At the end of last week and into the weekend, I attended the Canadian Accredited Independent Schools’ (CAIS) Heads and Chairs conference with Karen McKay, our school’s Vice Chair of the Board, in Niagara Falls. As I left for the conference I suggested to my assistant, Suzi Leonard, that for me, Niagara Falls didn’t feel like an exciting place to be going for a conference. I had ‘seen’ it before so many times. To her credit, Suzi suggested that I should take a good look at the falls and their power, and that I may just enjoy them.
I think it human nature to create our own understandings of the people, places and things with whom and which we have contact. My assumptions about Niagara Falls were built on a school trip to see the falls forty years ago with my Grade 7 classmates. I was far more consumed with being with my friends than being ‘dragged off’ to see the water and the local sites. Even later in life, when visiting, I know I didn’t really take the time to pause, to be open to a new perspective, and to consider the incredible beauty and power of the Niagara River and Falls.
Assumptions are complex and limiting. Too often we think we know about someone or something. We create stories about them based on our experiences, resulting in a lens that clouds reality.
On Friday, I was profoundly reminded that things are not always as they seem. That regardless of how long you have known something or someone, there may be far more to the story.
On Friday afternoon at our conference, Hal Hannaford, current Head of Selwyn House in Montreal, and his wife, and author, Susan Doherty courageously told us their story of mental and physical illness and its impact on their life.
I have always known Hal as a man with a larger-than-life personality. I first got to know him when he was Head at Royal St. George’s and he was the instructor for the Management module I was taking at the CAIS Leadership Institute. His course was engaging but, admittedly, I couldn’t relate to his continuous energy that went from our classes late into the evening. Despite being an extrovert, I needed quiet down time, whereas Hal just seemed to thrive with others- he truly was like the Energizer Bunny. To me, and so many others, Hal has always been the life of the party- the fun, quick-witted, energetic, impulsive and seemingly happy guy. Even when his wife, Susan, fell gravely ill, they both seemed to be in control and managing the ‘downs’ amazingly well.
As it turns out, and with thanks to Hal and Susan for their courageous session, we learned their real story on Friday. Just like the Falls that I had not fully appreciated, I- and everyone else at the conference- was being challenged to appreciate something, indeed someone, anew.
Hal and Susan’s story unfolded that afternoon to reveal Hal’s significant, and often debilitating struggle with depression, mania and obsessive compulsion. They opened wide a window into their lives. They shared many of their ups and downs: the fears, anger and emotions and the devastating effect that illness can have on one’s life. While we all knew that Susan had struggled significantly with physical illness, Hal’s mental illness had been unknown. Granted, they had- until several months ago- not told anyone but for me, I thought I ‘knew’ Hal. I had created my own story about who he was.
My writing does not do their presentation justice but I am so very grateful to them for their courage and their candor. This gratitude is not only because I have been allowed a chance to better understand and know two people more deeply, but also because their story was a powerful reminder of the imperative to ‘see’ those people and places around us as they really are.
As I left the presentation that afternoon, emotionally spent, I got off the elevator at the hotel and looked out the window at the falls. I was overwhelmed with emotion. I took a picture of the falls, and later Tweeted it with this message, “Couldn’t help but notice the beauty and power of the falls at the end of our last beautiful and powerful session today. Thank you Hal and Susan.”
And, thank you, Suzi, for reminding me to really ‘see’ the Falls.