It's challenging to figure out how to make this unexpected and unwelcome exile from the office productive. I'm working on a project that I produce each spring. Because I can do it at a less-frenetic pace, I find myself reflecting and noticing patterns I have missed in the rush of deadlines past.

I am writing individual development plans for 120 professionals enrolled in Leadership Philadelphia’s civic affairs and leadership program. These are people like you — people who, when social distancing ends, you might sit next to on the train, pass in the hall at work, or sweat alongside at the gym.

Your impression would most likely be that this person has his or her act together and looks successful. These are professionals whose companies have chosen to invest in them and who commit to giving back to Philadelphia.

As Leadership’s CEO for the past 26 years, I have the privilege of looking beneath the surface into the hidden parts of their lives. Just as we teach them what is seen and unseen in Philadelphia, they show me what is visible and invisible in people like them, like us.

Writing these development plans reminds me not only how interesting each person is, but what these accomplished people carry within them that others don't see.

"I am the guardian of my nonverbal autistic brother.”

“I lost a baby shortly after she was born.”

“I came to America with $300 in my pocket and nowhere to stay.”

“My brother is in jail for murder.”

“My mother committed suicide.”

“I was homeless and lived out of my car for a year.”

This baggage is invisible, yet it’s part of successful professionals who you interact with every day. I am deeply touched by the uniqueness in everyone’s story, and I am grateful to be allowed to see their journeys up close and uncensored. It gives me a level of compassion, hope, and understanding that is the basis for my optimism and faith in people. If you saw what I see, you would not be so quick to judge others.

Elizabeth Dow, head of Leadership Philadelphia, sits in front of public art mural at Philadelphia International Airport on Friday, March 15, 2019.
ANTHONY PEZZOTTI / Staff Photographer
Elizabeth Dow, head of Leadership Philadelphia, sits in front of public art mural at Philadelphia International Airport on Friday, March 15, 2019.

In my teens, I was fascinated by the movie The Lion in Winter. It was about the struggles between Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. They battled over favored sons, parcels of England and France, and love. At one point during the bickering, Eleanor said something like, “We are the world in small. Can’t we just get along?”

‘I contain multitudes’

The force of that concept stuck with me. Years later, when I read Walt Whitman’s words, “I am large. I contain multitudes,” the truth of this idea struck me again.

Here is one of the patterns I’ve been able to discern from hearing so many rising leaders’ personal stories: If someone has suffered a significant loss, setback, or challenge and has overcome it, they are now more awake, compassionate, and grateful.

This explains why the former manager of an upscale restaurant whose father went from dealing drugs to homelessness secretly fed people on the streets after hours. Or why the woman who lost a baby started a nonprofit to help others worrying about their own babies struggling in intensive care. Or why the woman whose sister was murdered by her spouse chose to serve on a board that helps abused women. And why the former waitress who was assaulted created technology to keep hotel workers safe.

These people have suffered, learned lessons, survived, and thrived. Not only do they emerge as better people, they are more willing to shine the light for others

The stories of people who have suffered are far more interesting than those of others who, thus far, have managed to escape the challenges that inevitably befall each of us. The untested face everyday ups and downs, but in the absence of facing major problems, they may make mountains out of molehills. They may become frozen in fear when that first serious problem hits, and catastrophize about the unknowns around the corner.

Those of us who have already faced serious problems and gotten past them have the advantage of knowing that terrible things do turn around. Once the dust settles and the fear and pain subside, you come out a better, stronger, and more confident person.

Opportunity for growth

We are the world in small, and we contain multitudes. Our stories, struggles, and triumphs are the making of us. We contain joy and sorrow, cities and rivers, history, diversity, poetry, philosophy, ancestry, art, music, noise and quiet, community and solitude, good and bad. It all resides in our past, present, and future. If the world needs calm, we can look within and be that calm. If it needs patience, we’ve been patient before and can call on that. If the world needs resilience, we can remember and reprise our grit and grace.

If you are one of those rare people who has not yet been tested and overcome something, this is your opportunity for growth. Think about the stories of your parents, grandparents, or ancestors who persevered and thrived despite the odds. Think about the inspiring stories you read as an adolescent. What moved you probably had something to do with resilience and overcoming adversity.

This may be your moment — not only to learn the lessons in this challenge, but to model surviving and thriving, for your friends and family. You can come out of this more awake, compassionate, and grateful. Those whose lives you touch will be better for it.

We are the world in small, and we are all in this together.

Liz Dow is the CEO of Leadership Philadelphia, a nonprofit focused on growing and connecting civic leaders in the Philadelphia region.