There’s an old African proverb that says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
I consider myself a fairly independent person. I enjoy living alone and, as a coach and a teacher, much of my work is autonomous and self-directed. There is a part of me that finds it very comforting to see myself as an island unto myself, able to face any challenge and figure out any problem without depending on the outside world. For me, there is often safety in solitude.
This “go it alone” stance has been challenged lately, however, and I think it’s guiding me in a healthy new direction. Although it pushes me out of my comfort zone, I’m starting to pay attention to and celebrate the beauty and power that comes through connecting with, and being supported by, the people around me.
A few months ago, I set a new intention for my work: “I am authentic, abundant, accompanied action.” I’ll confess that when I used the word “accompanied,” I was still thinking of myself as a solo artist. Accompaniment in my original sense meant envisioning a connection to Spirit and intuition that would allow me to trust myself and take action without getting caught up in the expectation for perfection that often holds me back. I honestly did not think about being accompanied by other people. Why would I need that?!
Pretty immediately, however, people started showing up to guide, support, and make my life bigger. After setting that intention, I had one friend bring her laptop to a coffee date to help me brainstorm and develop a workshop I’m creating. Another woman gave me a casual piece of advice that has transformed the Meet-up groups I run through Aurorae. My parents helped me finance a new car. Dozens of people donated money and resources to help me fund a trip.
I watched as my community gathered around me, but I still hadn’t quite learned my lesson.
In April, I traveled Kenya for two weeks as a delegate for an international Quaker conference. The first leg of my journey was disrupted by tornadoes in Texas and I was re-booked with two new airlines to continue my trip overseas. Although I arrived safely and on time in Nairobi, my luggage continued to travel the world, following its own itinerary. Against my expectations, I found myself in Africa with only the supplies I had packed in my carry-on bag.
For the first few days without my bag, I was a trouper. I wore the same skirt five days in a row, washed my shirt and underwear in the sink, and took a trip into town to buy a towel, shampoo, and a cheesy “Hakuna Matata” hat. When people offered me clothing or toiletries to borrow, I would say, “No, I’m good. I’m fine. Thanks, but no thanks.” I was very uncomfortable with the idea of accepting help, of feeling needy, of depriving people of the things they had packed and most certainly needed. Plus, every day I was sure my bag would arrive the next day!
Secretly, though, I wasn’t fine. I had been preparing for weeks and had carefully packed my bag with items to meet any need I thought might arise during my first trip to Africa. As the days passed, I was more and more angry to be without clean clothes, sunscreen, books, a different pair of shoes.
The breaking point occurred a week into the trip. We had spent the afternoon on a lovely excursion to Lake Bogoria and the day had been hot and dusty. As night fell, a cold rain started. While my roommate was putting on warm pants and raingear, I braced myself for a wet walk to dinner, wearing the same skirt and sandals that I had been wearing all week. In that moment, I lost it. A week of frustration and anger spilled out of me.
The next day, I received a visit from a member of the Pastoral Care team. She pulled me out of bed and steered me across campus to her room, from which I left with a bag full of t-shirts, flip-flops, bug spray, socks, an energy bar, and a rain jacket. Then she walked me to another building and bought me a new skirt from a Kenyan vendor. While I continued to feel uncomfortable accepting help, my desire to wear something different overpowered my desire to live within my illusion of autonomy and self-sufficiency.
Over the next few days, as news of my predicament spread, more people approached me and offered shirts and pants and support, and I was inundated with opportunities to practice saying yes and receiving help. When I grew tired of dealing with the logistics, one friend even offered to call the airline every day to ask for updates. With each of these gifts, I felt myself softening, opening, practicing being held and accepting support from my community.
I practiced not being an island.
By the tenth day, I had opened myself up enough to give a resounding, unhesitating “Yes!” when a friend noticed the damp socks under my sandals and asked, “Can I give you a pair of closed-toe shoes?” Within minutes, I was joyfully skipping down the sidewalk in my dry and comfortable new shoes.
The amazing thing about this experience is that it became clear that receiving generosity was a gift I could give to other people. Several women told me, “I was just asking myself why I brought so much stuff. Clearly, it was so I could share with you!” Thinking back, people had been offering to help me from the first day off the plane. It was only when I stopped saying “No” that we were able to share an authentic human experience together.
My bag didn’t arrive in Nairobi until the morning of my departure, after two full weeks of having its own adventures around the world. I collected it at the airport and immediately re-checked it for my flight home (after pulling out some snacks and novels, of course). I also checked in a bag heavy with the goodies with which I had been gifted. I came home from Kenya carrying far more than I had taken with me, both physically and spiritually.
I have thought about this experience every day since my return. While the conference was powerful and I was thrilled to go on safari and see the flamingos and zebras and elephants, the overwhelming blessing from this trip was my lesson in receiving, my crash course in accompaniment, the beauty of allowing a web of support to gather around me.
How are you accompanied by the people in your life? How do you resist accompaniment? As you think about your goals and visions for your life, what would it look like to “go together” rather than alone?