Alone in the Crowd

I am blessed with many friends of different shapes and sizes, and the natures of my friendships are as different as the friends themselves. I am also blessed with many intimate friendships and deep connections, and when we are together our conversations are rich, authentic and vulnerable. This also includes many friendships with people who will push and challenge me, call me out, and help me to uncover my blind spots. As I said, I am blessed.

And yet, 2017 has thus far been an experience of aloneness (or feeling alone) for me. Not feeling lonely – I have known loneliness, and this experience is different. I’m talking about feeling alone and even unsupported, even in the face of my many friendships and my deep and intimate connections. I know that there’s something for me to learn from this experience.

In January, I sold my house and prepared to move – an experience that can often be stressful and challenging. If you remember Seinfeld, there’s even an episode starring (former New York Mets player) Keith Hernandez that highlights the challenges of moving and friendships. In preparation for my move, I asked ten different friends (all of whom live on the west side of Cleveland) to help me move. One responded that he was not available. One responded that he might be available and that he would let me know (but never did). Eight never responded at all. As my move date approached, I had hired two people to help me move, but none of the people that I had asked to help me move were showing up. At the last minute, another friend heard about my move and offered to help, and I have to say that when he showed up I was really grateful to see him. I was feeling quite alone and unsupported that day, and I was wondering: what was the nature of my friendships? And I continued to wonder.

In February, I was scheduled to receive an award at a black tie event in Akron. I had planned to purchase a table for this event for a mentor (who would hand me the award) and for other friends and guests. I invited eight people to join me at the table, and all eight declined for various reasons (some stated and some unstated). I then invited four more people to join me, and all four declined. I am blessed by many friends and supporters and yet, I had no one who was going to join me for this special event—no one available or willing to be there to support me. I felt alone and unsupported, again!

I then asked the pastor of my church – Jonathan Buckland – to join me at the awards ceremony and to honor me by handing me my award. Jonathan happily accepted and agreed to be there to support me, despite the long distance, late evening and time away from his family. I felt blessed and supported by Jonathan, and we had a marvelous time at the event. And I still felt alone and unsupported.

I also felt some anger – I wanted to say to people in my life, “What the hell? I invest so heavily in people in my life, being there for them, supporting them. What about me?” But over time, I let the anger go, which left me with sadness (feeling alone) and wondering what I am to learn from this.

Over the past three months, I’ve asked many questions (to myself and to others), and I’ve learned a great deal about myself and my journey, including my mission and leadership journey. The most important thing that I’ve learned is that one of my deepest fears is that if I lead as God intends me to lead, if I fully claim and live out my mission, if I step into my power to create change in organizations and in people’s lives, I will lose everyone in my life. Everyone.

At some level I know this isn’t true, and I also know that if I lose people in my life then they will be replaced by others. They say that friends are for a reason, a season or a lifetime, and I’ve learned that this is true—and that I don’t get to decide which one is true in each case. They decide, whether consciously or unconsciously.

The deeper learning from this experience (which is ongoing) is that living my mission is a choice and that my choice has a cost, or at least a risk. That’s the nature of mission and leadership. They say that leadership is lonely, and I’ve been experiencing that in a profound way this year. Those who know me are stunned when they hear about this experience because they know that I have many great friends and supporters. If you looked at my schedule, you’d see anything but aloneness as I’m regularly spending time with people, personally and professionally, and yet I feel alone in this crowd of friends.

What I’ve learned most actionably is that my experience of aloneness – of feeling alone in the crowd – is about a shift and a choice. Another shift that I’m in the midst of and the choice I must make in this season is whether I will take an even deeper dive into my mission and whether I will take the risk of unleashing my power (or instead stand pat and play small). I have chosen – I am a man on a mission, and I will risk losing everyone to live that mission, and I know that I will never truly be alone.

And isn’t it interesting: in the midst of this aloneness I have chosen to journey to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago, alone. A solitary walk which I trust will be filled with interactions with many strangers (aka new friends) and memorable experiences—I couldn’t have consciously planned it any better, yet all credit goes to my unconscious mind that set everything up just the way it needs to be for me to learn, to grow, and to choose.

Where are you feeling alone, perhaps alone in the crowd? What can you learn from this experience? Which will you choose – to leap with faith into the unknown or to play it safe?

I am not alone. You are not alone. Your journey, like my journey, exists to give us all the opportunity to grow, to sharpen, and to choose. I have embraced my aloneness experience, and I look forward to seeing where it takes me, including my journey on the Camino. The world needs more people who are willing to be alone in the crowd, for that will be the source of the change this world so deeply needs and desires. Will you join me, alone in the crowd?

Comments

  1. Kimmie Durham says:

    Jeff:
    This touched me to the core! Yes, it is part of our chosen Mission to “be/stand/feel alone” in the crowd. I have been on an almost 20 year journey myself. My Passion is to eradicate Cancer in our lifetime. I, too, have many dear friends both near and far, however, at times, it is compelling to me how those closest to us…..our inner circle, do not understand the profound journey we are on. It is a choice to remain true and God guides us each step of the way. I am grateful to join you alone in the crowd!
    Take Care:
    Kimmie

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