Seeing what isn’t there

A few years ago I watched a documentary about Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It had a huge impact on me because after watching it, one question hung in the air: How is it that these women could see so clearly what needed to change when most other women had been accepting the status quo for centuries? We have names for these kinds of people…pioneers and prophets.

A few months later I heard a woman speak about leadership. She said something I’d never heard before…that leadership requires seeing what isn’t there. I immediately related that idea to the lives of Anthony and Stanton. They had a vision of what the role of women could be that did not yet exist. And they fought with everything they had to make it happen.

I began to wonder what I wasn’t seeing yet.  

I think the process of figuring that out takes at least two things. First of all, we have to question most of our assumptions about what currently is. As long as we continue to accept how things are, we’ll never be able to see how things could be. I hear alot of people say “that’s just how its always been.” What would have happened if Anthony and Stanton had accepted that? Don’t you think they heard the argument that women had always played a supporting role? But they had a different vision…one that they had no basis to believe was possible in the world. And yet they believed it could happen.

Secondly, I think we need to pay a radical kind of attention to ourselves and the world around us. For me, paying attention to myself means listening to that inner wisdom that is available to us all. Just as our body has amazing capacity for healing itself, our inner wisdom has amazing capacities for healing as well…if we’ll only listen. I believe that Anthony and Stanton were listening to that voice inside that said they belonged in the world and had something to offer, even when everything around them denied that possibility. I believe their vision and courage came from what they saw in themselves.

Paying attention to the world is what those of us who blog probably do best. Our awareness is sometimes heightened beyond our capacity to absorb. But I think that’s because we move so quickly to the need to fix things and then get frustrated with the limited tools we think are available to us. I think the answers are there, if we’ll just take the time to pay attention.

I’ve quoted this poem here before, so please forgive me for being repetitive. It comes from the Northwest Native American tradition and is the response an elder might give to a young person wanting to know what to do when you are lost in the forest.


Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you

Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,

And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,

Must ask permission to know it and be known.

The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,

I have made this place around you.

If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven.

No two branches are the same to Wren.

If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,

You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows

Where you are. You must let it find you.

The wisdom of this poem goes against the grain of our fear instincts that would have us frantically running around the forest trying to find our way out. But I think there are powerful lessons to be learned from our lostness that might be exactly what we need to find our way home again. If we pay attention, we just might be able to see what isn’t there yet.


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  1. been asking questions and paying attention.

    • dkmich on March 9, 2008 at 16:22

    Or as some like to call them, trouble makers. If you have a problem, you are the problem. 🙂 It is good that some things are born to swim upstream.

    Pootie Swimming

    • Robyn on March 9, 2008 at 16:26
    Art Link

    Seeking Enlightenment


    One step

    at a time

    sometimes forward

    sometimes up

    Forward as I move

    through my life

    even if some wish

    to pull me back

    Perhaps they

    sense the peril

    of the new

    Upward is harder

    as I lift

    the burden

    of proceeding

    to another level

    up the staircase

    of human evolution

    beyond the mundane

    They do not like it

    that I have taken

    this step

    or even that

    I have shown them

    that this place exists

    Their screams of pain

    anger and terror

    will not – can not

    bring me back

    This place

    once conceived

    cannot be erased

    and cannot be denied

    Ideas cannot be unthought

    –Robyn Elaine Serven

    –February 7, 2006

  2. She told me it wasn’t such a bad idea to pretend to be eccentric ( she is anyway ) because you can use it to speak your mind and agitate. Her theory is people will blow you off a bit since they think of you that way but it creates the space to say and do some off the wall things when one is passionate about something and eventually people will listen.

    • kj on March 9, 2008 at 16:35

    came across an idea, mostly likely from “Songlines” by Bruce Chatwin (fascinating book)

    about how, during a walk-a-bout, sometimes it is necessary to stop, sit, and “let the soul catch up to the body.”  i guess, because i’ve moved so often, the thought made sense to my own experiences.  

    i’m sitting still… but fighting the impulse to get up and move somewhere, anywhere. (random action)  along with the impulse to generate action, there comes the feeling that Jay talks about in his essay today: “Quote for Discussion: Craigslist edition”… the sense, maybe powerlessness, maybe just nothing more than the acknowledgement that yes, indeed, we’ve been betrayed, and oh,  yeah, we’re out of toilet paper… could you put on another roll?

    so i guess i’ll just stop, and sit still, and let the trees here (a couple of lovely birch trees!) tell me what they know.  and it will just take the time it takes for my soul to catch up with my body.  after all, souls live on their own time.  it takes a deft ear to hear their stories.

    thanks, NL.  🙂

  3. I would add that folks like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are also the product of many others whose names we will never know.

    I think sometimes these kinds of ideas, i.e., women’s suffrage, reach a critical mass … and then the times themselves produce the people who are courageous and far-seeing enough to embody those ideas and bring them into the world.

    Tho it’s always a choice, never a given, that this will happen, that the individual who sees what most others do not see will commit to act upon that vision and join in battle to make it real.

    Oh, what a nice essay for a sunny Sunday morning (at least here in NYC) … thanks for this.

  4. Maybe the most important thing you said,

    I began to wonder what I wasn’t seeing yet.

    Not only the wonder of an intellectual idea to be explored, think Einstein, but also the wonder of new knowlegde explored, think of a young child with a ball.

    And the poem you brought to us, as important to conceptualizing our world view as anything I have read in quite awhile.

  5. is getting found…

    and sometimes, it feels as my father puts it::: you’re never really lost because you’re always somewhere

  6. but in the clamor of life we lose it, we lose it in fear or desire. Human history and mythology is filled with people who gave our humanity voice through teaching art, even politics to the values and capacities of all of us. The ability to lead and teach others to see seems to come when humans can collectively stand  still. Does this occur in cycles of light and dark?

    I appreciate all of the ‘teachers’ here. I have always been a hot head, a yeller. Here I have learned and still am how to communicate with others who though the best of souls rationalize the unacceptable with cries of “It has always been like this”. Perhaps as once before in my life I am seeing the beginnings of an awakening of the possible the rejection of   the inevitability of fear and hate. I am trying myself to stand still and allow the strange progress toward humanity to have the space to develop.            

  7. to stand up – to speak up.  For some women this is very difficult.  Many have been raised to have a supportive role – and not a role of power.

    It is therefore imperative for those of us that were raised differently – to speak up at work – in politics – in our daily lives — to point out that women should be equal, – demand that our voices be heard.

    Here in America this is a long hard slog – we are so far behind many other countries where women have attained power in politics.

    Therefore I believe it is imperative to support women in politics – when women have parity in politics – my job will be done.

    • kj on March 10, 2008 at 02:51

    did you see this? Saudis offer pioneering therapy for ex-jihadists

    from mishima’s

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