Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Mental Illness and Great Leadership

     Okay, so I enjoy the Colbert report far more than most sermons I hear (including my own).  In a recent episode, I giggled as Stephen Colbert interviewed an author – and I promptly ordered the book:  A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness.  This poor author, Nassir Ghaemi, not surprisingly was bested by Colbert (and gently criticized in The New York Times), but the book is wonderfully thought-provoking, and perhaps could prompt some intriguing discussion among religious professionals.

    Himself a psychiatrist (and specialist in mood disorders) who teaches at Tufts, Ghaemi explains with great clarity various dimensions of depression, mania, hyperthermia, neuroticism, and other mood disorders, and then assesses the way some of our most brilliant leaders – especially during times of crisis – have suffered from these at-times debilitating illnesses.  We may be familiar with Churchill’s “black dog,” or the intense darkness into which Lincoln would plunge, the overwhelming depression of Martin Luther King, Jr., or the near-suicidal bouts of agony endured by Gandhi, the scary symptoms exhibited by Gen. William Sherman, or the frantic mania of media mogul Ted Turner – not to mention the self-evident insanity of tyrants like Adolf Hitler.

     What we are unfamiliar with is Ghaemi’s best insight into the function of the suffering.  It is not that these titans overcame their illness, or managed to achieve much despite their illness.  Ghaemi persuasively illustrates the way depression fosters not just sympathy but realistic assessments, the way the manic can be energetic and creative when others are sunk in despair, the way survivors of inner torment develop a kind of resilience, without which leadership breaks down during times of duress. The sane, men like Neville Chamberlain or George W. Bush, simply do not have the stuff during a crisis; they do fine when all is running smoothly; but in times of peril and national distress, they simply cannot rise up and lead heroically, having never suffered much themselves.  For those who combat mental illness, darkness is not a strange land; horror is not an unfamiliar terrain.

     Can you say “theology of the cross”?  How many of the great saints, theologians and heroes through Church history might Ghaemi analyze and discern to be laden with mental illness?  Luther, surely; Francis, no doubt; Teresa of Avila, beyond question; and all those freakish ascetics like Simeon Stylies (squatting on a pillar for a few decades? Are you kidding?).  And what might this mean for ministry, and even for clergy evaluations (on which I wrote last month)?  Can we imagine a search committee pleased that a prospective pastor suffers bouts of depression?  Can we conceive of a day when a minister’s self-reported manic-depression would be cause for the people to think “Now we are on the verge of stellar leadership”?  Don’t we hide our darkness? and at best seek ultra-confidential support if something is awry in our heads?  We all know we all struggle internally, but isn’t there a game of pretend or obtuse optimism that, even if everybody else wages dreaded combat against mental issues, it is the clergy person who should be immune – or long since healed?

   Eugene Rogers (After the Spirit) wrote that the Spirit has so arranged things that our limitations are intended for our benefit.  Could it be that our darkness, our craziness, is not merely a burden to be overcome, but an actual gift of the Spirit to the Church? and not merely to those individuals among the Body who battle darkness, but actually the Church as the endangered institution that is is?  If the Church is indeed in its own “dark night” (as Elaine Heath wisely claims in The Mystic Way of Evangelism), don’t we need the unstable, those who have barely hung on by a thread, women and men who’ve been to the abyss to lead, for the unromanticized and terrifying but yet peculiarly hopeful gifts of inner pain to be used for the benefit of God’s Church?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Knowledge, Learning and God

     Knowledge is underrated these days – in at least three ways, and all three are of profound important for the Christian enterprise.
     We hear all the time that what you know doesn’t matter so much as what you do. But how is action driven by knowledge, or perspective, or viewpoint? Isn’t knowledge the springboard, the impetus for behavior? If we had more solid thought, wouldn’t our action be more purposeful, and anchored in something meaningful, instead of mere frenetic busy-ness (even in the name of God)?

     In our society, knowledge is reduced to a the lowly status of a means to an end. We get an education – but why? To get a good job, to make money, to get ahead. But once upon a time, knowledge was simply good. To know a fact from history wasn’t potentially valuable; it was itself of great value. If we know something, our minds are then close to God, for God knows history, all that has happened; God knows science, how things work and why they are as they are (since, after all, God made all things); God is the ultimate mind, and when we know, we are close to God.

     Who gave you your brain? God gave us minds whose potential we barely tap. I think God wants us to learn, to know, to be aware, to believe truth matters, to sift through the garbage of chatter and get to the marrow of things. God wants us not to think as the political cranks wish for us to think, all ideology and no fact; God wants us to think deeply, factually, but with wisdom, and perspective – to see what God sees, to understand as God understands.

     Some foolishly think knowledge is at odds with God - that faith is somehow anti-intellectual, or the abandonment of thinking.  God is puzzled, and saddened by this misconception.  God wants more knowledge, always, for truth is at the very heart of God.

     We can’t say I’m too old, or I already know what I need to know. We learn all the time; it may be news of heat in the Midwest, or that a FB friend’s kitten did something cute (with photos supplied); it may be a new conviction you’ve come to after listening to a pundit, or politician, or perhaps Steven Colbert. What am I learning? And from whom? Whom do I trust as teacher? Political ideologues? Novels? My neighbor, or coworker (after a few cocktails)? Jesus invites us to be attentive to what we know, what we focus upon, what we soak up, and why what matters actually matters to us – and if any of what we know brings us closer to God, or makes us wiser.

     Finally, knowledge changes things. Dictators and muckrackers want to shelter us from facts; they prefer we buy into their ideological hysteria. When we know, we understand; when we know, we cut through the nonsense that becomes idolatry and misleads us into bogus behavior and prejudicial judgment. If we know others, we know their foibles, but we also see the image of God in the other person; social psychologists teach us that “familiarity breeds liking” (not contempt). When we know the hard facts, we are motivated to act, to demand things not stay the way they are. We wake up, we now know.

     Jesus didn’t call do-gooders or piety specialists. He called “disciples,” and the word means “students.” Jesus as the teacher, and we are the students, and not just in Sunday School when we are seven years old. Lifelong learning, a quest to plumb the depths of the very soul of God, to think God’s thoughts ever more clearly, to adopt the divine perspective on whatever we perceive in our lives and in the world.

     Nothing is more important for you, for me, and for the future of humanity, than learning. And so we sign up, we embrace some curriculum, not because it is perfect, but because it is there, it is our best chance at knowledge, at mimicking the mind of Christ.

     Our Church, like many churches, offers the marvelous, intriguing, informative set of programs under the banner of Disciple. But we have much more – and even the stuff we put online, emails, YouTubes, and much more, are trustworthy projects to help all of us, together, to know God, and to know what God knows, and to value what God values.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Reason for Education?

     My son Noah and I have been visiting colleges, touring the likes of Jefferson's University of Virginia and the new surprise near the top of his list, the University of Richmond, schools with teams I've cheered against for years (University of Georgia? and will I really pay a nickel for him to set foot in Chapel Hill?), schools I attended (Duke, University of South Carolina)... and while we're enjoying making the rounds, we're getting a bit bored, as the information sessions led by some admissions staffer, and the campus tours, led by an enthusiastic student, all sound alike.  Everybody has special groups for freshmen, flexibility in choosing your major, no rush until 2nd semester, rapid response from campus security, meal cards and stellar food, accessible professors, intramural sports, countless clubs (and you can start your own if you'd like!), and every students has tremendous fun... blah blah blah.  Good stuff, but I may lead the next tour, on some campus I've never even seen before.  I really could do it.

     What is most startling is the hype, the braggadocio - and not just the sales pitch, but what the presenters know will sell.  All this may strike you as obvious - which is why I'm writing this blog.  Every school touts their business school, great jobs on the back side of graduation, internships, contacts in the business world, and rankings, rankings, rankings.  Every school is #3 or #11 in business, or earnings for their grads, or in med school admissions.  When they ask, Are there any questions? I find myself wanting to say Tell me 4 things this school does poorly...

     Actually, I'm more curious about what happened to old-timey notions of what education was for.  Aristotle, and most deep thinkers until the past century, would have said the purpose of learning is something like Wisdom.  Eleanor Roosevelt said the purpose of education was to become a good citizen.  For centuries, knowledge was precious in and of itself, like gold - not because it would earn you some gold, but because it was itself the treasure. 
     Knowledge is good - but wait, that was the motto of Faber College in Animal House, where Bluto, Otter and the other Deltas party raucously - but then, even though they made a mockery of their education, most became grand successes in the world post-Faber. 

     Certainly I want my son to get a degree so he can get a job.  And I want him to have great fun, and make lifelong friends during college.  But shouldn't college be the time you explore the deepest questions, and gain a fair amount of depth yourself?  Shouldn't college be a time to learn, not to get some loot when we're done, but simply to know, and to cherish that we have a grasp of history, science, philosophy, literature, the arts, old rocks, simply because human civilization is nothing less than all the accumulation of such knowledge gathered together?  Shouldn't education help us to be good? and thus good citizens? and people with insight?  Might it be that as we go deep into knowledge and wisdom we might wind up earning less money, and find ourselves ranked not at the top of a Forbes survey, but in some lowly place with humble or needy people?