precarity, maturity, adaptation

it struck me today as I sat in an executive meeting that it can be a terribly difficult thing to wrestle constantly with precarity. I didn’t deal with this when I was a full-time clinician; I knew that my work would never fundamentally change and that it would always be valued in my society. but I haven’t carried the same assumptions into my work as a leader. there are always more results I could be delivering; there is always a case to be made that I am not adding sufficient value; and there is always the possibility that my role can be rapidly revised as the needs of the company shift. I have found that the higher up I ascend in the org chart, the more I sense my precarity. and it is an intensely uncomfortable experience.

I recently had a talk with a friend of mine who’s experiencing the same thing. he’s a doctor who has moved into a physician executive role and has already produced significant results for his organization. outwardly, he projects confidence and competence; but in his conversations with me, he’s shown me a much different picture of his life as a leader—constant doubt, nagging anxieties, feelings of worthlessness, and even outright depression. the higher up he’s moved, the more isolating his experience of work has become. when I asked him some probing questions, he eventually admitted to me that a root cause of his dissatisfaction was his sense that his hard work and sacrifices were going unappreciated. he understood that he was accomplishing things; but what he was not experiencing was a satisfaction with these achievements, and this was largely because he was not being recognized for these achievements.

when I think of the person I wish I could be, I find myself meditating on the idea of maturity. the person I want to become is resilient, open-minded, able to receive criticism, and consummately wise. these qualities make me think of the first chapter of James: “consider it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds, because you that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. perseverance must finish its work, so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything”. I imagine the mature version of myself being able to control my feelings and to influence others positively and consistently regardless of my own struggles. a mature version of me can handle the challenges of leadership, including precarity. a mature version of me can find satisfaction regardless of my circumstances, whether in plenty or in want. but that’s not what I am right now.

my experiences and those of others, including my friend in medical leadership, have convinced me that the soul-killing nature of the executive job stems from a lack of frequent and meaningful affirmation of self. tokens of appreciation, kind words, and even compassion are a part of that. but affirmation connotes something broader and deeper than these transactional communications; affirmation implies that which substantially reinforces one’s identity and value within community. it is not soft stuff, here. it’s not trivial and easy. affirmation is as difficult to receive as it is to really give. without it, the ego begins to degrade; and when the ego becomes fragile, one cannot trust others. one must defend himself from perceived threats, at all times. and when one lives in defense of his ego, he becomes entrenched in a manner of thinking about the world. he cannot be open to the feedback of others. he stagnates; he loses the ability to adapt.

for me, growth is about constant adaptation to a healthy context. without adaptation, one is bound to lose his or her relevance to an ever-changing community. the purpose of growth is ongoing relevance, made complete in redeeming influence. one can only adapt though if one is able to change; and one can only change if he or she is able to learn from critique; and one can only learn from critique and failure if one is able to listen deeply to others and to one’s own heart; and this listening is only possible if one is able to extend grace to the person potentially offering truth. in the end, one can only extend grace to others if one is able to truly love oneself; life-giving truth is that which enables one to love himself purely, utterly, and sufficiently.

for many years, I have peered into the scriptural narrative and encountered a God who loves me but appears unconcerned with whether I love myself. this particular experience of a doctrine of “total depravity” has restricted my personal growth and prevented me from extending grace to others in a manner that allowed me to listen and to change. but as I have reexamined this approach, I have come to recognize that there is indeed life-giving truth in the Gospel of Christ. there is so much that reflects God’s intention to deeply affirm Her people. I see in the stories of the faithful forefathers affirmation that wasn’t simply universal and intuitive but also powerfully specific and sufficient for the individual. and as the prophets, priests, and kings were called to greater and greater responsibilities in their lives, the affirmation of God became more and more specific to their needs, to the extent of enriching and expanding their identities. Abraham became to God a father of nations. Jacob took on the name of Israel, a covenant name for all time. Paul became not simply an apostle but the rock of God’s church and a man to whom a special revelation was given. as these men grew in the faith, God’s affirmations of their specific roles and identities deepened; and as their needs multiplied, God’s connection with them intensified. throughout the scripture, this truth is clear; God’s grace to mankind is manifest not only in salvation of the soul but also in the dignification of individual identity. it is through deeply healthy identity that the priests of God are able to minister to others, handle hardship, receive correction, and ultimately adapt to the ever-changing ever-glorifying reality of the covenant people.

and so I take this reflection to heart. I know that I can lose all at any time; I understand that there is nothing in my life that I can take for granted. but in the midst of this uncertainty and even precarity, I hold to a life-giving truth: that I am loved not simply because all mankind is loved but because I—the one foreseen, called, and profoundly understood—am loved for who I am. this or that thing can be taken from me; but it cannot change the fact of how I am beloved. upon this foundation, I forgive myself; and upon this self-love, I extend grace to others, that I may hear their truth and be changed by it. I am loved, that I may change, and I change so that I may adapt, that my growth might be reflected in my influence on the people, for their delight and for the glory of God