Marisa Guerin, PhD – June 16,2021
Things have their time. You can’t rush the hatching of an egg, or the maturing of a child, or the creative spark you wish you had right now. It takes time to disrupt, reverse, and heal the factors that have produced problems we want to solve, whether they are personal challenges like losing weight, or social challenges like ending gun violence. It is the work of months and years to nurture a culture of creativity and innovation in a company. Some things feel like they take forever.
The need for patience of this sort has been known for thousands of years: Ecclesiastes in the Bible is the source of the famous words, “To everything, there is a season.” If we were always on the same timetable as the reality around us, there would be no tension in this wisdom. But most of us have our own ideas about when things ought to happen, when we ought to be ready, when someone ought to grasp what needs to change. (Like, “Now!” for instance.)
Waiting is hard enough when we know the estimated arrival time; how much more likely are we to push and fuss if we don’t have any idea when the “right” time will be? Does it help or hurt to throw our weight into the barriers we come upon?
I personally like the way that the fable of Sleeping Beauty (or Briar Rose) provides some insight into this problem. This particular fairy tale has many variants and is believed to be over 700 years old, so what I will reference in this blogpost is my own recollection of how it was told to me once. Fables like this one have multiple layers of meaning, but I will focus only on one in this telling: the importance of the moment of readiness.
In the story, a baby princess is celebrated and showered with gifts by the guests invited to her christening, including magic fairies. One of the fairies, overlooked and ignored, is angry at being disrespected. She places a curse on the baby: when the girl is grown, she will prick her finger on a spindle and die. One of the other fairies at the christening, horrified, attempts to protect the princess from this fate, but she can’t totally remove the curse. Instead of death, the good fairy decrees that the young woman will fall asleep for 100 years, and the whole castle with her, until she is awakened by a prince.
Despite the efforts of the king and queen to remove all spindles from the kingdom, the now-teenaged young woman does indeed come upon a woman spinning one day. (Oedipus showed us that you can’t escape prophecies, but we keep trying.) Sure enough, she pricks her finger and falls asleep along with the whole castle and all its people and animals, and a thick briar-thorn hedge grows tall and impenetrable around the castle keep.
As the years go by, the people who live nearby pass along the legend that inside the hedge there is a princess asleep in a castle, and that she shall be awakened by a prince. Apparently, the “100 years” part doesn’t get told as often, because over the decades, various hopeful princes attempt to hack their way through the briars, which are sharp as daggers. These hapless princes fail in their quest, and each one dies in the attempt to force fate.
One day – as it happens, exactly one hundred years later – a prince traveling through the area hears the tale and decides to look for the princess himself. As he approaches the briar hedge, before he does anything to push through it, the hedge opens for him of its own accord, the briars having turned into roses.
He walks in straightaway, finds the princess, she and all the inhabitants of the castle awaken, the prince and princess marry, and they live happily ever after.
The message in this fable, as I heard it and am retelling it here, is not about any heroism on the part of the prince, nor of the princess; in this fable, they are just experiencing the fate preordained for them. The message is that things will ripen and awaken in their time, and if we attempt to force things before the right time, there may be a serious price to be paid.
Personally, I don’t subscribe to the notion of fates and prophecies that we can’t influence to some degree by our choices, or at least by our attitudes towards the reality we encounter. But I do think there is deep wisdom in the notion that there is a hidden “fulness of time” at work in most natural and human processes.
I thought of this fable fairly often in my consulting career, as I worked with clients who were engaged in fostering significant change in their organizations. Leadership decisions required careful pondering. Some dimensions of desired change will only be kindled if leaders and members take initiative; but other aspects of a significant change in culture or capacity are resistant to force. They won’t respond to pushing, pulling, speech-ifying, or budget-passing. The complexity of an evolving system requires that all the parts be in sufficient harmony - or conflict - to permit the emergence of the new. It is far too organic a process to make it responsive to a Gantt chart, despite many of our best attempts to “manage” change.
It was such a fine balance to discern with my client what would be the right course of action: Was it the moment for the leader to charge ahead, calling, “Follow me”? Or was it time for the leader to patiently offer encouragement, support, ideas, and to pay close attention to the signs that would indicate a readiness for greater action? The specific choices made by my clients varied, as you would expect, and I can only hope we assessed the situations accurately more often than not.
I know that not all my readers are organizational leaders or consultants, and I also suspect it’s been a long while since you last read your edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. (It's a very interesting read when you are an adult, by the way.) But I am fairly confident that all of us have things we hope for, desire, need, or dream of. The fact that life entails a lot of waiting seems relevant to most of us.
I am not at all fatalistic; I am convinced that we are partners in the creating of the world, sending it spinning ever so slightly one way versus another way by virtue of our choices to act or not to act. But I recognize how tiny my part is. I realize that I, and we, have our moment within an enormous, larger Life. My own imagined timetable for progress surely has little to do with the deep, inner rhythm that is guiding the emergence of the new, the arc that I believe is bent towards the horizon of justice.
I hope I’m at the right place when the metaphorical “100 years” are up on something I care deeply about... but in the likely event that I won’t be, I will continue to remember what the Talmud says: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” I am confident there will be roses on the appointed day.
At the very least, I can hope that one of these days, I’ll find that it is time to make progress on losing some weight. Or not. (Does my sigh sound patient?) All in good time.