Imagine being lost and disoriented in the middle of a foggy forest in the dead of night. You’re unable to figure out which direction to step and return towards the safety of home — the place where you find comfort and nourishment.
You take a guess and tentatively walk forward but slam into a tree. You pause and second-guess yourself. You shift your direction a little to the left or to the right and try again.
Tripping over a stone, you stumble to the ground. You brush yourself off, annoyed. With waning confidence, you try to avoid fallen branches and ignore the eerie echo of animal sounds that surround you. Then, you slide down a ravine. You know dawn must break, and the fog will lift eventually. Until then, brighter evenings seem to bring heavier mist, and lighter fog only reveals inky darkness which offers no illumination. You leave clues for yourself. Marking the trail you’ve traversed so that in the event you’re going in circles, you’ll know where to try a new course.
Each day begins with fresh, albeit tentative, optimism. Your goals become a low bar to reach. It’s not falling, and avoiding negative, unhelpful thoughts; building momentum and distance. Each minor victory now pruned with dread. Even if you’re making progress, you have no confirmation that you’re headed in the right direction and not wandering deeper into the wilderness.
You hesitate to label anything you do as a success. It’s just movement and time is the sole arbiter. So, depending on your perspective, you rely on your instinct, your spirit, God, or the advice of others. You are grateful because there is help from these sources. Though in accepting the help you feel like you’ve lost some of your agency. Most days, you prefer the support, because you do want to get out of the forest and into a place that nurtures you back to the person you’ve dreamed you could be.
This is akin to the struggle those with depression, dysthymia, and other non-visible chronic ailments feel. If you break your arm, you have the benefit of a visible clue as to what is hampering your performance and attitude. Others are quick to offer comfort, aid, and encouragement. If they cannot summon those niceties, they certainly pay deference.
With a broken arm, others see your pain. When battling invisible illnesses, the compassion and deference are rare, or nonexistent; not because people are uncaring. It is because they cannot imagine the pain. Many in this state prefer to keep it quiet because they do not want the emotional crutch, nor the kid-glove treatment. They want to be understood, but they don’t have the vocabulary or energy. They simply want to heal. They just want to get home, out of the dark, away from the fog and into a place where they can feel more secure pursuing their unmet needs.
As a leader, you build the capacity to see the hidden pain in yourself and others. Only those equipped with empathy can provide the space, time, and nourishment that promotes the healing. A leader with no compassion will let others wander in the darkness and allow their voices to remain lost in the wilderness. Great leaders, however, are beacons of hope and encouragement. They search for you because you matter.