I’ve been thinking a lot about heavy backpacks this week, and about how and when we help carry them for others.
While not all of us are students or teachers returning to a classroom this fall, each of us still carries a backpack through our life. We walk through the years of our time on this earth with a backpack firmly affixed every day. Sometimes it is filled with treasures, so wonderful they feel light and effortless to bear. In times like these, we can often not only easily manage our own pack, but we often feel as though we have enough strength left to reach out and help others with their loads too.
There are other times when our backpacks feel very, very full and heavy. They can be weighed down with the burden of things needing to be done. They can also be weighted with our thoughts and concerns. I’m guessing those returning to schools next week will have things of both varieties in their packs. I worry that the students will have filled the leftover nooks and crannies of their packs with their own variety of worries; worries about catching Covid, worries about ‘making Grandma and Grandpa sick’, worries about being behind in work, and all the regular worries of a new school year.
I know our daughter and son-in-law, both teachers, will return to school with their packs stuffed full too; full of questions, new plans, worries about the students in their care, about themselves and what they could bring home, about the uncertainty of the school year, about the different skill levels of students they will encounter, and about smiling using only their eyes. I would dearly love to sneak over to their house, and take a few things out of their packs, so they would be easier to carry. I know, of course, this is not the right thing to do.
One of the most critical beliefs in coaching is that each of us is creative, resourceful and whole. Each of us has the answers we need inside ourselves. We are the experts on ourselves. No one knows us as we know ourselves. We are not broken, we don’t need to be fixed and deep down, we know how to best manage the challenges we face. Each of us is the expert on our own backpack; on what is in it, on what we could remove, on what we need to keep tucked far at the bottom and on what little treasures are in each of the little secret pouches on the sides.
It’s really important that we are allowed to carry our own packs. It’s important that we feel in control of ourselves. While we may not be able to choose all the things we have to carry, we certainly are capable of choosing how to manage them. We are capable of choosing what things we might not want to manage right now, and what things we do want to focus on.
When others take charge of our packs, they send us an unintentional, but clear message that we are not really capable. We get the feeling that we can’t trust our own instincts and knowledge about ourselves. So, what do we do then, when we notice someone struggling with their pack? And what do we do when we need help with ours?
One of the most helpful things we can do for others is to simply acknowledge the weight of their pack. Having someone be a witness to our struggles is incredibly load-lightening. It is also helpful to have someone walk beside us. We don’t need them in front of us leading us; we don’t need them behind us; we need them beside us, letting us know they are with us.
A week-and-a-half ago, as I was trying to keep up with my self-imposed biking schedule to get me virtually across Canada, the person ahead of me, who I only knew to be Ironwill Justus, reached out on Facebook. We had been able to see each other’s progress on the site of the ride, but we did not know anything about each other except for our names. ‘Ironwill’ is really Bill, but Ironwill is perhaps more apt. All I knew about him, I had learned through watching his mileage each day. I could see he was the real deal. I knew by his consistent numbers that he would arrive at the finish line days before me, but I still loved to do my best to keep him in my sights. In his very first message he typed:
‘You rock lady. My daughter is in Calgary. When I get out there, we will have to meet. I’m going to finish this up in 10 days, then drop into a rest period for the big ride of the year; what would have been an Ironman!! Keep it up. You’re impressive to say the least!’
Bill likely did not know it, but this was the perfect way to lighten my load without diminishing me in any way. He acknowledged my effort. He did not minimize his own. He championed me. And he made me feel like I had an ally; like he was by my side. I felt supported and at the same time like I had full agency over myself – no advice, no suggestions, just support. His much-appreciated words have been in my backpack since then.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll encounter plenty of people with full backpacks. How nice it is to know we don’t need to reach out and carry their back packs for them. We simply need to get into step beside them for a bit to lessen the weight of their load.
My inquiry for you this week is, ‘Who needs me to walk beside them?’
Elizabeth is a certified professional Leadership Coach, and the owner of Critchley Coaching. She is the founder and president of the Canadian charity, RDL Building Hope Society. She works with corporations, non-profits and the public sector, providing leadership coaching. She creates and facilitates custom workshops for all sizes of groups. She has particular expertise in facilitating Strategic Plans for organizations. Contact Elizabeth to learn how to navigate bumps in your road.