Saturday, April 20, 2013

Leadership and Happiness

Some thoughts that I decided to write down this morning as part of an ongoing conversation about what it means to be a good leader.

Leaders will always be dangerous. This is true whether they deliberately set out to lead or not. It is true no matter what their intentions are: often well-intentioned leaders do more harm than those whose only purpose is to screw their followers over. (The shepherd who milks his flock for profit wants them to survive and be happy enough to make milk. The shepherd who wants his flock to be "happy" in some nebulous fashion that he struggles to make objective and singular invariably ends up torturing them. He is out to manage their lives much more intimately, intrusively, and dangerously than the guy with a bucket whose clear purpose is to collect milk.)

I can defend myself against the man with the bucket. But what to do with somebody who baits me with happiness? The best response I can come up with is to recognize and see (over and over again in all my experience, personal and vicarious) that there is no such thing as universal happiness. Happiness is a generic regularity that we all experience in fundamentally irregular ways, such that yours is not mine and never will be. You cannot offer me happiness, no matter what your name is, no matter what degrees or experience you have. I am freest to be happy when I recognize that my happiness is not your gift, never was, and never will be. I like you best (no matter who you are) when I see clearly what you cannot do for me and avoid expecting you to be something you can never be, do something you can never do.

Looking back at the course of my life thus far, I see myself as a lucky survivor in humanity's ongoing battle to destroy dangerous heretics--a warlock who somehow managed to avoid getting burned at the stake, so far.  I think the best way to deal with any leader, whether or not he (or she) is ill-intentioned, is not to expect from him (or her) something that no human (or god speaking through a human) can provide.  It is harder to be betrayed when you don't expect impossible things from other people.

As for lies, they are at least as ubiquitous as the leaders who tell them. Sometimes they are deliberate. Sometimes not. Sometimes they are well-intentioned. Sometimes not. I don't believe pure truth is possible, personally. I have never met it--in myself or anyone else, at all. So I live my life as a giant lie. I know that everything I say is going to be false somehow, no matter what I intend. I cannot manage my "persona" the way the modern LDS church tries to. I cannot run damage-control to manipulate your perception of what I write or say. I have to throw down and let you respond as you will (or won't). I have to respect your right to lie the same way I do. So I strive to do that. I strive to lie as honestly, transparently, and non-judgmentally as possible. I live for the epoche of the ancient skeptics (my favorite prophet from antiquity is Pyrrho of Elis, who like me spent his time reading Democritus and Homer in an effort to avoid passing judgment on stuff). Nobody has to believe a word I say. I don't believe them all myself. They are momentary ripples in a wild, untamed stream that can never be dammed and controlled with the precision many people expect. The human mind's capacity for comprehending the universe is severely and irreparably limited. There is no magic formula for making our thoughts inhumanly wise. Enlightenment is something you already have, hidden somewhere impossible to find in the dark recesses of your miserable little soul. Happiness is noticing how it peeks out every now and then:


"Hey, come back here!"

"Come and get me if you can!"

There is no substitute for living your own life. We all make our own religion. Attempts to create and define giant communities like the Catholic church (or even the much smaller LDS one) are a total waste of time--a giant exercise in mental masturbation that becomes worse as people work harder at it (and seriously expect more real results). Catholicism that matters isn't about what a bunch of old fogies in red robes do somewhere in the dark halls of the Vatican (with or without altar boys). It is about the little family of Hispanics who walk past me on their way to St. Gertrude's, where the priest blesses them, the nuns help them with cheap school and daycare, and nobody would dream of molesting their kids. Mormonism isn't about what a bunch of old fogies do in a secret temple chamber in SLC (with or without plural wives). It's about my friend who goes to church here in Chicago with his wife and little boys and participates avidly, even though he is openly agnostic (does God even exist? who cares?). Theological debates are a sideshow: masturbation can be fun, but it isn't the same thing as sex, folks. Never was. Never will be.

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