It is often said that as leaders we ought to devote ourselves to something larger than our individual interests or passions, something larger than ourselves. This would seem to create a near spiritual dimension to leading, something that keeps us tethered to a strong sense of service to the world as well as a sense of humility. The ideals of servant leadership are tied to the larger cause of what we give to others rather than take from them selfishly. One only has to consider the Civil Rights reckoning, for example, or the incredible sacrifices of health care workers.
We are all too prone to think about our purposes from the limited vantage point of our own, unique single life, one that inevitably will end someday. We tend not to think of the place of our own lifetime in any larger history.
I learned this notion from John S. Dunne, an American priest and theologian, teaching a class in 1973 comparing the lives of major religious figures, based on his book, The Way of All the Earth. For Dunne, time had the horizontal dimension we commonly experience as the passage of time in our lives. We’re born, we get older and we die. Things happen to us and then we’re gone. But there is also a mystical vertical dimension that taps into eternity at every moment of our awareness.
Dunne was soft-spoken, I recall, as he paced an austere wooden stage and taught to a scattered room of students, a reflective man full of extraordinary questions and visions. If we wanted to understand something of the lives of Mohammed or Gautama Buddha or Jesus, he suggested, we would have to go beyond thinking of just our self-limited horizontal histories. We would have to experience the place of our lives in the larger history of the earth and humankind and realize the vertical experience of eternity reminiscent of William Blake’s lines about seeing the world in a grain of sand.
That class was nearly fifty years ago and yet it comes to mind today as I look out my office window that frames a cottonwood tree, the cold lake and rain beyond. It is clear Dunne spoke as a mystic far beyond the transactional realities that have occupied most of my own life — my consulting practice and daily business conduct, contracts and projects and figuring out the insights I might add through my work. Ultimately it’s about a very bounded self. In truth, some days the work is fulfilling, and some days it can also seem a little futile.
I went through a time in my late 40’s when I really struggled with that sense of futility and all the mistakes I was making. It got better when I dropped the need for everything to be explainable and started to remember the larger qualities that life itself is about. There was a seed of a meaningful life without having to scrape for the meaning of it all.
I hope for those who feel depleted today, who feel that futility or who are experiencing depression because of the pandemic, anxieties about money or politics, or who know the terrible pain of inequity; for those who wonder about getting through the next day — or next minute — that this thought offers hope: whatever you are doing, clear passion or not, larger cause or simply an intention to survive, there is your humanity in it, your voice and your truth; there is dignity and goodness in your life. Maybe only as grains of sand are we truly brothers and sisters. But our lives, horizontally and vertically in time, do hold worth, kindness, sincerity, creativity and possibility. One moment of good will toward another can be, to follow Blake’s poem, very much a way to experience heaven in a wild flower or eternity in an hour, a salve for the many wounds we and others carry. And that’s very much something to hang on to.
On Saturday, my first grandchild was born. My son now has a son of his own. I wish that sweet little boy all that is good in life and all the love in the world.