On Self-Diminshment and Owning Decisions

On Thursday morning, I read two lines from Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach and burst into tears: “No punishment anyone lays on you could possibly be worse than the punishment you lay on yourself by conspiring in your own diminishment.” (Palmer, 178) The context of this text was describing Rosa Parks’ courageous decision to sit in the front of the bus. She was willing to take the criticism and even physical arrest before playing a role in her own oppression. Wow.

The reason I burst into tears is because, honestly, this week has been tough. Several instances with students and staff challenged me in how I see myself as a leader. Without breaking anonymity, I will describe the greatest challenge and what I (think I) learned.

I remember the ministry class on leadership in divinity school. It is strange to study leadership from books, yet necessary, as I found this week. In our course, we diagnosed ourselves as leaders- what skills were particular to our leader personality? We analyzed an organization and how the leaders succeeded, or didn’t, in running the organization. Along the way we read different wisdom on leadership. We read Leadership on the Line, a book by Ronald Heifitz and Marty Linsky, two professors at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. The thing I remember most from this book is that when leaders make decisions that involve change, especially change that undoes roles of individuals, people get upset. Some people may go so far as to leave the community. It sounded simple, but its real.

This week I had the difficult task, along with my two colleagues, of deciding who among the 19 excellent applicants would come on our pilgrimage to the US desert southwest. I knew this would be challenging for a few reasons. First, I experienced a blatant “who the heck am I” syndrome to be a decider of this fate. Second, many of these applicants are wonderful students that I know. And finally, I knew this would be deeply challenging because the issues around border justice and the interfaith action around this plague me and inspire me. In my humble opinion, the more passionate young people working together on border justice, across religious and spiritual lines, the better. It feels terrible to that people might believe, through my actions, they are not worthy to learn or serve- because they certainly are.

My colleagues and I made our decisions. We spent hours reading, discussing, arguing, and scratching our chins. Finally, we sent out the emails. I have been on the receiving end of countless acceptance and rejection emails. The acceptances make me giddy. I’ll admit, even the smallest workshop proposal acceptance makes me feel like I have accomplished something. Rejection is never easy. The process stinks. In my experience, I read the first line, close the email, and tell myself I didn’t care that much. I quickly negate that. I wonder what I could have done better. I wonder if it could be a mistake. I wonder if I should apply again next year, or find something else. I write in my journal. I call my mom. There is no rejection email, however emphatic of how excellent the candidate pool was, that can assuage one’s pain. At least, not to me. The worst kind of rejection is one that makes me believe my role in the community has changed, or has become less important. It is as if someone is saying “you really are not as meaningful to this community as you think”, even though this might be completely unfounded.

I know some of the students we love felt angry, upset, or dumbfounded. Frankly, their feelings are legitimate. I suppressed my urge to email them, text them, or call them and say “I am so sorry…I love you, you are amazing, you are essential!” because, unfortunately, real leadership demands that we stand by our decisions. In higher education, we talk often about not speaking for anyone but ourselves. Sometimes, however, leadership demands that we take a stand on behalf of others.

Making decisions is core to the human condition. As a Buddhist, I know this- change happens all the time because of decisions we or someone beside us make. Change drives suffering. Leaders are people with whom we trust to make decisions. When I took my current position, I deemed myself a leader of a community, and thus, someone who would make educated, fair, and informed decisions. Heifitz and Linsky were right- decisions that involve change make some people upset because they uproot the roles in which we have planted ourselves. This happens with rules and expectations as well- when rules change, we feel like our privileges are being taken away. I do not use the word privilege as a bad thing- I enjoy countless privileges that while I believe I have worked for, would be pretty upset if they were taken from me. This week I made a decision, with my team, that congratulated some and excluded others. People felt upset and angry because they felt as if their wonderful contributions to the community did not matter. And the hardest part of this is knowing I caused harm, whether I could avoid it or not.

Back to Parker Palmer and The Courage to Teach. The reason this quote made me burst into tears is because I have had to question my own understanding of myself as a leader this week. For a few days, I told myself “the reason students are upset is because they do not see me as a leader, and I am a bad leader.” Yet, this was not necessarily true- and irrelevant, to be honest. The crucial point is that I was not sure I saw myself as a leader. When we lead, we make crucial decisions that influence our communities. The real test of whether we are a leader or not is not the decision we made. The test is how we own the decision. How we carry on after we make a decision and continue to affirm every member of our community as essential reflects how just and informed we are. My leadership was tested this week, and initially, I failed. I let others’ pain diminish my view of myself. I am working to own my decisions this week, however big or small. Most importantly, I will work to affirm those who see themselves as diminished, because Parker Palmer is right- the worst pain is that which makes us feel as though we are less than we thought.


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