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Rainbows and ordinary miracles

We talk more about spirituality in the workplace than we used to. It has always been there, the proverbial elephant in the room, but it is often ignored in favour of rationality and numbers.

A few years back I was doing a series of workshops for a corporation to help integrate their organisation’s values.  As part of the workshops I asked group members to first explore what was important in their own lives. When they had identified those things that mattered to them most, I asked them to arrange them in a colourful conceptual map.

With very few exceptions their spiritual lives were in the centre. Once they recognised that, they also realised how aligned their own values were to those of the organisation. They realised that they believed in the same things. The values of the organisation were no longer words in silver frames along the corridor, but deeply held beliefs about life.

I have learned that there is a common spirituality that transcends our differences. 

I believe that as we embrace and accept those who have different beliefs to ourselves, without in any way being apologetic for our own, we create a dignity and a respect for each other. We create the possibility that together we can create something bigger than ourselves. We can then work together to make the world a better place.

As we pursue our purpose here on earth through our life and work, there will be some things we can’t always explain, at least not in every-day language. You may call it chance, synchronicity, luck, spiritual guidance or what I have called ordinary miracles.

As you take new actions, you begin to notice things you hadn’t noticed before. People cross your path in ways that seem uncannily timely. Favour arrives in ways you may not have expected.

I believe that ordinary miracles are happening all the time. Sometimes all we need to do is slow down enough to notice them.

Rainbows for me are road signs of hope. They are a beautiful sign of reassurance, of confirmation and of encouragement. 

Rainbows are a reminder that there are things bigger than us all and that we are indeed small in the immense balance of nature.

And when the sky is most grey and I least expect it, a rainbow appears in the sky and I know it’s going to be OK.

Here are some of my stories of rainbows and other miracles over the years.

I hope it will help you notice the miracles in your own story, perhaps also encourage you to look up and notice them more often.

To Bend or not to Bend

It was late in the afternoon as I contemplated life from my corporate office. I had a wonderful job with great people. We had done it! We had created a commercial bank as a team. But my passion for helping people make better choices in their careers was a persistent theme and I had continued to feed it actively.

I consumed every book I could find on careers and career decision-making. I had just completed a marathon thesis on career decision-making as a way of formalising many years of learning and practice. But that wasn’t enough.

Knowing is not the same as doing and learning is not mastery. I needed to know what to do next.

I had received a mail earlier in the day that went something like this:

Dear Mr Bramley. We are pleased to advise we still have some places on our two-week programme for career-changers and counsellors in Bend, Oregon. You may be interested to know this is the last programme Dick Bolles will be offering and is on a first come first served basis. Simply deposit the course fees into our account to secure a place.

To learn from Dick Bolles, whose books and thinking I had devoured over many years, who had also guided me through his writing to find my own mission, would be a gift. The cost of this programme together with travel and accommodation were significant for me, particularly with our poor rate of exchange at the time. With a new home and two small boys, I could not afford to make this trip.

Sometimes in life there is nothing else to do but take a step forward, any step.

My favourite quotation in life is that of the French Physician Paul Tournier who said:

‘God guides us while we are on the way, not while we are standing still’.

And so I took a walk to the American Embassy. What would it take to get to Bend? I stood gazing at the large map in their offices. Bend was a small town in the high desert of Oregon – about the furthest point in the USA from where I lived. Couldn’t it be a bit closer?

As I walked back to my office, the pavements were filling up as the work day neared its end. Soon they would be thronged with people before the city emptied again and slowed down for the evening. If you were beside me, you may have overheard me talking softly.

My dear friend Sylvia was a true prayer warrior and taught me about ‘Telegram prayers’. She said you could talk to God anytime and the messages could be short and cryptic.

Telegrams preceded email and cell phones; they were sent by phone line to a post office that printed and delivered them to your address. At every wedding or funeral I attended in my youth, someone would be called on to read telegrams of congratulations or condolences depending on the occasion.

I was now sending telegram prayers. 

‘God, do you really want me to go to Bend? Did you see that Bend is as far from here as it can be in America? I know this is really important for the work I feel called to do and do you perhaps have some cash in mind to pay for this?’

There was no return telegram till I got back to my office.

‘Phone your previous employer and sell the shares you bought when you left’.

I shot back a reply; ‘Nice idea, but I need about R35 000. I bought shares for R2000, that’s nowhere near what I need’.

No response. So I sent another.

‘And their offices are closed already. It’s after 6pm in the evening’

A short reply read ‘Phone anyway’ and so I did.

‘Hello, have I reached security?

‘No sorry. I am in the accounts department, not sure why it came through here at this time of night. I am just working a bit late’.

‘I was actually looking for someone who works with the share scheme’

‘I look after the share scheme’ he said ‘how can I help you?’

George Bernard Shaw said that a miracle is a miracle even if you know how it happens. I would never have even checked those shares since they were an insignificant amount of money against what I needed. It turns out that the shares had been converted into British pounds and growth had been astonishing.

‘How much would you like transferred Mr Bramley, you have that amount, with change’

This would be the first of many ordinary miracles.

I began to learn that when God has a plan it is also matched with the resources you will need to do it. It may not be all at once and it may not be so obvious. But you often have to stick your neck out first. You have to make the call. Send the mail. Heed the message. Take the action that you can.

America would become a regular refuelling station for my vision and energy. My dear friends there would also be gracious with mentorship and support over many years. The work I did in Bend helped me create a vision for my own consulting business that is now in its 17th year. That is now longer than I was employed in the formal workplace. 

When we screw up

I met John Webb in Bend. He was doing the most fabulous work with continuing education students in Germany.  I have a lovely photograph of us on top of Mount Bachelor, pointing towards the future.

John generously invited me to experience the work he was doing in Germany. And so a few years later, after I had started my business, I took up his kind offer.

As I saw the lights of Germany emerge through the clouds, I sensed an uneasiness that something was not right. I had even slept uneasily. Had I left something at home?

Why does facing a Customs official always make you feel like you are at school facing the Principal?

First they look at your picture. Then they look at you again with suspicion. Is that picture really so bad?

Am I on some wanted list for disrupting people’s careers?

The uniform with a bald head and bushy eyebrows started paging through my passport a second time, this time from the back.

“We can’t let you into Germany’ he said tonelessly staring at me with eyes that looked right past me.

‘You what?’

It was difficult to formulate the next question.

I now remembered how I had been asked as I boarded my flight ‘Do you have your documents in order?’ and how quickly I had said ‘Yes, I am in transit at Frankfurt’

‘You don’t have a valid visa’ he continued. You will be booked on the flight back to South Africa this evening. You will not have access to your luggage, but it will be on the plane. You may not leave the airport. There is also no way you can get a visa here. You have to get a visa in your own country’.

I had taken months to organise this trip. Now I needed to go to back to Pretoria to join a queue for a visa? I had just blown my entire travel budget and traded every frequent-flyer point I had.

There is something very surreal about gazing out of the window at aeroplanes and the German sky, yet not being allowed out there.  My frequent flyer points had allowed me to upgrade to Business Class, so I had access to wonderful showers, telephones, power for my laptop and good coffee. But most importantly it gave me a quiet space to hear my own voice.  ‘God, I’ve screwed up, what now?’

After taking a very welcome shower I received some calls from concerned family members and colleagues. ‘Best to leave while you can’ ‘They could lock you up’ ‘Don’t worry about the cash’ ‘You can go to Germany another time’ ‘They are right, you can’t get your visa there’ ‘I’ll find out what can be done’. Familiar and caring voices were what I needed most, but what to do next?

I fell into a comfortable chair, put on my headphones and disappeared into Barbra Streisand’s CD ‘Higher Ground’. I listened again to her beautiful song that reminded me that ’Listening with your heart, you’ll find your way’. And my heart knew.

A few hours later, I was on a Lufthansa flight from Germany to London, where I didn’t need a visa. I had been able to board a transit flight without entering Germany and my luggage was happily in the hold.

I landed into a wintry, half dark early evening and took the bus from Heathrow airport. Against the rumbling of the bus I was speaking to Reid, my lawyer and brother-in-law, who had done some homework for me.

It was way past working hours. The advice I was getting on my phone, and the next step, would need to wait till tomorrow.

‘They don’t issue visas outside of South Africa’ he said. ‘But you can speak to Carl at the German Embassy, I suggest you give him a call now’

‘I’ll do that I the morning then. It’s already after 6; they’ll surely be closed by now’

Where had I made this assumption before and been wrong? 

I called. Carl was still there.

‘Join the queue in the morning, he suggested. ‘And make it by 6am, the queues are long’. ‘We don’t issue visas to South Africans, but you can say you spoke to me and see if they can help’.

It was a bitterly cold February in London. The queue looked like a picture from the war with people in heavy coats, scarves around faces, clutching documents. Carl was right; the queue snaked around the corner as far as I could see.

“Please state your business said an official when I reached the door two hours later.

I did my best with a frozen mouth.

‘We don’t issue visas to South Africans. You have to go back to your own country’

‘Carl said I should come here’

‘Come in’

It’s challenging having a conversation through layers of glass. The answer remained the same, but I was welcome to write a motivation. There were no guarantees. And so with cold hands and a cheap ballpoint I put together a number of pleadings with cheap folio paper and prayer.

‘Come back tomorrow ‘they said.

A few bitterly cold mornings outside the embassy followed, each day much the same. I was told to write a further motivation. I thought they were getting better but the response was no more enthusiastic.  What other motivation could I provide? Perhaps write a different angle?

On the fourth day, now thoroughly exhausted, you would have seen me trudging wearily from Belgrave Square around the slow bend of Grosvenor Crescent toward Hyde Park Corner with tears running down my face. I had the answer.

In my hands was my passport with a single entry visa for Germany that was ‘unobtainable’ outside of South Africa.  I had just experienced another ordinary miracle.

The processes and tools that I learned in Germany have helped more people than I can count over many years. I have been involved in many large retrenchments where those powerful, yet simple tools, have transformed the thinking and confidence of those losing jobs in a tough economy.

The power of gratitude

I was in America a few years later with Dick and Marci Bolles in their lovely home in San Francisco. They have to be two of the most spiritual and generous souls I know. To be with them is always a gift. They had invited me to join a workshop they were offering in their home.

Each morning Dick handed out a single sheet of paper on which we would make a gratitude list. We would sit in the still and nurturing space of their beautiful home and list what we were grateful for that day. There was also a small column for anything you wanted to change.

I have no idea what others wrote, but I know on the first day I listed things like having a home, a lovely family and the ability to travel and be here in California with such lovely people. By the third day I was listing the lovely fabric I was resting my back against, the smell of coffee, the light coming into the room. As the days passed my sense of gratitude grew.

When I left a few days later, I took the train through the Rockies to Denver. As much as I wanted a nap, I now didn’t want to miss anything. There may just be a stupendous view around the next bend. And so there was. I had begun to notice so much more.

Dr Martin Seligman, the author of many books on authentic happiness, has said that writing down three things you are grateful for before you go to sleep at night significantly increases your level of happiness.

Joel Osteen in his book Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential said:

“One of the main reasons that we lose our enthusiasm in life is because we become ungrateful; we let what was once a miracle become common to us. We get so accustomed to His goodness it becomes a routine.” 

But there was that narrow column on the right-hand side of the sheet headed ‘What I want to change’. My gratitude list grew, but my change column had only at one item in it. After ten days, there was still only one item and it was the same one. I had just written it in many different ways.

I wanted to create a place that had the same peace and energy I was experiencing here in California. I wanted new offices, a place to think and work that was nurturing. It had to have light. I wanted it to look out on a park. Central Park in New York is one of my favourite places in the world, so a view over a park would definitely work.

I had learned over the few days in San Francisco to appreciate that it’s not just what you see, it’s what you notice.  I was reminded again that each of us can notice what is wrong with the world, we can notice what we are unhappy with and where our life is lacking.  Or we can choose to focus on what we are grateful for, every day. And that creates magic too.

Back in South Africa I drove down the road from my home the following day and noticed a building that had been constructed while I’d been way. Or so I thought.

‘We’ve been building here for a year or more’ said the developer. ‘And we’re far from done, but if you want to have a look you are welcome. The lift shaft is a giant hole and there are lots of building materials to trip over, so watch your step’.

I had not noticed the construction before. And may not have noticed this either if it weren’t for the picture I had formed in my mind in California.

The office on the top floor had a panoramic view of the park and the mountains beyond. The light streamed in. As I left, I noticed the building already had a name, ‘Park Central’ and it was in ‘New ‘Street.  I put an offer in to purchase the office the next day.

Our offices have become a place of growth for many people over the past few years. It provides a peaceful and beautiful home for our work that feeds my soul every time I go there.

Joining the dots backwards

Steve Jobs said that you can only join the dots backwards.

Perhaps as you review your journey in life it becomes clear how apparently unrelated things worked together to bring you to where you are now.

Maybe you see how apparent co-incidences were part of the plan.

Perhaps you recognise that when things didn’t work, that was a gift too.

You may also recognise now how difficult times prepared you for the next stage or for deciding the next part of your journey.

Do you ever wonder how you got to be where you are now?

That may have been an easy or a tough road for you.

It’s often only looking backwards that we see how the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

As you look back over your life you may have stories that have helped shape your life.

Perhaps where you are now, even if it is far from perfect, may be part of the plan – you just need to join the dots and notice it.

Tough times can be a gift

Following your heart is not always easy and sometimes makes no sense at all. Or so it seems.

I was in the middle of a retrenchment support programme we were running in the mining industry.

On the third morning I woke up in my guest house and couldn’t get out of bed. My body had ‘seized up’ and I was in so much pain I couldn’t stand up straight.

What followed was year of pain and alternative treatments till finally I succumbed to a double neck fusion. My neurosurgeon expertly cut my throat from the front and gave me two titanium discs.

The months preceding surgery allowed me to experience what it felt like to be thirty years older and in poor shape. It took a half hour of careful movement to get out of bed and into a shower.

I was told that it would take up to two years to regain my energy after surgery.  I didn’t think it would take that long, but after six weeks away from work I was still struggling to formulate a sentence or stay awake for more than a few hours at a time.

‘Come and stay with me in Greyton’ said Lidia, my great friend and mentor.  A few weeks in the country with one of my favourite people was a gift. Lidia was a clinical psychologist and the Doyenne of executive assertiveness in the corporate workplace. I had learned some of the most valuable things I know about life from her and I would be in her caring space for a few weeks. We had long conversations, watched movies, sat in front of the fire.

I had no idea what a gift that was until Lidia was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few months later and that I would do the eulogy at her funeral soon after the Christmas holidays.

You have to notice how life sometimes gives you a gift that comes through illness. Without it I would never have spent that utterly valuable time with her. And much of the new work I have done since was born from long conversations and many plungers of coffee overlooking the beautiful Greyton mountains.

But the year was far from done.

The previous year I had made a substantial investment in a programme that included a week in London. That was in two months time and I was still struggling with energy and focus.  The thought of travelling and a demanding week was unappealing. I had been out of work a few months recovering, so this was untimely from a health and financial point of view.

The final dates for the event were only confirmed a few weeks before it started, so I had made no travel plans. By the time I was able to book flights, there were no frequent flyer seats available. Flights were full already.

Two days later I received a statement from British Airways with an unfamiliar membership number. It was an account I had forgotten about. The airline consolidated my frequent-flyer points and I got one of the last seats. But since the flight was full, I would need to travel first class.

I slept for eight hours with a duvet and pillow. My morning English tea was served in a white teapot with shortbread biscuits as we approached London Heathrow.  

Late that Sunday afternoon, tired and questioning what I was doing here, you would have seen me turning the corner from Baker Street into Oxford Street. I was questioning my sanity. What was I doing here? This was crazy.

The sky was grey and soon it started drizzling. I found as much cover as I could alongside the shop windows. As I walked, I could hear the word of the famous Diana Ross song in my head: ‘Do you know…where you’re going to….?’  

Suddenly people appeared out of doorways with cameras.

I couldn’t quite see what the fuss was about until I stepped out from under cover of the rain.

Across Oxford Street was the most perfect rainbow.

It reached across the sky in a perfect bow. It was breath-taking. I can’t explain the peace and hope that washed over me as I saw it.

Any doubt I had in my mind about this trip suddenly disappeared and I knew that this was where I needed to be right now.  In London I began to piece together the system that still drives Career Warriors work, programmes and conversations.

I have often seen rainbows at times of uncertainty or facing crossroads. They are for me a sign of hope, a reminder that there is a pot of gold at the end of this chapter of life, a golden sky at the end of the storm.

A week later I attended a morning seminar near Heathrow airport.  Despite having left Brighton on the early morning train, the bus from the airport terminal to the hotel where the seminar was being held was delayed and there were no cabs in sight.

I slunk in very late and found a place on the floor at the back, as the speaker, Andy Harrington was speaking and said: ‘Let me show you how to take what you know and put it in your book’.  And I knew why I needed to be there.

My illness was a way of my body ‘putting the brakes on’, of slowing down and a time to refocus. And it was a gift of time to decide how to best share more of what I cared about.

I heard then the very clear message to begin writing. And if I hadn’t noticed that you wouldn’t be reading this today.

Noticing ordinary miracles

We are often waiting for something cataclysmic to happen before we call it a miracle.

“Just because you can explain it doesn’t mean it’s not still a miracle” said Terry Pratchett in ‘Small Gods’.

I believe we are surrounded by miracles if we slow down to notice them.

Perhaps this is an invitation to you to notice the ordinary miracles that have directed your path, the obstacles and encouragement that have built your faith and been part of your journey.

I love the song ‘Ordinary Miracles’ sung by Barbra Streisand and written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman.

Quoting from the beautiful lyrics, change does often come on tiptoe. But love is where it starts. And one day at a time, change begins with each of us. We can indeed be quiet heroes changing the world in quiet ways.

Maybe there is a rainbow of hope or confirmation about to break through the clouds for you too, and all you need to do is look up and notice it.

©Andrew Bramley, Career Warriors® 2019. All Rights Reserved.

Ordinary Miracles (Lyrics)

Songwriters: HAMLISCH, MARVIN / BERGMAN, ALAN / BERGMAN, MARILYN. Ordinary Miracles lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., SPIRIT MUSIC GROUP

Change can come on tiptoe, love is where it starts
It resides, often hides deep within our hearts
And just as pebbles make a mountain, raindrops make a sea,
One day at a time, change begins with you and me,

Ordinary miracles, happen all around,
Just by giving and receiving, comes belonging and believing.

Every sun that rises, never rose before,
Each new day leads the way, through a different door,
And we can all be quiet heroes, living quiet days,
Walking through the world, changing it in quiet ways,

Ordinary miracles, like candles in the dark,
Each and every one of us lights a spark,

And the walls can tumble. And the mountains can move,
The winds and the tide can turn.

Yes, ordinary miracles, one for every star,
No lightning bolt or clap or thunder, only joy and quiet wonder,

Endless possibilities, right before our eyes,
Oh, see the way a miracle multiplies,

Now hope can spring eternally, plant it and it grows,
Love is all that’s necessary, lovin’, its extraordinary
Why, makes ordinary miracles every blessed day.

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