Last week I was taking a road trip with my mother. Hitting our sixth hour in the car, deep into the empty desert, she began speaking to me about a book she was reading called Never Cry Wolf – The Amazing True Story of Life Among Arctic Wolves.
Naturalist Farley Mowat’s account of wolf culture was eye opening. His assignment to investigate why wolves were killing Arctic caribou led to him spend months in the frozen tundra studying the wolf population and their habits.
We are told that wolves are vicious predators who eat all kinds of big game and livestock, who hunt little children (and Liam Neeson). Indeed, writes Mowat, we can thank the tale of little red riding hood for this unfortunate distorted lens through which we see these elegant creatures.
Mowat discovered that it had not been the wolves who were devouring the caribou, but the native hunters. In fact, wolves are of no threat to caribou or even man. What is the main food source for wolves? Mice.
Only occasionally, when the family of wolves needs to feast on something bigger, will they work to hunt a singular caribou, and only a weak, old or sick one at that, thereby assisting the health of the caribou herds. So through the culling of weak caribou and keeping the mice populations down, among a vast number of additional skills, wolves are an important part of the ecosystem.
“Did you know,” she continued in between bites of seasoned gourmet popcorn, our road trip culinary fare, “that these wolves live in tribal clans, each clan has a large specific territory. And these clans communicate to one another through various calls, to warn one another about either danger or food that might be travelling from one territory to another.”
“These clans actually,” she said, with amazement in her voice, “cooperate across borders to help one another.”
“Think,” she said emphatically, “if we all had been told a different fairy tale about a wolf; think, if we had known all these actual facts about wolves, how we might have learned something different from them about how to survive, and what a different world it might be.”
We drove silently for a while, each pondering the possibilities.
For as long as I can remember, my mother has always enlightened me in this way. She’s always cracked open the conventional cultural view, and revealed another option—one that was more whole, more kind, and more magical than the one everyone else was agreeing to.
My mother was my first spiritual teacher. In fact, my primary understanding of my relationship to the world was shaped by her maternal care. When I was an infant, she held me close, and responded to my cries. Rejecting the mothering fashion of the times, she breastfed. I learned early in those formative months, that the universe is a benevolent, caring, abundant place.
Later, she cultivated the soil of a meaningful life. When I was a graduating teen, she gave me my first ‘spiritual book’…The Prophet, of course. And later peppered my shelves with Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Alice Walker, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Mary Oliver, and other contemporary wise women.
When I was doubting myself, she lifted up what was certain about me. When I was feeling broken, she lifted up what was whole and unbroken. When I was failing, she leaned into what was succeeding. And when I was feeling alone, she revealed what was always near. It’s not that she treated me with a Pollyanna approach, it’s that she really saw the ‘whole’ qualities about me, and simply chose to lean into those, rather than focus so much on the other things.
You could say that through her, I learned to see wholeness, that which cannot be broken, that which remains, regardless of what appears as flawed and dysfunctional.
But we live in a world that looks through another lens. A diagnostic, pathology-seeking culture, that sees what is broken, and attempts to make it whole by fixing it.
A college student feels fear and labels herself anxious. Then she seeks to repair the anxiety, rather than lifting up the new and bold steps she taking each day and understanding that fear is a natural response when one is being courageous.
A healthcare worker is becoming burnt out by experiencing all the illness and pain around him, but does not recognize that what is also happening is connection, love, tenderness and vulnerability.
I’m suggesting that there actually is wholeness inside every person, every moment, every situation, regardless of appearances.
Ironically, I’ve spent my life running from, and arguing with, this understanding. I’ve tried to convince most everyone I know how broken I am, how much farther I have to go, how much more I could do. I guess even though wholeness is our birthright, the ability to embrace it does not come for free.
Fast forward from those early years with my mother, I now spend my days, along with Wayne, the horses, and some of our other amazing Institute faculty, lifting up what is already whole in others, and allowing that wholeness to have its proper dominion over their lives. The transformations in people’s lives we witness are astonishing.
So, speaking of wolves, there’s this well known Cherokee legend—you probably heard it—about the grandfather teaching his grandson a life lesson. It goes something like this:
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. This same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed”.
What if focusing on all the ways we are broken, or damaged, or not enough, actually perpetuates it? My guess is that it does. In the name of healing, what if what we are doing is actually feeding that other wolf? My guess is that we are. In the name of creating good, we are actually ignoring what is already good, and perpetrating violence upon ourselves.
So, here’s my suggestion—a bold experiment, but what have we got to lose?
1. See what is whole and good in yourself— Spend some time in a quiet place where you can reflect upon and perhaps journal about your gifts. What is it that you offer the world and to your friends and beloveds? What are some of your amazing qualities? Allow yourself to just embrace them and have them, without the added mind-chatter about how it is not enough, or how the gifts still don’t outweigh all those other faults of yours. Give them the keys to the car. Forget the rest.
2. See what is whole and good in another— When you encounter someone, whether you know them well or not, pay attention to those things that rise to your awareness that you can appreciate. Do they move with grace? Do you see a twinkle behind their eyes? Do you feel safe and seen in their company?
3. See what is whole and good in your community and / or your business— One of my business mentors called me out on my own pathology-thinking the other day. I told her that the roles within our organization were ‘messy’. “Why would you call it ‘messy’?” she asked. “Instead try saying that your organization is ‘in its nascent stages and that each of you within in it are seeking clarity.’ This slight ‘quarter turn’ of the heart gave me a different appreciation of our challenges, and the nobility and dignity with which we were actually facing them.
When we put less weight and meaning on the things that seem not right, and lean into that ‘quarter turn’ of our heart that sees what is whole, beneath those appearances, a magical thing happens:
We become what we see.
You can read more of Kelly’s writing at EQUUS, here.