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We Belong to Ourselves – Share Generously

More thoughts on bringing the spirit of generosity alive


Forty years ago this week, on the 13th of September, 1971, a ninety-one-year-old woman died quietly in Genoa. She had moved there near the end of WWII to live with her son’s family, while continuing to do the anarchist writing and publishing work that had helped her make her way in the world throughout her adult life. Her name was Leda Rafanelli. Born in the Tuscan town of Pistoia on the 4th of July, 1880, at the age of twenty, Rafanelli traveled down to Alexandria, in Egypt, home to a good-sized community of expatriate Italian anarchists. (At the time, it was a bit like moving from a small town in western Michigan to live instead in Greenwich Village in the 60s.) While in Alexandria, Rafanelli deepened her emerging anarchist beliefs.  She also fell in love with Arab culture and converted from Catholicism to Islam. True to the independent way she lived her life, Leda interpreted and applied Islam in rather unorthodox—let’s say, anarchistic—ways. Returning to her homeland a few years later, Rafanelli began to publish short stories and political pamphlets, as well as translations she had done of the writing of other famous free-thinkers. She also co-founded two of the most prominent anarchist-publishing houses in Italy. Rafanelli regularly dressed all in black, or on occasion, as we can see in some of the photos taken of her, with “gigantic hoops dangling from her ears, posing with a large, stuffed snake coiled around her neck.” In her later years, Rafanelli worked as a tarot reader, which meant, as one acquaintance pointed out, “She was both a pacifist and a palmist.”

Many years after her death, Leda’s legend led Francesco Satta, Luca De Santis, and Sara Colaone to make her the lead character in a graphic novel, Leda: That Only Love and Light Has As its Boundary, in which they wrote of Rafanelli, she was a “proudly irregular woman, always struggling with her own destiny.” sister-hood, a magazine that highlights “the diverse voices of women of Muslim heritage,” says she was, “Extraordinary, fascinating, and occasionally paradoxical. … a woman who had the courage to defy the expectations of her time.” In IBelong Only to Myself: The Life and Writings of Leda Rafanelli, Andrea Pakieser posits that Rafanelli’s writing provided “new role models in the form of everyday characters who encounter, embrace and explore ideals of freedom. … [heralding] anarchism as an alternative to the injustices of authority, whether political, religious, social, or spiritual, by flagrantly denouncing the violence caused by the imposition of hierarchy.” In a way that was congruent with so much of the inspiration and mystery of her life, Rafanelli had foretold her own death forty-eight hours before she passed, and left instructions for her niece to stamp and mail a stack of goodbye letters she had written to thank friends and publishers who had been important parts of her long life. 

In “Imagining an Islamic Anarchism,” historian Anthony Fiscella refers to Rafanelli as “the Moslem Emma Goldman.” The moniker makes me smile, but I have a feeling that Leda wouldn’t have liked it much. While she would have, I’m guessing, had a strong affinity for Emma Goldman, as well as Emma’s anarchist beliefs and willingness to speak her mind freely, anyone who worked as hard as Rafanelli did to be herself would likely have resisted being reduced to a secondary reference to someone else. To make the point, Rafanelli dubbed herself with the Arabic name Djali, which, as she emphatically explained, means, “belonging to myself.”

Daphne Zepos, my dear friend who lived with an independence of thought and action very much aligned with Rafanelli, said of herself shortly before she died at the too young age of fifty-three, “I owned my life”—a statement preceded half a century earlier by Rafanelli, who wrote: “Leda isn’t the type to ask for direction. She creates her own path herself, and although it twists and turns, it can only be her path.” In the spirit of great historical conversations that never happened, I’d like to imagine sharing a seat at the table with Rafanelli and Daphne. I’m confident the two could have had some terrific discussions. 

Leda Rafanelli lived a special, and also truly generous, life—one that has inspired me to reflect and take a more detailed look at how we can apply the spirit of generosity that I wrote about last week in quiet, but nevertheless, critical ways. For me, there are three themes that run through Leda Rafanelli’s life:

Be generous of spirit with yourself.
Be generous in giving of yourself.
Generously encourage others to be themselves.

The spirit of generosity, you may remember, is “water” in the organizational ecosystem metaphor. Each of these three things, on its own, can make our lives better; all three done repeatedly and regularly, I believe, can help us create the sort of “self-watering gardens” in our organizations and lives that permaculturist Toby Hemenway writes about. All three may seem, on the surface, simple–easy to dismiss as irrelevant in the context of strategy, financial struggles, and trying to manage through a global pandemic. But like water in the garden, I will suggest, we really won’t live well without them. Done daily these three things can gently and sustainably generate enough generosity to keep our organizational cultures well-watered for a long time to come. They are important ways to help us live Natural Law #17: “Healthy organizational ecosystems bring the spirit of generosity alive every day!”

Be generous of spirit with yourself.

We all know how important it is to stay hydrated; when we’re not generous with ourselves we are essentially creating the equivalent of “spiritual dehydration.” Just as it’s easy to forget to hydrate properly on busy days, it would be easy to ignore our own needs in stressful times like the ones in which we’re living. I’ve spoken to so many long-time leaders recently who are simply feeling tapped out by the tensions of the last few years. Which is why now, more than ever, is the time to generously honor our own spiritual and emotional needs the same way we would for anyone else that we love. To become, as John O’Donohue used to say, “our own best friend.”  

In part, we can do that by honoring our inherent individuality. While so much of the news is about citing statistics, beneath that superficial view of the world, we are all very special humans. As Leda Rafanelli wrote, “The handprint of every living being is ‘unique,’ different from every other.” Each of us, I believe, is an artist creating a unique one-of-a-kind life for ourselves. For those who are regularly faced with emotional, physical, or financial hardship, or who find themselves confronted with cultural or systemically imposed obstacles, it’s markedly more difficult. And yet, if we don’t find ways to honor our inner artist, it will be almost impossible to lead the kind of meaningful leadership lives, contributing to the communities around us, to which we aspire. (See “The Art of Business” for much more on making this concept come alive.)

What does this mean in practice? As an introvert, I want time alone; my more extroverted friends want to go to dinner together. I want to read, run, and write; others want to go rock-climbing, rap, or go rowing. However we do it, being generous with ourselves means getting to know ourselves, our nuanced intricacies, and unique idiosyncrasies. Being generous with ourselves calls for patience, to make peace with our own inevitable (and also inimitable) imperfection. It means making time to move into our minds in caring, sensitive ways, to become as Leda Rafanelli wrote, “individuals who are masters of their own lives as well as their own thoughts.” 

Getting to know ourselves well, as I wrote in Part 3, is not easy work. As Maria Popova (whose creative insightful presence in the world reminds me a lot of Leda Rafanelli) writes, “Self-knowledge might be the most difficult of life’s rewards—the hardest to earn and the hardest to bear.” Generosity for ourselves also means making time to do the things that matter. Easier said than done in stressful times, I know. But still, making time to do active learning, to work out, to get out into nature, meditate, or carve out a few quality minutes to connect with people we care about. Even three deep conscious breaths or ten minutes in the morning to do a bit of journaling can make a meaningful difference. Part of this work is to honor and engage our emotions. I’ve been working at it for decades and I still have a long way to go, but I am very clear on how important it is to do so. When we do, we will, as psychologist Karla McLaren says “have direct access to the awareness and tools we need to improve our own lives, improve the social and emotional environments of our relationships and workplaces, and then change the world. Emotions are that powerful.”

Learning to be generous with ourselves, I’ve come to believe, is a lifelong project; each day we need to begin anew. As scientist Stephen Harrod Buhner says, “We are not the same person today that we were yesterday, we will not be the same person tomorrow that we are today.” Even at ninety-one, Leda Rafanelli was exploring herself and trying to make a positive difference in the world around her. As historian Franco Andreucci says, “Consistent with her past as a freethinker, she lived the last years of her life in Genoa, with the same passion for noble causes.” Lo that we could all live up to the high standard of self-actualization that Leda Rafanelli set for the rest of us—each in our own ways—to follow. Andrea Pakieser writes that throughout her life, 

Leda Rafanelli specialized in being herself, living authentically, seeking to understand the dynamics of human existence in its freest most personal expression. The only acceptance she sought was her own, and, accordingly, she was able to draw upon a power and insight that would guide her through a life of challenge, freedom, struggle, and love.

Be generous in giving of yourself.

The more we honor our true spirit, the more in touch we get with ourselves, the better we care for and nurture ourselves, the more we have to share with others. If we’re coming from a place of humility—as I believe is best—it would be easy to write off this sort of sharing as superfluous or egotistical. Done poorly, that might be true. Done well, I would suggest, it’s anything but. By sharing our true selves, being honest (in productive ways, times, and places) with others by sharing our hopes and our fears, our visions, and our beliefs, we will be of enormous benefit to those we work and live with. Hiding pieces of who we are—as so many of us were taught to do as kids—may have gotten us through tough times when we were thirteen, but I’ve learned the hard way, it becomes increasingly ineffective as the importance of our leadership work increases. Being real, sharing our art with the world around us, I’ve come to believe, is an act of generosity—we all have much to offer, and hiding it isn’t helping anyone. As Margaret Wheatley writes, “We are, always, poets, exploring possibilities of meaning in a world which is also all the time exploring possibilities.” 

Stephen Harrod Buhner shares his own how-to on the subject, one that’s very much in sync with the life of Leda Rafanelli:

The crucial first step, I finally figured out, is speaking from the heart rather than the head. But, importantly, it can’t be left at that, the next so very important step is learning how to do so with great elegance. That is when it becomes art. And it takes years to learn … and a huge amount of real life doing of it. This is something that very few people in our rationalist culture understand, for we have put our faith in mind and not in heart. …

I gave up wearing a social garment, the one constructed by my mind, and began allowing the one my soul naturally wears to be seen. It is an opening of the heart to others, a giving up of the concealed self. It’s an act of trust. … When the genuine, the real, the unconcealed self is brought into the room, words can take on a luminosity and meaning they cannot otherwise have. Somehow that intimacy gets into the words, into the sentences, into the silences between the words, and then, in some magical way, into the people who hear them. It is then that speech has something to say to the soul. It is then the words touch the heart in a way that speaking from the head never can.

Showing up in vulnerable ways that let others see and feel who we are, without imposing ourselves inappropriately into their space, is a challenge, but it’s one that can enrich our own lives, and also, at the same time, the lives of everyone around us. As Maria Popova puts it:

To know yourself is to know that you are not invulnerable. The honest encounter with that vulnerability is the wellspring of art: Every artist’s art is their coping mechanism for the extreme sensitivity to aliveness that we call beauty—the transcendent and terrifying capacity to be moved by the world, to let something outside us stir deeply something within us. All great art—and only honest art can be great—is therefore the work of vulnerability and all integrity, the function of fidelity to one’s fragilities.

Being vulnerable in this way, I’ve come to believe, is one of the most generous acts we can undertake. As Seth Godin writes in his terrific new book, The Practice, “At the heart of the creative’s practice is trust: the difficult journey to trust in yourself, the often hidden self, the unique human each of us lives with.” As Seth says, “The songwriter who works hard to get a song on the radio … is doing the generous work of creating a new hit, a hit that becomes part of your history and cultural vocabulary.” It lets us lead with, and leave a legacy of generosity of spirit in the world, because, as Seth shares, our art, “is something we get to do for other people.

In the context of the 20th century business world where sharing vulnerable emotion is not exactly exalted, tears are hardly something that most people would celebrate. But John O’Donohue helped me understand that if the spirit of generosity is water, and tears are also water, then the act of sharing them is clearly an act of generosity, vulnerably sharing ourselves with the world. As O’Donohue writes, “It seems that tears are the most intense way in which the heights and depths of human emotion find expression. … There is great relief to be found in tears, for tears release great burdens.” (For a touching example of the generosity of spirit that is transferred through tears, check out this interview with musician Abigail Washburn. The whole interview is good, but the story about the tears is just past the forty-two-minute mark.)

Be generous to the spirit of others.

When we have generously nurtured our own spirit, and then humbly and meaningfully shared that spirit with those around us, we can complete this virtuous generous “water cycle” by making time and mental space to honor the creative and true spirit of those around us. I can think of many wonderful people—some in person, some through their writing—that have helped me to develop in this way over the years. I hope that I can do the same for others. It’s so easy in the hubbub of day-to-day life to brush right past people. Busboys and bus drivers are easily ignored, but when we pause to pay closer attention, we can see that they too are poets and painters. Their art might be parenting, playing baseball, or growing beautiful tomatoes, but they all have it in them. If we as leaders will listen well to learn about their hopes and dreams, generosity can be successfully spread through our ecosystems. In the process, we create meaningful connection, and as musician Jeff Tweedy says, “Connection is the loftiest of all aspirations.”

Leda Rafanelli wrote a book called Social Sketches that came out in 1910. It contained fifty-six stories about the people that are ignored by most, but become magical when we pay attention. “There are,” Rafanelli wrote, “human beings who the novelist does not see, who the historian does not recognize.” Learning people’s names is one small way to start this process. Learning the meaning of their name is another. Learning what they like and how they spend their days and what their passions are is another. Everyone, I’ve learned, has an interesting story if we make the time to look and listen. As Luis Alberto Urrea writes, “Everybody has dreams. Everybody has people they love. Everybody has pain.” And, he adds poignantly, “We miss each other.” Whether it’s you, the newest hire you’ve made, or Leda Rafanelli, people want to be acknowledged for who we are. On her beautiful new album Séance, New Zealand musician Maxine Funke sings, “I like to be noticed and I wish to be seen. I spend my day taking in the faces.”

The more we help others around us to be themselves, the better lives they will lead as individuals, and the more meaningfully they will contribute to our organizations and communities. In the process, I believe we help them stay “spiritually hydrated,” by finding the generosity that is already present—even if hard to access in the moment—in their own spirit. All of which makes me think of John O’Donohue’s statement about those who have the skill to find water in a new way in the context of the organizational ecosystem. “The tradition of water-divining,” O’Donohue wrote, “is very interesting. Some people have this gift.”  I aspire to become one of them.

What makes all this come alive most meaningfully is turning these three things into a regular regimen that we make an essential element of our leadership work. If the idea of building a routine sounds like drudgery, let me suggest that it absolutely does not need to be. Seth Godin’s book, The Practice, is an ode to turning this work into a wonderful, creative, caring, generous, way to be in the world. Doing all three of these every day, even in small but still significant ways, will, I’m confident, help us create the well-watered, quietly but effectively generous organizations which Natural Law #17 suggests are most likely to thrive. Being generous to ourselves boosts our own energy; being generous of ourselves in caring and constructive ways boosts the energy of everyone around us; being generous to the spirit of those we know and work with will enhance all our energy. Our cultural soil stays moist, people do better, business gets better, and everyone comes out ahead. As Seth Godin writes, “Human connection is exponential: it scales as we create it, weaving together culture and possibility where none used to exist. You have everything you need to make magic. You always have.” 

If you need a muse for that magic, think back to Leda Rafanelli, a thoughtful, provocative, and caring woman who lived out her years belonging to herself, but generously sharing her creative, caring presence with the world in grounded, authentic, and meaningful ways. As Andrea Pakieser writes, Leda Rafanelli “walked how she talked, and her life was a testimony to how people can live anarchically free.” Rafanelli did that, I’ve come to believe, by generously honoring her own unique spirit; by sharing that spirit meaningfully through her writing, and by helping so many others—both personally and professionally—to do the same. She worked hard to honor those who were passed over by most of the mainstream, to see the beauty and art in others and, throughout, to stay true to herself. She effectively claimed and created her own freedom, but always in caring and collaborative, community-minded ways. I—and maybe you—will commit to follow Leda’s creative lead to belong to ourselves; to share that caring creative self with those around us, and to support others as they work to do the same. The more we “belong to ourselves,” I’ve come to see, the more generously we can help others around us to do the same, all as part of one caring, well-connected community.

For more on the spirit of generosity, see Secret #46 in Part 4. If you’d like to see the drawing of the organizational ecosystem, drop me a line at [email protected]


*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!

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