We're (Not) All the Same
In my last post, I critiqued a major stumbling block in American culture--the idol of success. Today I'd like to address a couple other factors that get in the way of effective shalom work.
I was recently introduced to an inspirational quote by self-help author Marianne Williamson that seems to fairly accurately represent the middle-to-upper-class ethic of leadership in the US. She says:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It's not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
This sounds so good, so inspirational, and borders enough on truth to be convincing. I don't know much about Marianne. She seems like a nice, well intentioned person who has made quite a career off of self-help spiritual writings. I don't mean to pick on her, but because this quote captures two key elements of American mythology based in the same erroneous theme, I'm going to use it.
The problematic idea both elements grow out of is this: we're all the same.
Who Are "We"?
Like a good motivational speaker, Williamson makes use of the universal "we/us/our." She generalizes that everyone essentially has the same fears, desires, and destinies.
Part of the American narrative is the expectation to conform. Even though the cry of personal liberty has been on our lips since the earliest days, the melting pot metaphor held great sway over our corporate imagination and continues to influence our expectations for cultural deviants. There were always founding American ideals that all were expected to align.
But all people are not the same. Even though we want them to be, there are huge difference among us. Differences in cultural, ethnic, religious, gender, and even experience are fairly obvious, and I've talked about them in the past. However, in her opening words, I think Marianne is trying to point to something about human nature that transcends these things.
The problem is that she gets it wrong. She speaks as though all people essentially want the same things and fear the same things. But this simply isn't true. The Enneagram is perhaps the most helpful tool for identifying the variety of deep yearnings and fears held by people with different personalities. If you have never looked into it, I strongly encourage it.
Ironically, though Williamson thinks everyone is really just scared of their own power, as a Enneagram Type 1 personality my deepest fear literally is that I am inadequate!
What does this mean for leaders? It means that we must honor difference. Diverse elements functioning together in synergy is a universal principle for vibrancy and effectiveness. This shows up everywhere from city planning (The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs is the bible of progressive urban planning and is totally based around this idea) to healthy ecosystems (check this out). It's even in the bible (Rom 12:4-5).
We cannot impose our vision or aspirations on others. We have to create collaborative environments that draw out the dreams of all and foster contexts in which all are able to connect with God and draw on their gifts to overcome their personal fears, freed to follow Jesus in community.
How do we Get There?
Williamson declares that we are all meant to shine as children do, that this is not something only a few a meant to enjoy but that it is intended for all. Amen! That is a beautiful line and very reminiscent of the vision of shalom I am trying to paint with this blog.
But, how does she suppose this will come about? And is this the same way Jesus put forward? This is most often the point at which a Christian worldview diverges from the secular world. We may all agree that world peace or any other form of justice is a great thing, but our methodologies stem from radically different sources.
The first principle she offers is to embrace our power and exercise it. Is this good? Well, yes and no. Power is sticky language. Power is exactly what the marginalized have had stolen from them and what needs to be redistributed. However, it is also the misuse of power that generates oppression. It true that all people are meant to shine. However, there is a degree of self-aggrandizing triumphalism in the approach to this end which ignores the fact that our society’s power differentials and systematized oppression have created an uneven playing field.
Once again, we cannot act like everyone is the same because power is not evenly distributed in our world. Everyone--to our shame in this instance--is not the same.
For many, the call to embrace their power and stand tall may be an important and true message. Many have been oppressed, silenced and dismissed. Though there are times when this is not possible because of tyrannical injustice, it is a beautiful thing when people can embrace their dignity and the inherent power they have as a human being to regain their rights. This was the story of women's suffrage and the Civil Rights movement, for two examples.
However, our culture is rather adept at stockpiling power (in a variety of forms) in the hands of the few. For the powerful, this is not a message for them to embrace. Let me explain why after pointing out the other side of Williamson's methodology.
Her second strategy for helping everyone shine comes through these words:
"there is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you...as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
To claim that if I just pursue my own success others will naturally be lifted with me is--sorry for being harsh--a gross lie wrapped in a silver lining. A rising tide, as mountains of data confirm, does not lift all boats because we live in a world where the people with the best ships have built retaining walls around their neighbors’ boats so that the water cannot reach them.
We must not forget that it is far easier for some to stand tall than for others. As a man, I have to realize that I have been socialized to assert my opinion in public settings more naturally than many women. The "brighter" I shine, the more I may intimidate them into silence. As a white person in America, I have to realize that I am awarded inequitable privilege that my friends of color are deprived of.
Jesus taught that self-sacrifice is the way of the Kingdom. Leadership for the Christian is not about naively seeking our own welfare in the belief that our success will be other's
salvation. Verse after verse drives this message home. The gospels alone are enough to unsettle our whole conception of how to live in this world:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit...those who mourn...those who hunger...who are persecuted." Matt 5:3-10
"Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Matt 5:44
"Whoever becomes like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." Matt 18:4
"My Father, if this cup cannot pass by without my drinking it, your will be done." Matt 26:42
"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it." Mark 8:34-35
"If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all." Mark 9:35
"Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate." Luke 6:36
"For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted." Luke 14:11
"Father, I commit my life into your hands." Luke 23:46
"I can do nothing by myself. As I hear, I judge, and my judgement is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me." John 5:30
"I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." John 12:24
"The words I say to you I do not speak as from myself: it is the Father, living in me, who is doing this work." John 14:10
"When you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go." John 21:18
The lens of Christ's life, the ethic of the Kingdom of God, flips the world's wisdom upside down and shows us the true way for all to shine. How exactly to hold these two themes of empowerment and servanthood in tension, when to know which should apply and who it should apply to, I am not sure. I only know that this is what God is asking us to do.
A Word of Agreement
There is one thing I want to strongly affirm from Williamson's quote: she has an abundance mentality.
Most of us bring a scarcity mindset to the table. We see limited resources and just try to figure out what the best way is to distribute them. As leaders we can do better. Look for ways to reject power mongering attempts to slice ourselves the biggest piece of the pie and instead divvy things up more equitably is great, but let's not stop there. Most things in the world that relate to wellbeing are not fixed assets--love, for example. Abundance minded leaders are always exploring ways to bake bigger pies.