A skin filled with bubbles can flex and adapt more easily to its external environment. A person inside a rigid organisation experiences mainly sharp pressures, and all too often is ultimately crushed by it. A person surrounded by bubbles is less likely to be crushed.
As one ages one learns that we are not alone in these experiences of the sharp, angular pressures of organisational life. Which makes the question “why do we keep doing this – creating these dehumanising, inhumane ways of organising ourselves to get things done?” – all the more poignant and pressing. As we age our bubble finds others, although many of us will fall by the wayside as the hard structure pushes in and crushes us. But we do find each other. Recognise each other. As I think about how to live the world I want it to be – where we do things together like bubbles, floating, absorbing, adapting, blending into each other instead of drifting away from each other – I think too of what this means for me.
My MS has not made me harder. It’s made me softer. It’s allowed me to recapture the me I thought I would be as a child, brought me back to myself. The me that wanted to be with, not against. The me that wanted to be for, not instead of. The me that looked at the adult world and shook her head in disbelief at the futility of it all. The me that promised never to be like that. I have never craved money or material comfort, but I have craved status and success. I remember a conversation with a former workmate, now moved on to “bigger and better things” when he shook his head in disbelief at my answer to his statement (posed as a question, but not one) “But you want to be a professor.” For it was “No”. And even as I said it a tiny bit of organisational me whispered “Really?”. And as I realised with some shock that I really did mean no, I felt almost reborn.
The seeds of it had been there. I had been forced to entertain the idea that I could not control my destiny as I pleased. Though I was in denial my MS had, to my then shame, reduced organisational me’s capacity to play the game. But as I was crushed by disease and organisation, some elemental bit of me knew I needed to become more like a bubble. I count that day amongst a small handful of life defining moments, I walked away from that meeting unsure of what it meant, but sure it meant that everything was going to change. And it did. It has. Not quickly. Not easily. But steadily, quietly, I have become a bubble. Still learning how to be like this. Still growing into my bubble self. But now living in, and not defined by, our organisational world. And once I knew I was a bubble, I could recognise the others. We are finding each other, working out how to be “groups of people doing things together”. The rigid world won’t go away overnight. May never go away. But it doesn’t need too. I am my own bubble, and I have found others, and there are still others out there to be found.
Freed from the desire of acceptance by that rigid world, even of the desire to change that world, I can now focus my energies on the bubble world of people organising to get things done. I can now start to make the world like the one child me wanted to live in. With softness.
* I love that as the mother of two boys, I can’t help but smile at the word ‘but(t)’. They too have taught me a lot about how to wring joy out of life; how to giggle even in the midst of pain and fear. My boys, my love, my friends, my music, my beach. These are the bubbles inside me. They fill me up and allow me to cohere as as a human being whilst still having enough softness and give to cope in a world that constantly shifts and shapes me.