Arguably the best book on leadership I have read is Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns; the Abraham Lincoln political biography. It masterfully depicts the challenge, heartache and passion that goes into leadership in the face of cruelly fierce opposition. Lincoln’s steady strength and fortitude became an inspiration for me and I can’t help but think of him as I observe Jeremy Corbyn approach his new task of leader of the Labour party.
I care nothing for political parties but care deeply about the outworking of politics. And so in Corbyn I see a man who’s policies resonate with me and who also appears to have been thrust into a position of power he never previously had ambition for. At this he already differs from Abraham Lincoln – who had longed for the office of president, in order to achieve the abolition of the slave trade, his entire political career.
The most intriguing part of Team of Rivals is where Lincoln is having to bring together the huge bruised egos of flawed characters to form a cabinet that can see his nation through civil war. The stakes are not quite as high for Corbyn – he is only leader of the opposition, the talent at his disposal is generally unproven, and the critical situation of the United Kingdom in 2015 cannot be compared to that of the United States in 1860. Nevertheless, Corbyn will need to employ all the guile, stubbornness, wisdom and resilience of Lincoln if he is to pull together an effective shadow cabinet that he can lead through to achieve some of the political goals that he has fought for his entire life.
I really wish Jeremy Corbyn every success. Certainly because I desire to see in this nation and world many of the same things he is working for, but also because he deserves it. He has brought a real honesty, vulnerability and humility to the messy and brutal world of 21st century politics. These are characteristics of a true leader and if he is able to persevere can only be a good thing for this nation and beyond.
I’m missing our YMCA book club meeting again today. This month we’ve been reading The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer. It’s a first person story about a young man who is mentally ill. It is as beautiful as it is sad. Here are a couple of things I am taking away from the book:
- It hit me hard when he is observing the attitudes of those who work with those with mental health. A few examples are the condescending way the staff talk down to him, the language they use (i.e. calling him a ‘service user’ – who wants to be called a ‘service user’?!) and that when the Day Centre was closing down the staff were clearly more moved by the fact they’d lose their jobs than by the loss of the service for those that needed it. In fact that was pretty much the most emotion the staff gave out in the whole book. I was challenged with relation to how we work at the YMCA. As much as you come in with your ideals, they quickly get squished by other pressures and before you know it you’ve forgotten that you’re there to serve other human beings.
- I’ll not spoil the detail, but the tragedy involving his brother is gut wrenching. It is referred to from the start and more information about what happened is revealed throughout the narrative. And the information given is the finest detail, the acutest memory, the hurtful consequences, and it brings home pain and loss in the most devastating way. How can anybody know what somebody else is experiencing? I think life can sometimes become one long trail of judgment on others and yet we haven’t got a clue what is going on in another person’s head.
These lessons for me are summed up in Jesus’ famous saying, ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you.’ This quote is often reduced simplistically – i.e. don’t hit someone if you don’t want to be hit etc. However, if we are to really reflect on the essence of this saying then it is that we need to treat one another with respect and with humanity in as much detail as is observed and described in The Shock of the Fall‘. When we fail to do this, ironically, it is ourselves who lose our humanity as much as, if not more than, those we are disrespecting.
Twice yesterday I was hit by how incredibly comfortable my life is.
The first time was when I watched one of those ‘one second a day’ videos. This one is different to any I have seen before though. It shows the devastating impact the encroaching evil of war has on a little girl. The unique perspective on the whole thing is that the little girl is British and war has come to the streets of Britain. I think it would have spread like wildfire on social media if it wasn’t for just how terrible the reality is – there are little girls like our daughters, sisters, nieces, granddaughters, goddaughters, neighbours etc. who are caught up in the brutality of war and, for the vast majority of us, we probably don’t really care because they’re on a different continent and maybe because they have a different colour skin.
The second time was when I turned out the light last night after reading some more of The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer. I’d just read a section that describes the utter mundane, terrifying, lonely and dehumanising existence of someone living on a mental health ward. As I lay there in the dark I realised there were thousands of people all over the country experiencing that terrible existence right now – stigmatised by society, maybe abandoned by family and friends, controlled by medication, institutionalised. Lying in the dark. And again, we don’t truly care that much because it is such an unreality to us. There will be someone living with the terror and hopelessness of mental illness probably within 50metres of where you live, yet we don’t see it, and it passes us by.
Running Rachael has started a great book club at work. It’s great to be able to spend an extended lunch time with friends and colleagues* chatting about literature and life and generally relaxing in the middle of a hectic work day.
The latest offering that we have read is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It really is a good one and before I go further I would thoroughly recommend it. It is quirky and is written and edited with such innovation that your attention is kept and you remain eager to see how events will unfold.
The setting is intriguing as it portrays life in a regular German town with regular German people but during the surreal experiences of the Second World War. For me the fascination in this is that in Britain we are so preoccupied with our perspective of the Second World War that we don’t think about what life would have been like in Germany and the book suggests that life was pretty hellish. It wasn’t just air raids and rationing. Germans had to deal with a nationalistic political fervour that demanded adherance and dolled out horrific consequences for those who did not make the right choices.
Liesel, the protagonist, is a delightful character who captures your heart from the off and takes you on a childhood journey of growth, survival, loss and love. The concept of Death as narrator is ingenious and allows for an easy fluidity from story telling to philosophising. Although tragic from the start the tone is heart warming and generates a real confidence in the potential of humanity in the midst of the absolute worst that our species has to offer.
Out of interest, the film adaption is out in cinemas in the next month or so starring Geoffrey Rush.
*The colleagues referred to are also friends, I’m not suggesting some are friends and some are colleagues!
I read something really sad today about a baby that died in the night, and how the rest of the family ceased to function from that point on. I then noticed my train had got into the station so I quickly nipped out of the door. As I walked along the platform tears had pricked my eyes, I could feel my heart beating and my chest was a little tighter. What I had read was so tragic and so human.
And now I was in this superficial world full of people pretending to walk purposefully down the platform, a world full of make-up and getting frustrated because someone’s standing on the left hand side of the escalator, full of over-priced coffee and snacks that we’re compelled to buy because it wouldn’t do to sit quietly without consuming something for a moment, full of ticket-barriers, tabloids, pretentious broadsheets, high heels, designer suits, full of sheep walking in the same direction.
And by now the tears had dried off and I’d forgotten what I was feeling and I’m back on my way.
The work done by Comic Relief is brilliant. For one night only it manages to turn the apathetic and uncaring British public into compassion filled givers of cash. Yet I think we would agree that the good will generated through Comic Relief is a bit of an annual one off for some, and certainly the zenith of the year’s compassion levels for the rest.
Even the heart-wrenching videos of a boy band crying in an African hospital struggle to provoke more than a skin deep reaction in us – we are genuinely moved, we give a little, yet we continue to live our lives in a manner that sustains and exacerbates the horrific levels of poverty just a few hours plane ride away.
In Resurrection, Tolstoy dismantles the ethics of middle and upper class Russian society about 120 years ago. The reader is introduced to character after character who do absolutely nothing to challenge the culture that celebrated in the economic and sociological structures that kept the rich rich yet produced millions of deaths through disease and starvation. Even those who saw the pain, and were even moved by it, could bring themselves to do nothing to change.
My prayer for myself is that I would have open eyes and an open heart to the pain and struggle around me and that I would act on the emotional feelings I experience and actually act in compassion, instead of continuing to turn a blind eye, just to keep myself feeling better.
Do you want to do the same? If so then right now STOP, and pray for God to transform your heart.
Us humans are a strange and complex bunch of creatures. We try and do a bit of good but, no matter how good our intentions or how hard we try, we are so easily sucked into choosing the selfish path.
There is a brilliant exploration of the state of the human being in Tolstoy’s The Resurrection. The world of Dmitri Nekhlyudov (10 points if you can pronounce his name correctly!) is turned upside down when he ends up on the jury in a courtroom where a woman he had previously taken advantage of and then abandoned is on trial for murder. The story charts Nekhlyudov’s gradual and painful journey away from his existence as a self absorbed aristocrat.
Tolstoy captures the essence of the internal struggle:
“Nekhlyudov, like all people, consisted of two persons. One was spiritual, seeking benefit for himself only if it would be a benefit to others; the other was animal, seeking benefit only for himself, and for that benefit prepared to sacrifice a whole world of benefit to others.”
How often do we have pure motives and desire what will ‘be a benefit to others’ yet end up sacrificing the well being of other people, even those we love, for our own sake? In the Bible Paul shares his own painful experience of this:
“I want to do what is good but I can’t. I don’t do the good things I want to do. I keep on doing the evil things I don’t want to do. I do what I don’t want to do…..what a terrible failure I am!”
I suspect this is a dilemma that many can relate to and it is something that we would love to be saved from. In my experience there is a way to move from the selfish ‘animal’ to more of the selfless ‘spiritual’. Paul asks the question – “Who will save me from this sin that brings death to my body!?” Then gives the answer – “I give thanks to God. He will do it through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
The only way to be saved from putting yourself before others is to identify with Jesus Christ who blew this selfish mentality of the human out of the water by sacrificing himself to bring a whole world of benefit to others. It’s worth bearing that in mind this Easter time…