Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Pope Francis, Political Leaders, and the smell of sheep

Politicians would love to have Pope Francis’ approval ratings.  His popularity crosses party lines and spills over the borders of the tiny state he heads. The spiritual leader of the Catholic Church may be the most influential and galvanizing leader on the world stage. Leadership traits alone cannot fully explain the “Francis effect”.

Leadership is more than a mastery of skills 
Francis is a case study in leadership; he has every attribute that shows up on checklists for good leaders. He is willing to take risks and to effect change. He delegates and allows people to do their jobs. He seeks advice from different voices, including dissenting ones. He will act unilaterally if necessary. He puts the good of the organization first. And, while good leaders are accessible, Francis finds novel ways to be present to people. He leads by example.

Politicians share many of these traits. Yet, as we are seeing during this election campaign here at home, as well as south of the border, few politicians enjoy the same level of popularity as the pope.  In my view, this is because leadership cannot be boiled down to a checklist of behaviors. 

Leadership requires more than the mastery of a set of skills.  An outstanding leader also communicates, through words and actions, the person that he is and the values that inform his life. We might refer to this as the leader’s spirituality.

Apart from all of his leadership qualities, I think that people are attracted to the spirituality of Francis. His humility and respect for others reflect his understanding of service, and his commitment to placing people, not dogma, at the center of his papacy.

Politicians should take on the smell of many different sheep
It would be unfair to make a direct comparison between the leadership style of Francis and those individuals presently seeking the top job in the nation.  After all, Francis does not have to worry about getting elected or coming up with a platform that appeals to a majority of voters.  But there is one page from his playbook that national party leaders might consider imitating.

Francis inherited a church rife with problems. He identified one of these problems as clericalism, the focus on privilege, status and power that separates priests from the people they are supposed to serve. One way to combat the tendency towards clericalism is to take on the smell of sheep.  “Priests”, said Francis, “should be shepherds living with the smell of sheep.”  

Our national party leaders say they walk and talk with ordinary Canadians. They speak eloquently about what the average Canadian thinks. Each of them would have us believe that he alone has the pulse of the nation.  But, it is obvious from watching the televised coverage of the leaders’ tour that no one is taking on the multitude of smells that permeate the pasture. 

The majority of people who attend the campaign events are party faithful. In fact, some events are by invitation only.  Campaign organizers carefully select the individuals who stand adoringly behind the leader, nodding in agreement as he presents his platform and denigrates that of the other guys.

The political backdrop of faces sends a visual message of diversity and support for the leader. The group is there to make the leader seem like one of us, to humanize him and the party’s policies, and to persuade us to enter its sheepfold.

image courtesy of khunaspix at freedigitalphotos.net

Our national party leaders are accustomed to the smell of their own sheep pen. That is not necessarily bad, but it limits perspective. Leaders may miss the bleating of dissonant voices with good ideas; voices that could help the country become more prosperous and equitable.

This hanging around at the center of one’s pen does not end with the campaign; it makes it way into government in the form of partisanship.

The center of the sheep pen does not afford a complete view of the pasture. As Francis observed while visiting a parish at the edge of Rome shortly after he became pope, “We understand reality better not from the center, but from the outskirts.”

In an election campaign, party leaders try to convince voters that their party has the best ideas. After the election, the top dog would do well to seek perspectives and incorporate worthy ideas that come from outside the party fold.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The blessings of a staycation

 A typical back to school assignment, when I was a kid, was to write about our summer vacations. I never much liked the topic. My summers, with a few notable exceptions, were pretty much indistinguishable from each other. I had nothing much to write about, or so I thought. At the time, I did not realize that the spirit of a vacation is sometimes more important than its activities.

Image courtesy of nenetus at freedigital photos.net
I spend the summers of my childhood at home, doing ordinary things - eating peanut butter sandwiches on the porch, sipping Kool-Aid, swimming at the local pool, riding my bike, and playing outside after supper until the street lights came on.  Once in awhile, my family ventured into the hills to pick huckleberries, or headed off, grandparents in tow, for a picnic at a lake or near a stream.

We were masters at the staycation, long before the concept became trendy.

This staycation deepened my definition of hospitality
By chance, I took a staycation this summer.  It came upon me in the form of a seventeen-year-old relative who was studying English at a nearby college.  She had weekends free. We spent them together, swimming in lakes and hot springs, wandering local markets, picnicking in parks, visiting local heritage sites and canoeing at a wildlife sanctuary.  Left to my own devices, I would have spent the hot, dry weekends languishing in the shade with a book and I would have been the lesser for it.

Playing tour guide in my own backyard had the benefits typically associated with the staycation. I visited local sites that I had not previously toured, took advantage of local recreation, and supported the local economy. My visitor’s enthusiasm for the things that I considered ordinary and ho-hum renewed my appreciation for familiar places and landscapes. My staycation also had the added benefit of deepening my understanding of hospitality and building a friendship.

Initially, at least in my heart, I was a reluctant tour guide. As I extended myself, I became more generous in spirit.  Something that felt like an obligation at the outset turned out to be a blessing. Hospitality, I discovered, not only includes acts of generosity that everyone can see, like inviting someone to dinner or showing them the sights. It is also an attitude of the heart that enables us to joyfully meet the needs and receive the gifts of the other person.  

A smokey horizon brought calm

A few weeks after the departure of our visitor, my family headed off for a two-week vacation at a nearby lake.  The first week was glorious with sunny, blue skies, but then the wind shifted and the smoke from multiple forest fires settled in. Poor air quality forced us to spend the bulk of the second week indoors.  With weather conditions less than ideal and a sense of confinement pressing upon us, the enforced family togetherness could have resulted in frayed tempers. But, like my unplanned staycation, it turned out to be a gift.

The smoke seemed to muffle sound, slow time and created stillness. It literally shrunk the horizon before us, limiting our view to a few feet beyond the edge of the dock. And with the shrunken horizon, the haze brought a strange sort of calm that stood in direct contrast to our ordinary lives.  Normally consumed with getting things done (including jumping in the lake several times a day to swim laps between the buoys), we were forced to slow down. The shrunken visual horizon expanded the interior horizon of the heart; it fanned a spirit of comity among us as we waited optimistically for a benevolent wind (that never came) to clear the skies.

This summer, I found gifts in unexpected circumstances. A staycation renewed my appreciation for the familiar and nurtured a more generous heart. A hazy horizon reminded me that there is purpose in stillness and a beauty in doing nothing. 

Photo courtesy of M.L.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The body acceptance movement is fundamentally flawed

Selfie sticks: a whole new level of narcissism
My husband and I were wandering around Victoria BC’s inner harbour awaiting the departure of our whale watching tour (which, incidentally, delivered with a spectacular sighting of cavorting killer whales) when we spotted a couple with a smart phone on a stick. They were dutifully following behind the stick, oblivious of others and the surroundings as they took photos of themselves. 

While I don’t know if the manner in which they were using their selfie stick is common, the entire selfie craze suggests that we are pretty darn pleased with ourselves. However, there is ample evidence to the contrary.  We have a hard time accepting ourselves, and our physical appearance is a particular source of angst. 

Body acceptance movement: struggling to accept our bodies 
The body acceptance movement is a case in point. Variously known as “fat acceptance”, “body love”, and “ending fat shame”, the body acceptance movement is gaining traction.  Women of all shapes and sizes are beginning to react negatively to advertising campaigns that restrict beauty to the ideals of the runway. (A 2014 Victoria’s Secret campaign drew the wrath of at least 27,000 people who successfully petitioned the lingerie company to change its ads.) 

Some magazines are bucking the skinny cover model trend. Vogue Italia led the way a few years ago when three plus size models made the cover. This year, Tess Halliday and Erica Jean Schnek made headlines when their photos appeared on the covers of People and Women’s Running respectively, and ignited debate about obesity, health and fitness.

Although the body acceptance movement is primarily associated with obesity in women, plus size women are not alone in the struggle to accept their bodies. Skinny or fat, young or old, and all points in between, women and men are constantly confronted with impossible and unrealistic ideals of beauty and vitality that encourage self-dissatisfaction. Children, too, are exposed to these ideals from an early age and internalize messages that conflate self-worth and physical appearance.

As a child, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, who was very loving and kind. She was also beautiful in my eyes and stood out from the crowd. She was on the tall side for her generation, did her core routine twice daily, dressed well and wore heels until the day she died. People were drawn to her and described her as attractive and gracious, but when she looked in the mirror, all she saw were her wrinkles, and I remember her lamenting “these darn wrinkles”.  

From an early age, I internalized a message about wrinkles, aging and beauty with which I still sometimes struggle. Some days when I look in the mirror my own darn wrinkles really get under my skin. Other times, when I am more inwardly and spiritually content, the wrinkles are inconsequential, playing second fiddle to a deeper, more profound me. 

Body acceptance movement is flawed
The body acceptance movement, despite its good intentions, is flawed. Its mantra to embrace your curves puts the cart before the horse.  Beauty is more than skin deep. So whether it’s wrinkles or weight, dissatisfaction with our body reflects some sort of inner unhappiness that is rooted in relationships and experiences that shape us from the inside out. 

No matter how much we profess to love our curves, so-called “body positivity” on its own is insufficient to change our interior narrative.   To “embrace” fatness or thinness can become an excuse for ignoring the life-long process of inner transformation that leads to authentic self-acceptance.

Body acceptance has little to do with clothing size or the image captured on that high tech mirror called a smart phone.  It has everything to do with the condition of our interior life. If we obsess on our appearance to the exclusion of our inner transformation, we will never be comfortable in our own body. When we look in the mirror, we will see our self darkly, as through a smoky, gray cloud instead of illuminated with light, aglow with the beautiful colours of our soul. That’s an image that not even the smartest phone can capture.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Online shaming

"With no one but the online mob as guide, it (is) all too easy for people to throw stones, while claiming the moral high road for themselves."

A modern twist on an ancient story

It's a modern twist on an ancient story.

Our modern story concerns some scandalous behaviour that occurred during a summer festival in Alberta. 

The ancient story, recounted in the Gospel of John, goes something like this. Some Scribes and Pharisees, accompanied, I imagine, by a crowd of onlookers, brought a woman caught in the very act of adultery to Jesus. Their motives are questionable. Not terribly concerned about adultery, they want to trap Jesus with a tricky question. 

Rembrandt: Woman Taken in Adultery
National Gallery, London

They ask him if they should stone the woman. Jesus, who is in no hurry to answer, bends down and writes in the sand before he looks at the womans accusers and says, Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.   Beginning with the elders, the crowd slowly disperses as individuals slink away in embarrassed, guilty silence. 

Left alone with the woman, Jesus asks her, Does no one condemn you?  to which she replies, No.  Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more, responds Jesus.

The modern version of the story goes like this. 

A young woman and two male friends were cavorting in an alley when a Peeping Tom spotted them, filmed their tryst and posted the video online where it went viral. Viewed by several million people, the woman became the object of online shaming, while the men were applauded.

There are lots of things wrong here, as others have pointed out.  Some point to an invasion of privacy. Others focus on society's acceptance of online shaming. Still others draw attention to the misogyny inherent in the shaming that slams the woman and high-fives the men. All of these concerns point to the precarious condition of the collective moral compass.

Lets return to the crowd in Johns story.

A few individuals had probably whipped up the moral outrage of some in that ancient crowd. Others may have just been along for the ride, not wanting to miss out on a good spectacle. And a spectacle it was, although not the kind they were expecting. 

Jesus silenced everyone, effectively asking, Are you sinless?. He created space for people to think about their own behaviour.  With the moral compass swinging away from the woman towards their own shortcomings, people in Johns crowd had the good sense to shut up and go home. 

Not so for todays online crowd. With technology providing an instant platform to condemn someone elses bad behaviour, our crowd was neither predisposed nor inclined towards self reflection.  And with no one but the online mob as guide, it was all too easy for people to throw stones, while claiming the moral high road for themselves.

Without even realizing it, the online crowd called its own moral credibility into question. It was, you might say, caught in the very act of voyeuristic tendencies, which are hardly a hallmark of integrity. In shaming, the group restricted moral conduct to the breaking of sexual taboos . They forgot that the way we treat others outside of intimacy also speaks to the content of our character. 

The collective moral compass is in need of repair.  No one involved in this sad and sordid affair can claim the moral high road. Everyone - the threesome, the filmmaker, and those who viewed and commented - sullied themselves with their failure to respect the innate dignity of the human person.

Our ancient story teaches that sin is not excused, but forgiven. Moral slip ups are not a cause for condemnation. They are an opportunity for tweaking a wobbly moral compass and getting back on track.

 Compass image: courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Laudato Si': Care for our Common Home

Dubbed the "climate change encyclical",  Laudato Si' is really about relationships.

In Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home, Pope Francis calls the world to rethink and transform the “outdated criteria which continue to rule the world.”

From the first page, this encyclical hooked me with its straightforward and direct language, occasionally surprising me with its bluntness, such as when Francis described the world as resembling a “pile of filth”, or criticized politicians for lacking “breadth of vision.” Other times, the language is more poetic, particularly when the pope praises the beauty of creation.

In Laudato Si’, Francis attempts to gather the thought of the universal church on the connection between the environment and social issues. Not only does he refer to the teachings of his predecessors, Francis makes numerous references to statements on the environment from Catholic bishops’ conferences around the world. He also devotes several paragraphs to the teaching of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. 

Although it has been dubbed “the climate change encyclical”, the discussion on climate change is only a small portion of Laudato Si’.  Those who focus on the pope’s comments on climate change miss the point. This encyclical is about three key relationships – humanity’s relationship with God, with the created world, and with one another – and it reflects on the problems existing within the web of these relationships.

At the root of the environmental crisis, says Francis, is a “misguided anthropocentrism” that places human beings at the center. In our hubris, we have fallen prey to “unrestrained delusions of grandeur”. We seek mastery over nature instead of respecting it as a sacred gift. We are turning ““a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness” into something that “is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth”. 

Francis talks about the utilitarian mindset that leads us to treat others with disregard, valuing them only in so far as they are useful to us. We are more interested in convenience and consumption, economics and power than in the intrinsic dignity of the human person and nature. In the theology of this encyclical, our lifestyle and mindset blind us to the destruction of the environment and deafen us to the cries of the poor.

Francis cautions that if we continue to see ourselves as independent from others and as separate from nature, our attempts to heal the environment will be piecemeal at best. Healing the environment requires healing the other two key relationships; “our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb”.  A true ecological approach is therefore always a social approach; “it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”.  

Less we feel overwhelmed and discouraged by the reality of the challenges facing humanity, the encyclical offers hope.  Human beings have the capacity to transform the present environmental and social crisis, but it will require a change of heart and attitude.  We will do well to heed an ancient lesson common in religious traditions,  ‘less is more’, and to cultivate a spirit of moderation that is happy with fewer goods even if it is contrary to today’s culture of consumption and waste.

From developing enforceable international environmental polices to small individual actions, everyone has a part to play in caring for our common home.  We renew the social fabric, break down indifference, and forge a shared identity, says Francis, when we promote the common good and defend the environment.  “Social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a “culture of care” which permeates all of society.” 

Laudato Si’ challenges us, individually and collectively, to confront the environmental crisis and to resolve the inequalities of human society. The future hangs in the balance of our response.