Podcast version of the below text (8 minutes).
The Old English poem Beowulf, perhaps more than any other story, might be the antidote to the poison of business-as-usual as lockdown eases and world events scream for change. It is a story for everyone – shareholder, chief executive and lobbyist included. Whether we realise it or not, humans navigate their lives using story. The question is: whose story are we living and why? And what story do we wish to live? By confronting his fears, the warrior-prince Beowulf reclaims sovereignty over his life and the ability to be fully present in the world.
Each year that I worked in investment banking between 1994 and 2003 there would be a moment of deep questioning. Something vital was missing. No matter how hard I worked, my heart was not in it. I was living society’s dream, a dream rooted in fear, when what I longed for was to throw caution to the wind, wander off into the wilds and write something epic to help make the world a kinder place. Aged thirty-two, I imagined myself on my deathbed looking back on my life. I could handle the idea of small regrets but not big regrets. What use was a glittering lifestyle if my soul, my feelings, were locked in the cellar, just like in the old tales? And so I resigned. I pushed aside the golden handcuffs and set off on a wild journey about the world that eight years later brought me to a mythical swamp.
When Grendel, a diabolical monster from a similar swamp, continues to burst into the King of Denmark’s feasting hall to drag off and devour his best warriors, the hero Beowulf comes to his rescue. He mortally wounds Grendel who hauls himself back to the swamp to die. Following a great celebration the next night, another warrior is dragged off by something else that visits from the swamp – Grendel’s mother.
Beowulf makes the bold decision to pursue her. As noted by the poet David Whyte in his book The Heart Aroused – Poetry and the Preservation of Soul in Corporate America (1994), to do so Beowulf must first admit that the swamp exists, that Grendel was an expression of his repressed soul that has turned feral and that the monster’s mother is the origin of his own fears. To remain solely in the feasting hall of the conscious mind is no longer tenable. Society’s idea of what is grand – growth in quantity but not quality – is far from the greatness the soul yearns for. And the longer the soul’s presence is denied, the more fearsome the beasts that emerge from the swamp. At the collective level, Covid-19 is one such beast while beneath it looms a mounting environmental crisis.
As David Whyte notes, ordinary male courage and strategic thinking can take Beowulf no further than the swamp’s edge, the edge of his fears. It is a fear of not belonging, entangled in a deep shame that he will never be good enough. He sees a stag pursued by hounds, an ancient symbol of maleness pursued by its deeper longings. The stag prefers to die at the swamp’s edge than save itself in the fearful water. Beowulf can only descend through the murky depths with the part of him represented by the wise old crone. She is our vulnerability, the part of us courageous and wily enough to reach back to our childhood and wonder where and why we lost our deepest feelings that properly connect us to the world and how we affect it.
A privileged upbringing is no protection from such loss. In fact, the conditioning, the weight of expectation, can be more burdensome and the point of loss more tricky to find than in rougher circumstances. But the tragic loss is always there. It is part of the deal of an Earthly existence. The journey required to recover what was lost is how we grow into greatness.
We would do well to ask ourselves: what fears lie at the bottom of our personal swamps? How have they combined with the fears of others to define our culture, including the way we run our businesses? And how might that culture and the world look if we mastered our fears and remembered how to trust?
Beowulf sinks to the swamp’s bottom in a ring-mail suit of the crone’s making and wrestles with Grendel’s mother. The sword he brought with him is of no use down there in the turbulent depths of the soul – only the shimmering one hanging from the wall of her den will do the job. And so he tears it down and with a sudden blow kills her. Despite the apparent violence of the act it symbolises integration.
Before resurfacing with Grendel’s head, Beowulf is down there a long time. In our lives this could be five to ten years, with Beowulf now in his late forties. As for myself, having taken eight years to arrive at the swamp, I was at the bottom of it for a further four years or so, wrestling with my demons, until I had the clarity to realise that I was wrestling myself, clear enough to see the luminous sword and use it to end the struggle. In practice, struggle becomes vigilance. I understand the origin of my fears well enough to know that they are not actually mine and so minimise their interference in everyday life. At the collective level, that is the difference between a wall and a bridge, between a gloomy future and one that dazzles with possibility.
At this critical juncture, where we have around ten years to overhaul the way we live, a mature person, one who truly cherishes the world about them, would bring their soul to work and have the courage to speak its truth. If their organisation cannot hear it and incorporate it, that person had best leave and join one that will. The stakes could not be higher.
Author of fantasy novel The House of Tusk
Baring Asset Management 1994-1995
UBS 1995-2003 – London, South Africa, New York