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Are You Willing to be Undone?

Jim Dethmer
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August 22, 2017

Yesterday I read Annie Dillard’s essay Total Eclipse. I found the writing and content nothing short of magical. What Dillard describes is what I would call being undone. I believe that conscious leaders are willing, and actually seek, to be undone.

To be undone, we have to be willing to see and experience the truth of who we are and who we are not. Dillard poignantly illustrates how she saw herself, others and life as the moon and sun danced together. She describes an experience of awe, wonder, terror; nothingness in the presence of everythingness.

In practical leadership terms, we might call this humility. Someone said that humility is not to think less of ourselves but to think of ourselves less. When conscious leaders open themselves to being undone they think of themselves less and they think less of themselves. They think of themselves less because they see that what undoes them is so much more compelling, so much more worthy of attention and contemplation than their individuated self. They also think less of themselves because they see that in relationship to that which undoes them, they are small and temporal.

Watching Charlottesville and its aftermath, one thing I saw clear, as a full solar eclipse, is that President Trump has not been undone. He still thinks much of himself and thinks of himself much. We heard this when he spoke about Charlottesville and he made the point that he owns a winery in the community, one of the biggest wineries. But this isn’t about Trump—whose perspectives and choices we have little to no control over—it’s about us:

Trump is just a picture of us all when we’re presented with a golden opportunity to be undone, and we go the other way instead: we double down on To Me (un)consciousness, and make ourselves and our projects the center of everything.

So my question for you is this: Are you willing to be undone?

Being undone is seeing— if only for a moment— the truth of who you are and who you aren’t. This can happen as you watch a newborn child emerge into the world. Or when you sit with a beloved as he or she breathes a final breath and slips over the edge to a vacant physical form. It can happen when you read a poem or listen to a piece of music or watch the sunset or rise or do an ayahuasca journey in the middle of the rainforest. You can be undone by love or God. Most sacred texts tell one story after another of people being undone or resisting being being undone.  

Being undone, as it was for Dillard at the eclipse in 1979, is terrifying. No wonder we hold on. Surrender is always part of being undone. Most leaders are terrified of surrender. They think it is weak and worthless. Humble leaders who have been undone have surrendered. Often they surrender kicking and screaming, but they surrender. They surrender to the truth of who they are in context of a much larger reality.

Yesterday the eclipse came. Like all of life’s invitations, some found a front row seat to the wonder, majesty, terror and awe. They chose to put themselves in a place where they could be undone. Others said,“It sure is getting darker outside. I need to take a picture of this.”

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P.S. If you missed this eclipse, there won’t be another one in the U.S. until 2024. But it doesn’t take an eclipse to be undone. Your next opportunity to be undone is already forming. If you didn’t heed the call this time, how are you going to play it next time? Will you resist being undone, or will you look life in the eyes and let it have its way with you?

About the Author
Jim Dethmer

Jim has been coaching leaders and supporting individuals, groups, and organizations to optimize their effectiveness. Potent and practical, he see issues clearly and communicates next steps crisply. Jim works with Fortune 200 CEOs across all industries, and co-authored the book—High Performing Investment Teams—to support his work with leading asset management organizations around the world.