At some point each semester, I talk to my writing class about the importance of keeping a journal.So much of what writers produce must be attached to deadline or assignment. Under these conditions, we check our tone, weigh risks, and write beneath the shadow of an imagined and rolling eye. Under that kind of constraint, it’s important to have a place where our voices can crack with the terror or silliness or strain of the immediate moment without the pressure of public presentation.
I want to play along with our pop culture superhero obsession, I do. I’ve seen the movies and the TV series, I’ve read several dozen superhero comics. My boys pretend to be the Flash and Captain America. But at the end of the day, I don’t care that awful much about Superman or the Avengers or even Spider-Man. Give me Batman.
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
What is the pattern for growing in knowledge? Usually, we observe what we want to know from a distance, then move closer. We stand on the beach and get an idea of the sea’s vastness, but when we walk to the water’s edge we know the sea better by feeling it on our skin. Or we see the orange fruit among the dark leaves, but we only know its pebbly skin and juiciness until we pluck it from the tree. From a distance, we won’t know the Bayeux Tapestry is embroidery on linen rather than a tapestry. We can’t run our fingers over the stitches (its entire 230-foot length is under glass), but if we move close we’ll learn through its details abouts the events surrounding the Battle of Hastings and William’s rule over England. We’ll see the graceful arcs of figures pointing toward Halley’s Comet; careful stitching that portrays kings and coronations, knights and longships, castles and seas.
My first introduction to Anne Lamott was her statement, “I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.” There was something about this punky comment that wooed me.
I admired and appreciated her honesty; her lack of pretence made me feel like this was an individual I could share camaraderie with. This is not to say I don’t sometimes sniff about for the dangers of false authenticity: the idol our culture has made of “being authentic” when “keeping it real” can just be another façade. Still though, I can’t suspect everybody and Lamott feels like somebody worth listening to, perhaps even a leader of sorts.
I admire her for her truth telling ability: for her willingness to expose her faith, foibles and failures. She articulates the exhausting degree of vulnerability required in giving ourselves to loving and being loved. Her discussions of life drip with gore and hope, and help me see beyond the brute side of mortality. She hints that some interactions and memories and experiences can be processed in so many different ways that we may not be as tied to personal history as it sometimes appears. The food of our souls, like the food of our mouths, can be fermented and stewed or boiled and roasted or chopped and salted. In short, in Anne I hear echoes of something that is flesh and soul affirming. And, the invitation to explore both the heights of Love’s radiance and the grass betwixt my toes engages me.
But even with all this, I inwardly tense up a little on the idea of Lamott as leader. A companion on this life’s journey? Sure. A leader? I have an uncomfortable time with her informality; her willingness to expose her inward processes and come right out and verbalize her struggles. Perhaps my discomfort is rooted in one idea of what separates leaders from followers.
Several years ago, Christian Century ran a post by Adam J Copeland. In his article, “Why Lead,” he suggests that we might do well to reinvigorate our current conceptions of leadership with a bigger emphasis on “followership.” Leaders, then, are faithful followers on the path of love, wisdom, humility and self-sacrifice. For Copeland, leadership is a lot less about accomplishment, power, innovation or public relationship potential; it is about openly and heartfully following the one who is Love. But what does that look like in practical terms?
Henri Nouwen depicts leadership in very personal terms. For him, leading is the ultimate act of vulnerability. He understands the mantle of leadership as one that requires the laying down of one’s life: the complete abdication of ego, individualism, control and power. That is, “making your own faith and doubt, hope and despair, joy and sadness, courage and fear available to others as ways of getting in touch with the Lord of life” (In the Name of Jesus).
I wonder if Nouwen’s profound insight on leadership has something to do with the feeling one gets in rehabilitation groups. I’ve briefly glimpsed their power myself, and I’ve heard others comment on the same phenomenon. Being in the presence of people with such intentional honesty and openness about physical, emotional, social and spiritual struggles has a lasting impact. Pursuing the path of wellness requires honesty, both with others and ourselves. We do not grow when do not examine our hearts, hurts and hopes. A social worker who I am privileged to call my friend has commented on the potential of some workers to fall in love with their clients. The reason? Honing the vocabulary of honesty is deeply attractive. Most of us recognize that we all have proclivities to certain types of destructive behaviors, but not all of us have the courage to examine and voice them and seek guidance and share our hearts with others.
If I understand Nouwen correctly, it is the calling and duty of a leader to bare his or her heart and soul: to be a leader is to lay down facades in the hopes others will find their way to faith through that act of sacrifice. In this perspective, I hope that one day my own followership can mirror a meagre degree of honesty that Lamott has revealed to multitudes.
This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.
—Vincent Van Gogh, 1889
With nothing but the big morning star to light his way, Van Gogh managed to see it all: the spire-like cypress bridging earth to heaven; the mute, squatting church he added—perhaps a symbol of that other, failed vocation; the moon dazzling as a comet among the lesser lights—all of them, ironically, as wide open as morning eyes. Of the dark hours, Van Gogh claimed they were, “more alive and more richly colored than the day.” Perhaps “The Starry Night,” this most well known of the artist’s night studies, is a plea not to miss what’s there when the lights go out.