There are times in life when we find ourselves stuck. Times when the place we find ourselves is a temporary respite at best. We see no way ‘forward’ and there’s no way to retrace our steps back. These are times where we realize that some new way must break forth – either from around us or from within us. At such times we cannot see the door that life will open for us and feel lost. These are times when it becomes clear that the breaking of our assumptions or expectations or habits is sometimes not only a good way to go but, without realizing, it’s exactly the way set out to find in the first place.
Pressing our bodies tightly against the brick wall of an unknown building on the University of Virginia last week was one of these times.
Liz and I were exploring Charlottesville, VA last week having taken a day to tour Monticello and learn about the fascinating and complex life of Thomas Jefferson. We learned that, besides his pursuits as President of the US and Governor of Virginia, Jefferson was passionate about horticulture, astronomy, education and architecture. We wanted to go see the University of Virigina – and particularly, the rotunda at the center which he designed.
It was raining lightly when we started out for the half mile walk, up the hill, toward the campus. We set out with pleasant enough moods and an umbrella for a leisurely, even romantic morning of discovery. But as we got a little more than half way, the rain went (and our moods) went from easy to urgent. Before we reached the top, it began to pour. And just as we turned the corner – when the church and the rotunda came into view – the wind lifted and the rain shifted from horizontal to a sideways trajectory.
We stepped over a bright yellow umbrella discarded on the sidewalk with all its little spokes broken. It seemed an ominous sight, as was the whistle of the wind now taunted our own feeble umbrella which had given up on its promise to keep us dry.
Seeing the Rotunda and the church were too far away, we made a dash for the brick building ahead of us. Seeing the front was an additional 50 feet, we made a dash to the portico on the side. The awning offered little shelter from the sweeping rain so we pressed ourselves flat against the wall where we avoided all but the mist and the splatter.
We stood there, humbled and helpless. “What do we do now?” Liz asked. “Nothing we can do, I guess. Except wait,” I responded. So we did. And watched the sheets of water continue to fall.
It was then that a head popped out of one of the two unmarked doors set into the brick wall of that portico.
“Are you trapped?” asked a well-dressed middle-aged blond woman with wire-framed glasses, smiling. “Yes,” we both said at once. “We were on our way to the rotunda when it started to pour and we just ran for it. We don’t even know where we are.” “This is the administration building,” she smiled. ”I’m Teresa Sullivan. I’m the president of the University.” We must have looked stunned. “Please come in. You can dry off in our lobby.”
This is how love and compassion flow from top to bottom. When those in the upper echelons of influence are able to see through layers of complexity and power to see the tenderness and vulnerability of those caught in the winds and rains of these tumultuous times. When I got home, I googled Ms. Sullivan and discovered she recently won an award for leadership. I wasn’t surprised. This is what leadership is: the ability of those at the top to see through stormy conditions and remember our true purpose… an aim for those at every station to understand why they left in the first place, what they set out to find and how to get there.
May this be a model for all of us on the path.
To the Glory of Life.