There is a short poem I love. Some sources attribute it to French poet and writer Guillaume Apollinaire, others to English poet Christopher Logue. It goes like this.
“Come to the edge”, he said. “We can’t, we are afraid”, they responded.
“Come to the edge”, he said. They said “We can’t, we will fall.”
“Come to the edge!”
They came. He pushed them. And they flew.
The first time I read it, it made a powerful impression on me. Unarticulated in my mind, this impression was like a wave running below the surface of my conscious intellect. I felt pulled by this poem without really knowing why. A series of images, symbols and meanings were rushing through my mind without slowing down, hitting my understanding like a freight train. I got so much from it, but I did not really know what. Now, several years later, I decided to look at this short poem with a broader perspective and try and articulate what I see in it.
My engagement and commitment to coaching has been about inspiring and challenging people to improve, break through the limitations that surround them, and excel in what they set their mind to. I am part of an organisation that brings meaning, purpose and fulfilment to modern living (www.idiscover360.com). For the past few years I have been coaching all sorts of creators on all sorts of things, and I have seen patterns in the limitations people build around their freedom, including myself. I am no stranger to the mental and emotional process you will witness below. This is the place I will be coming from when looking at this poem, which I believe expresses very acutely what some of these patterns are.
“Come to the edge”, he said.
This is the invitation, the offer, the proposal, the request. This is the call coming out of the chaos of the world, making its way to you. This is the request for you to step onto your invisible path. Something in your life is not quite what you know it could be, and suddenly something or someone comes knocking at your door with an invitation: “Follow the white rabbit”. The invitation can take multiples forms: joining a new community, coming to a talk, attending a course or programme, reading a book, going on a date or to an interview, investing money in your own development, stepping up in your current company, taking more responsibility, getting into a relationship, marrying someone, etc.
“We can’t, we are afraid”, they responded.
The initial response might be doubt or fear, and you refuse the call. This first response could also be in the form of skepticism – we are all pretty familiar with that one. This is your emotional response, based on your limbic system: the fight or flight mechanism. This is the reaction based on your ego, your survival system, the one that floods your body with the hormones that are designed to keep you hiding in your habitual environment. Your answer is based on what you feel without having given the invitation a moment’s thought, let alone a proper thoughtful investigation. You dismiss the opportunity. Better to play it safe. Let’s close the door on this other world we wouldn’t dare get a glimpse of.
“Come to the edge”, he said.
Life throws at you another chance. It knows that you are not quite what you could be. The same invitation might come again, or a different one. The message is repeated. The offer still stands for you to step out of the world you know and into the world you don’t know. “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasures you seek” said Joseph Campbell. The renewal of the call is about showing you that you can and must go beyond your fears, your doubts, your skepticism, your insecurities. The person you aspire to become is on the other side. You’ve got to cross the threshold.
They said “We can’t, we will fall.”
This time your refusal and backing away is stronger than your sheer emotional response. It looks more grounded and solid, because it is based on all your justifications, explanations and supposedly, facts. Facts that you believe to be true. It is hardly disputable that following the white rabbit has an element of risk to it. In a debate, one could hardly convince you otherwise than what your perspective and the way you look at the world points you to, especially when you think your views are rock solid, based on all the reasons you have. If you cross that threshold, you can foresee some possible consequences that you don’t want to occur. You’ve got good reasons not to go. So you refuse the call, again.
“Come to the edge!”
The injunction cuts through the wall of justifications you put up. It now demands of you that you doubt not the invitation, but your own insecurity, your desire for comfort and control, and what you believe might or might not be true. Not to say your reasons are not valid in some way, but they are missing the point. There is a moral obligation required of you to take on the challenge that has been waiting for you. In the words of Abraham Maslow: “What one can be, one must be“. This is now a must, you cannot use your fear and you cannot use your arguments to defeat the invitation. It still stands. The more you resist it the more pressing it becomes. You are being called. It is bigger than you.
This is the crucial part of the poem, in my opinion, because this is the moment of Trust. This is the moment where, after you’ve given a voice to your fear, and after you’ve reasoned against crossing the threshold, you actually decide to trust. This is no small decision. It is the moment of truth, the tipping point, the crux of it all. It is the moment where you decide to embody your hero, and move beyond the small and confined life you’ve been having until now. You cannot do this without trust. You cannot do this without a leap of faith and choosing to follow the white rabbit, wherever it may take you. It is the choice to enter the forest where it is darkest and there is no path. You trust, and you act out that trust.
He pushed them.
This line is brilliant, because it actually describes that the thing you dreaded the most is actually happening: you being pushed over the edge. What was in your imagination wasn’t completely wrong, in the sense that coming to the edge is scary indeed, AND you do “fall” off the edge, in a sense. The thought, event or person who invited you to cross the threshold might look like an enemy, for a moment. It might look like you’ve been tricked, deceived, taken advantage of and betrayed. This is Luke encountering and fighting the illusion of Darth Vador in the cave. It is your ultimate trial. The night is darkest before dawn.
And they flew.
And finally, in an ultimate turn of event, insight or realisation, you break through. You get to open your eyes wide again and realise that the final and dreadful consequences you had anticipated do not happen. The trust you gave and the actions you took to cross the threshold and enter this mysterious and unfamiliar world lead you to discover some unknown powers inside you. You come to witness some new capabilities literally taking you off into a new plane of existence. You learn about yourself that you are greater than you ever thought you were. Your life transforms. A new world opens itself to you, ready to be grasped by your mighty wings.
So, what to make of all this?
“Come to the edge…”