Taking a Picnic to the Battle

“It became clear that the anticipated battle would take place on Sunday, July 21, 1861. Stories would often be told about how spectators from Washington, riding in carriages and bringing along picnic baskets, had raced down to the area so they could watch the battle as if it was a sporting event…And by late afternoon the Union Army was in retreat. The road back to Washington became a scene of panic, as the frightened civilians who had come out to watch the battle tried to race homeward alongside thousands of demoralized Union troops.”  (Battle of Bull Run in Summer of 1861 Was a Disaster for the Union Army, Robert McNamara)

I remember hearing this story in a history lesson sometime in my youth and wondering, even at my tender age, “What were they thinking?!” In all honesty, though, I’ve remembered this story primarily at moments in my adult life when I find myself in frightening situations that I am in only through my own volition.

An example may be helpful to illustrate. One mild midnight, everyone trooped out of a friend’s New Year’s Eve party to stand on the deck of her neighbor’s pool while he set off a celebratory fireworks display. The pyrotechnician/arsonist for the evening was highly intoxicated, which should have been a red flag. In fact, my friend’s husband (a former firefighter) refused to join the group and this, too, was a warning that went largely unheeded. When the first volley of rockets was lit, they all came zooming straight at the spectators standing where we had been told we would be “safe.” I imagined the headline: “12 Revelers Hospitalized: Too Idiotic to Avoid Drunken Fireworks Display”.

I could give many more examples. But the point is that we all sometimes walk blithely into situations that, given a little time and forethought, we might otherwise avoid. So while I occasionally think of these events and rue my naiveté, I don’t beat myself up over them. Instead, I try to learn from them for the next time. Just as I’m fairly certain no one who rushed out with a picnic basket to watch the first Battle of Bull Run made that same mistake at the second Battle of Bull run, I am pretty sure I will listen to my gut telling me to distrust drunk men with matches and incendiary devices.

Usually, I’ve thought of the Bull Run revelers from the perspective of advanced reasoning skills – and whether or not these unknowns from the past employed them. I can totally see how it happened, though: everyone had been talking excitedly about the impending war for weeks; the rumor was that one battle would determine the war – and as luck would have it, that battle was going to take place in their backyard! They grabbed their friends, some food and beverages, and headed out to see history in the making. How cool is that?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about those picnickers from a different angle. I’ve been empathizing with the fact that they found themselves in a frightening predicament. Admittedly, they got themselves into the mess. Still, I imagine their bewilderment as the day went from anticipation to terrified retreat. I imagine them thinking, “How did this happen?” or “How could I have been so stupid?” or, for the high-feeling types just “Aaaarrrrggggggghhhhh!!!!!!”

This time last year, I was pondering a significant outing in my own life. I worked with a coach, I talked about my options with friends and family, and I carefully combed through my own inner desires. I worked with a financial consultant and parsed my choices. All of the work, the research, the endless discussions came down to this – I either packed my basket and went off to the battle or I stayed where I was. The battle was where great things might happen, where history might be made. Staying put was where, in the immortal words of Barry Manilow, it was “all very nice, but not very good.” Despite the forethought I gave this life change, I had no way to predict the course of the future. For this very reason, my empathy for the picnickers at Bull Run has increased – while they might, admittedly, have seen the downside to their plan, even they could not have known the future ahead of time.

In fact, upon reflection, it turns out that spectating at the Battle of Bull Run and taking a leap of faith into our own possible futures have a lot in common.

  • No matter what we’re packing for our journeys, we can’t predict what we will actually need. Did the Bull Run picnickers pack weaponry and ammunition with their sandwiches and lemonade? Lord knows, they likely needed things they hadn’t brought with them. We’ve all been there. You open your basket, or suitcase, or toolbox, and what you need is conspicuously absent. There is no point in crying about it, you have to just let it go and move one with what you DO have.

“Incremental growth is walking down familiar paths carrying the same assumptions. But, the first – real step – toward exponential growth is a profound and dreadful letting go.” Or so says Dan Rockwell, the Leadership Freak. (http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/about/) He goes on to say you must let go of one rope while reaching for the next – which means there is a moment in time when you are not actually holding on. Nothing you’ve packed prepares you for the disorientation of that “moment”, the length of which varies from literal moments to months or longer. Rockwell goes on to reassure us that “change happens quickly on the inside, even though it took a long time to get there. But, change on the outside continues to be painfully slow.” This is a reassuring message when you aren’t certain you’re holding onto anything that can support your weight – something is happening even if you can’t yet see it. (For more of Dan’s insights on radical growth, read this blog entry http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/2014/03/19/8-growth-principles-that-transform-leadership/)

  • Keep the faith, but also take the action. If you ever find yourself in the midst of a pitched battle, pray for guidance and assistance. Then, ditch the picnic basket and run! Cowering is a human reaction. Allow your humanity its experience of panic. But don’t stand still and wallow. I expected change in my own life to be hard. I am, by nature, risk-averse and here I was, taking a huge risk (quitting my job, relocating, starting over). What I didn’t expect was for it to be this hard – reality-hard, as opposed to thinking-ahead-hard. This horrible winter encouraged my natural reaction to hunker down and wait it out. The more I ducked-and-covered, the higher my anxiety climbed. What I have discovered is that any action with forward momentum, no matter how small, results in a lessening of the  fear.
  • We’re all on the road to hell So you didn’t intend to get caught in the middle of a pitched battle between two armies? Too bad, because that’s where you are now. What we intend and what actually happens don’t always match up. When this occurs, life doesn’t stop and wait for us to catch up with it or to get with the program – it inexorably marches forward. For example, I’ve had to intentionally tell myself that I can’t keep putting things off while I am “in transition”. I may not feel or even be settled, but my life IS this moment, not what happens down the line. If you’re not where you intend(ed) to be, work to change that. Just don’t forget that tomorrow is never guaranteed. Today is your real life, inhabit it!
  • Adrenaline might help you run faster, but it wreaks havoc on your health over the long haul. If you are in physical danger, by all means keep running! Your flight response is intended to keep you alive, to help you survive. But when the danger is fear of the future, it is probably time to take steps to let the adrenaline dissipate. There is a pandemic of anxiety in our society these days. One way to counter it is to make yourself stop running. Slow down, breathe, pray or meditate. Recently, I felt my own panic and anxiety rising daily to the point where it seemed to sit on my solar plexus like a huge granite boulder – immovable. One night it became unbearable; I laid in bed struggling to breathe around its weight. That’s when I discovered a secret: I could just give it away.

I said out loud, “God, I’m giving this to you. Its yours. Both this boulder of anxiety and the future I’ve been so panicked about. I’m trusting that you’ve got this.” I felt immediate relief in that moment. I strongly recommend letting God/the Universe/your Higher Power take this burden.  When the anxiety threatens, remind yourself that the future isn’t your problem or concern. Put the faith back in the phrase “leap of faith”.

We will all find ourselves at points in our lives asking, “What did I just do?” or “How stupid can I get?” These questions may occur at the surface (such as in the case of the New Year’s eve fireworks) or at the deep, interior level of growth and change. Like me, you may find yourself wondering, while feeling vulnerable and exposed, “Did I just show up for a battle with nothing but a picnic basket?” Our best response is to be open to the possibilities for exponential growth this may provide. Will it be frightening, difficult, and/or life altering? You bet. Will it also be worth the pain and self-doubt? Martha Beck, life coach and self-help guru says, “You’ll find that the more annoying or even devastating an adventure is to live, the better wayfinding tale it makes.”  Let’s take that as a “Yes”.

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