Are You Serious?
Leadership and Spirituality
What consistent things have you noticed about the various people who you consider to be spiritual leaders and examples? Do so-called “spiritual masters” of differing faith traditions demonstrate any similar character traits?
I have noticed some similarities, one that I have found quite glaring and quite refreshing. I’ll name it after a quick example.
In the early centuries of Christian history, there were a group of people who became known as “The Desert Fathers”. These were men (and women) who took up what was the precursor to the monastic life. Many of them moved out of urban settings and settled in caves, settled in solitude, often in the desert. While they became known as hermits, many of them were not actually disconnected from society. They were often sought out for their spiritual wisdom and some were asked to resolve legal disputes. Some moved to the desert to battle “the passions”. That is, they may have thought that the city occasioned sin, even deadly sin, and in their intent to grow spiritually they left the cities. Of course, what they discovered was that "the passions” (precursor to The 7 Deadly Sins) followed them. The passions found existence not in the temptations of the city, but in the hearts and minds of people, including the desert fathers and mothers. They quickly learned this. The stories are amazing. Many are strange. Some are offensive to our supposedly morally and spiritually sophisticated ears. I think that many of these stories still resonate, and the wisdom expressed in them arguably sustained the church through some dark ages.
Many of the stories are brief, trite even. Here is one of them.
A brother named Psytus told this story,
“Seven of us went to Abba Sisois, who was living in the island of Clymatus. And when we asked him to give us a word, he answered, 'Forgive me. I am an ignoramous.’”
Western Asceticism, Owen Chadwick
There actually is not much more to the story than that. I read that little story many years ago and have carried it with me since. I laugh at myself sometimes when people ask me for an opinion or a judgment and either in my head, or sometimes out loud say, “Forgive me, I am an ignoramous.”
Abbas Sisois was not, in fact, an ignoramous. I will leave it up to those who know me to decide whether I am, but the story makes the point.
The thing that I have seen shared by people who I think are worthy of following spiritually is that they don’t take themselves seriously.
This is not to mean that they think nothing is serious. In fact, they demonstrate an awareness that the vocation in which they are involved is very serious. This fact means that they can take the thing seriously, but not themselves.
Of course, this is how good comedy works.
Comedy can be the most serious of all.
There are all kinds of examples of spiritual masters who are able to laugh at themselves consistently. Have you noticed how giggly the Dalai Lama is? Pope Francis shows some of this as well. Jorge Bergoglio can clearly make jokes at his own expense. I remember hearing an Archbishop from the Philippines speak once and what struck me was how he did not take himself seriously, even as he spoke about some of the most serious matters in the world. I have seen this character trait in all kinds of religious traditions. I have seen it in Islamic faith, Buddhist faith, Christian faith, Jewish faith and even in Atheism. I sometimes think that it is harder to find less serious atheists, but I am likely just not looking in the right places. Atheists who take themselves seriously often remind me of religious leaders who do the same. Both are somehow insufferable.
St. Francis of Assisi (from whom Bergoglio took his Papal name) started a somewhat nomadic Christian monastic community. They referred to themselves as “Brother so and so” and “Sister so and so”. For example, it would be Brother Anthony and Sister Clare, that kind of thing.
Francis referred to himself not as Brother Francis, but “Brother Ass”.
Now, for those of you who grew up in an evangelical church, did your leaders and pastors take themselves seriously? Often, in circles of rigid faith, the leaders actually demand that others take them seriously. I always found this exceedingly funny. It’s a kind of posture, a physical, sometimes moralistic, “I’m the king of all I survey” approach. Often a first step in breaking down rigidity is for people to laugh at the leaders who demand that they be taken seriously. They rarely respond well, and if they are tyrannical, they may take action to “teach you a lesson”. This is more proof of how they don’t get the joke.
I’ll give another example, this one in political leadership. From what I can see, Vladimir Putin takes himself very seriously. If he wasn’t responsible for so much death and terror this would mean that we could simply laugh at him. Even as serious diplomacy and military response is necessary, the laughter from people can still help diminish this supposed “strong man”. (By the way, anyone who welcomes the term “strong man” as a descriptor of themselves is someone who can’t take a joke).
One of Putin’s fiercest opponents, Alexei Navalny, does not seem to take himself seriously, even as he is clearly dedicated to the seriousness of his cause.
People who don’t take themselves seriously are willing to give their lives for what matters. People who do take themselves seriously are willing to take the lives of others (literally or otherwise) to maintain what they say is important (but is usually about power or other transient things).
I highly recommend a documentary movie that ran on CNN this past Sunday night. It is called “Navalny”. The movie is about the Russian opposition leader who is currently in prison in Russia after a failed assassination attempt by Putin and his minions. The documentary is engaging and plays like a thriller. The other thing you notice throughout is how much Navalny laughs, and how much he laughs at himself. In this one way at least, he just might show what real leadership looks like.
Watch Putin always posing and posturing and demanding fealty and fear. He is a joke and he is the one person who doesn’t get it. This kind of counterfeit leadership tends towards eventual isolation.
Watch Navalny and how much he jokes around and how that helps alleviate fear and distance.
Over and over again when Navalny is asked what message he has for the Russian people, he says some form of “Don’t be afraid.” People who demand to be taken seriously often use fear as a motivation and method. People who don’t take themselves seriously help other people to simply be themselves. There is great hope in this.