Yesterday I questioned the effectiveness of teaching ethics in the business and intelligence world. Here is my column, recycled from October, 2001 on how poetry and myth can help us find “knowledge of (God’s) will for us and the power to carry it out.”
Here is my October, 2001 column with links added.
The September 11 terrorist attacks have given all of us reason to reexamine relationship between work and our personal lives. In his excellent book, Spirituality at Work Gregory Pierce lists ten specific practices for achieving balance among work, family and community. He suggests that a process of ongoing spiritual renewal is necessary in order to achieve balance, a life of service and to build a successful business. The lessons of spiritual renewal taught by business consultants are also applicable to the process of healing from the psychic trauma of September 11.
David Whyte, a poet and business consultant, has written about the role of poetry and myth in restoring the soul within the corporate environment. Whyte gives several examples in his book, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. To maintain mental health while working in the business environment requires that we look inside ourselves and confront our own inner fears and unnamed longings. He demonstrates the ways in which poetry and myth can help complete this task, using situations drawn from his corporate clients as examples.
Whyte compares stories told by his corporate clients with ancient tales to show how crucial decisions are shaped by factors deeper than the balance sheet or the latest marketing strategy. He relates how a consultant is called into the Chief Executive Officer’s headquarters and told to encourage another person to accept a transfer. The consultant pauses, knowing that this transfer is against every principle that he has developed for the company. Under pressure he looks down into a dark pool of fear - and accedes to the CEO’s request. Whyte contrasts this true story with the myth of Beowulf who has to find within himself the courage to plunge into the dark and fight the monster Grendel. He shows how reading and reflecting on the story Beowulf yields insights into the “dark side” of our own personal histories. Acknowledging and dealing with this dark side through literature can help in finding the courage to confront the “monsters” in our own lives.
Before September 11, these images from Beowulf might have seemed outlandish. In the middle of the day when work was going well and the stock market was rising, people were able to ignore their own fears and bury darker images under a 24/7 work ethic. Even then, as Whyte pointed out, these images would look more real at three in the morning, when a project was in trouble, personal defenses were down and the “huge green hand rises from below and drags us into something hitherto ignored, deeper and more urgent.” Writing in 1994, Whyte suggested that Beowulf’s struggles with Grendel could show us how to struggle with our own inner fears. These lessons for dealing with personal loss and business failures will be even more useful as our society begins to recover from September 11’s damage to our national psyche.
There is a tension between the need to maintain creativity in the face of the need for stability and structure. This tension is present both in the individual and in the corporation. Whyte uses the poetic images of fire for creativity and ice for stability. Both are necessary. Both are dangerous. He quotes Robert Frost:
“Some say the world will end in fire
Some say in ice”
Creativity requires that we find within ourselves a spark of fire and nourish it so that new ideas and projects will come forth. Institutional needs for routine and predictable behavior seem to work against creativity and change. These institutional needs have their own validity - institutions respond best to crises and change when the roles of its members are predictable and rapid. These needs and the urgencies of responding to crises may cause us to ignore the inner spark. In a poem, Whyte warns against this:
“..and the spark behind fear
recognized as life leaps into flame
Always this energy smoulders inside
when it remains unlit
the body fills with dense smoke.”
Institutions, as well as individuals, need to preserve and nourish creativity: without it they will be frozen in established patterns and unable to adapt to the threats presented by a fast changing world. Frost finishes his poem, Fire and Ice;
“I think I know enough of hate
to say that for destruction ice
is also great
And would suffice.”
In writing about the role of poetry and myth in practicing ongoing spiritual renewal within the context of the modern corporate world, Whyte offers lessons that will be vital as we respond to the terrorist attacks of September 11.