Tuesday, July 8, 2014

"Leadership" is my new trigger word.

For the record I'm not particularly against trigger warnings. I've read a few things where I thought later "I wish I'd known where that was going ahead of time." It's not like the word "leadership" gives me flashbacks to some traumatic boot camp experience. However, I do contort my eyebrows and make funny faces and yearn to dish out snarky set downs when that word pops up in my facebook feed. It's not my favorite. Let me try to explain why.

The argument for leadership goes (depending on whether you're coming from a Christian context or not) "leadership because special" or "leadership because Christian" - which basically means that the Christian argument is just a particular iteration of "leadership because special." What do I mean by this? Well you shove a bunch of kids into a classroom and praise them to high heaven for doing something a kid fifty or a hundred years ago would have been flat out embarrassed at not knowing how to do and then fill them full of gas about dreams and aspirations and "You are our future!" until they're about to pop from self satisfaction. Naturally they think they're God's gift to mankind. That's what we've been telling them from infancy. At this point you're probably thinking that surely Christian parents aren't telling their kids this stuff. You're right. Sort of. Take the conservative homeschooling movement - it is in general academically rigorous and provides a level of education that, on average, is better than what your average public school student receives. The same often applies if you attended a private Christian school. Even if kids in these schools aren't inordinately praised for attaining basic knowledge they are often reminded that their education is in some way superior to the norm. Insert the parable of faithful and wise manager where it says "to whom much is given much is required." Christian kids are often told that they have been given much and that they should do something with it. This attitude isn't as good as it sounds, and Christian kids who go to public schools aren't immune. They're supposed to be "salt and light" by sticking up for their faith and being model students. They are, in fact, supposed to "lead" others to faith.

So we have kids who are told either by virtue of being born or being born again that they have a unique role in the world and that they are destined to something wonderful. Add in the typical "my parents don't understand me" generational gap, and you have a situation where kids seem to think that they can and should rule the world. I mean, in what sane world does a kid writing to the United Nations really matter? Shouldn't the adults sitting around deciding who gets what money and who gets what invading "peacekeeping" force be able to make decisions about climate change, energy, and international aid without listening to a middle school kid regurgitate something she heard on a PBS special? To be clear, my problem isn't that a ten year old cares about this sort of thing and wants to make a difference. We see all the time that one kid who really feels strongly about recycling or children's cancer or orphans can raise awareness, donate time and money, and just generally motivate people to get off their backsides and help out. I'm so glad that there are kids who feel this way and adults who don't talk down to them and tell them they're too young to make a difference. No one is too young to be a blessing to another human being.

My problem with young people (read: under 45) reading books about leadership and attending conferences about leadership and seeking out leadership is twofold. Firstly, most of us don't really know what we're talking about because we're just too flat out young to have enough experience. Secondly, I feel that this focus on leadership takes the focus off of the unglamorous realities of living life in service to the world around us. Naturally my first objection is context dependent. A mom who has been through postpartum depression can be an invaluable ally for newer moms experiencing the same thing. A man who has mastered an addiction can mentor another man just coming to terms with his addiction. You don't have to be that far down the road to help others. Which brings me back to my second point - people who start groups to help other people deal with motherhood or addiction or body image or being a Christian in the workplace are working out of their own lack. They are leading out of the "unglamorous realities" instead of running from them.

When I speak of leadership as running away I'm thinking of cases where single people are too busy to get married and married people are too busy to have kids and moms and dads are too busy to be parents and spouses. Instead of leadership flowing from normal life experiences like getting married, having a family, and living faithfully within the normal confines of a Godly life, leadership or "servant leadership" becomes a replacement for that life. People end up with "callings" and "vocations" and "dreams" that somehow end up being a whole lot more tweet worthy than my morning spent trying to get a load of laundry washed and failing because my nine month old would. Not. Stop. Nursing. Yet, in those moments of dealing with the frustration of wanting to run errands, be creative, sleep late, cuddle with my husband, and play developmentally appropriate brain enriching games with my baby when in reality I've flopped on the couch with a fussy baby to watch stupid tv shows and nurse, I think I'm learning what I'll need to know when it's my turn to lead others. I'm learning to do my job. My job is to love my husband and my child and family. My job is to put meals on the table and be there for nap times and sneak off when Jacob is asleep to do laundry or flirt with Allen. That doesn't mean that I have to cook every meal or make love a certain number of times in a week or never leave Jacob with his grandmother while I run errands or grab a coffee break, but it does mean that lunch with friends and take out dinners and unmade beds should be part of my larger ministry within and out from my home. Not making my bed because we're having a rough day and need to hunker down and just get through it? Legit. Not making my bed because I'd rather check facebook or have filled my week with too many activities? Not so legit. There's a time to push and a time to relax. There's a time to get it all done, and a time to spend time just nurturing people. There are times when I need to manage my day better so I can get dinner on the table and times when ordering in dinner means that everyone is less stressed and has more time to catch up with each other or fold laundry without having to wash dishes. This is my job, and I'm still learning how to do it. One day I hope I can help new moms and young wives learn how to do their job as well. This is why I try not to get too discouraged when the days seem filled with fussy teething baby - as much as I like to pretend otherwise I'm not that special or competent, and it's not surprising when my days look more like Mary Stewart than Martha Stewart (and occasionally like Lazy Stewart. I'm trying to get her to move out though. She doesn't ever vacuum, and the dust bunnies get on my nerves :p ).

The point is that I'm trying to sow the seeds that will turn into experiences that will eventually qualify me to lead and instruct other people. Some of these seeds will pay off sooner rather than later. I'm part of the leadership/volunteer team at our local babywearing group because my interest in this mothering tool is already paying dividends that should only increase as I practice it. Other seeds will take a long time to harvest. My son is only nine months old which means I've got years and years of seed planting before I see Jacob turn into a man and move into the ranks of veteran mom. This means I'm spectacularly ill qualified to try and teach another woman how to raise her son. (For the record I think there's a difference between inculcating a particular view of motherhood and facilitating a peer support group.) This perspective doesn't come naturally though. I've been taught the whole "special" argument for much of my life. I want to walk into a room and be able to say, "Relax, now that I'm here it will all be under control." The problem is that pretty much everyone else already has it under control, and I'm just being hubristic. The truth is that I want my opinion to be needed and valuable. I'm blogging aren't I? I want people to read this and nod along and think that this Natalie chick really has something to offer here. That's not so bad insofar as it goes, and there are naturally charismatic people who are able to gather people around them without hardly even trying and even start entire movements. Having things to say isn't bad. Being able to naturally sway and inspire people isn't bad. The problem I'm trying to identify is when people who otherwise aren't particularly qualified to lead other people act like it's their natural duty to lead - people who teach forgiveness while ignoring their own grudges, women who'd rather teach other children than have children of their own, men who'd rather air their own opinions than learn from others who are older and more experienced, and parents who feel that teaching good principles to others is more valuable than practicing them at home.

In summary, because I feel like I touched on a lot of things, leadership isn't some birthright we inherit and then put into practice when we come of age. Just being ourselves is only special and unique in fairly limited contexts. You probably aren't going to save the world although you may well change someone's life. However, if you are going to save the world it'll probably be because God looked down and saw you doing your job and decided to give you another one. It's okay, and in fact necessary, to focus on the small duties in front of us. Loving our neighbor means loving our kids and our spouses and our parents. Leadership should flow out of these duties and commitments instead of taking us from them. Hopefully this makes sense, but if it doesn't I'm sure I'll be writing and refining my ideas on this more in the coming year.

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