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May 2017


"Accepting This"

by Mark Nepo


What are the big take-aways?


My three-month spring Leadership Book Group began last week, and the theme of it is “Leadership, Poetry and Paradox.”  We are discussing topics such as the paradoxical natures of power (why are leaders who show their vulnerability often the most powerful?), complexity (what is it that makes some of the simplest ideas also the hardest to enact?), time (how does slowing down help leaders get more done, faster?) and risk (when is a safe decision actually a dangerous one?) through the lens of poetry.


In our first meeting, which was a conversation about selections from the book Leading from Within: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Lead (previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library), we focused on a poem by Mark Nepo called “Accepting This,” which presents various paradoxes.  The “big take-aways” are going to have to be your own:


Accepting This

Yes, it is true. I confess,

I have thought great thoughts,

and sung great songs—all of it

rehearsal for the majesty

of being held.


The dream is awakened

when thinking I love you

and life begins

when saying I love you

and joy moves like blood

when embracing others with love.


My efforts now turn

from trying to outrun suffering

to accepting love wherever

I can find it.


Stripped of causes and plans

and things to strive for,

I have discovered everything

I could need or ask for

is right here—

in flawed abundance.


We cannot eliminate hunger,

but we can feed each other.

We cannot eliminate loneliness,

but we can hold each other.

We cannot eliminate pain,

but we can live a life

of compassion.



we are small living things

awakened in the stream,

not gods who carve out rivers.


Like human fish,

we are asked to experience

meaning in the life that moves

through the gill of our heart.


There is nothing to do

and nowhere to go.

Accepting this,

we can do everything

and go anywhere.


Why do I like it?


I like Nepo’s advice, as hard as it is to follow.  Many of us who are leaders in any sector that provides professional services, treatment or other forms of care to others eventually come to understand – through our own or others’ suffering – the harsh limits of what we can control or even influence.  We realize, somewhere along the way, that trying to avoid suffering paradoxically causes more pain.  When we stop striving and instead begin to stretch our tolerance for the discomfort of where we are right now, we might come to a moment when we recognize, like Nepo does, that



I could need or ask for

is right here—

in flawed abundance.


At the end of the day, taking care of each other’s basic human needs and having compassion for ourselves and everyone else – and I mean everyone else – is all we can do with the inevitability of hunger, loneliness and pain.


In what situations would this be useful?


It’s in the aftermath of a devastating loss or diagnosis, or some other trauma, that leaders are stripped to our most naked selves – and often in public.  In such times, these paradoxical words ring truest:


There is nothing to do

and nowhere to go.

Accepting this,

we can do everything

and go anywhere.


This poem and its leadership dimensions bring to my mind the interviews that Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, has been giving lately about what she has learned about suffering, gratitude and resilience in the two years since her 47-year-old husband Dave died suddenly of coronary artery disease during a vacation.  For an especially poignant interview, I recommend last week’s “On Being” conversation with Krista Tippett, in which Sandberg shares strategies she has been adopting that promote post-traumatic growth in kids as well as adults.


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


Perhaps you would enjoy reading along with the “Leadership, Poetry and Paradox” group on your own?  In May we will be grappling with the “On Being” podcast of Krista Tippett’s interview of poet David Whyte entitled “The Conversational Nature of Reality” (previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library), and in June we will engage with Ursula Le Guin’s translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching.


For an enlightening review of this particular translation of the Tao Te Ching, see Maria Popova’s marvelous article in Brain Pickings entitled “A Small Dark Light: Ursula K. Le Guin on the Legacy of the Tao Te Ching and What It Continues to Teach Us About Personal and Political Power 2,500 Years Later”.


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