My posts have been taking a musical turn of late, not necessarily by design. Here are two more semi-profound musings I had about songs this past weekend.
In a post several years ago, I grouped together three movies that came out in 1999 and summarized them all with the famous line from the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” (1998): “You bleed just to know you’re alive.” I found myself thinking about this lyric again while listening to a song from just two years later, “Pinch Me” by the Barenaked Ladies (2000). I realize now that I’ve typed it out that this is a really unfortunate convergence of song title and band name (well, let’s just say a really unfortunate band name, period), but the title simply refers to the song protagonist’s feeling that he is asleep and needs to be (but is not sure if he wants to be) awakened in order to face the real world. (By the way, you may know this song better as the one with the line, “I could hide out under there/I just made you say ‘underwear.’”) The song could be read as a plea from a depressed person who can’t muster the courage to even go outside his door. I have a feeling that many cultural critics read it, along with “Iris,” as an anthem of the malaise of late Gen X-ers and early Millennials—people my own age, who grew up hearing these songs as background music—and perhaps some of them connect this malaise with the sense of entitlement that they are so fond of attributing to people in that age range. I prefer to think of true interpretation of these songs as somewhere in between: they’re not only about people with diagnosable mental health conditions, but neither should they be dismissed as the whines of bored young people who have to manufacture problems in order to help themselves feel validated. I would submit that the world has gotten more overwhelming and that people my age and younger are less equipped to deal with it than those who came before us, and these songs are just evidence of that. I’ll leave you with that to ponder.
Now, something more uplifting. While running on Saturday, I listened to one of my favorite songs of all time, Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” and maybe it was all the adrenaline or the fact that my institution has graduation in less than two weeks, but in any case, I came up with a brief commencement address on the theme of this song. Here it is: Have you ever wondered why we use the term “commencement” for something that we usually talk about as an ending? Also, have you ever wondered why the song says, “We are the champions,” implying that we’ve already won, but then goes on to say, “We’ll keep on fighting to the end?” The answer to both these questions is the same: it’s that the struggle is never over in this life, is it? You’re celebrating the end of college, and indeed you should. You are a champion. But you still face the fight of career, relationships, and just getting through life. You can “go the distance” like Rocky, but then you still have Rocky II, II, IV, IV, and Rocky Balboa and Creed and Creed II—you see what I mean. The Queen song goes on to include several more of these “already and not yet” constructions (to borrow a term from theology): for example, the speaker of the song talks about taking his bows and his curtain calls, but just a few lines later he uses future tense: “I consider it a challenge before the whole human race/And I ain’t gonna lose.” So remember, the fight goes on. But don’t let that discourage you. [And I teach at a Christian college, so this next part applies to my students and is crucial.] Remember that you serve a God who does have time for losers. He gave his life for losers like us, and he makes us champions. The End.
Since this is a leadership blog (and one of my summer projects is to rebrand it as such), today I’d like to highlight a few examples of good leadership I witnessed over the weekend.
Our commencement speaker at Liberty University was former President Jimmy Carter, and it was one of the best commencement addresses I’d ever heard. I love graduations with all their pomp and ceremony and familial pride, but normally I tune out during the speech. During my own college graduation, I read a book. Maybe it was because I had to hang on his every word or I would have missed what he was saying (President Carter is nearly 94 years old and speaks slowly and quietly), but I was riveted. He didn’t shy away from social issues; his whole address was about the challenges facing our world, and in that sense, it was absolutely a charge to the graduates even though he rarely referred to them directly. But unlike in many other speeches I’ve heard by politicians (including some commencement addresses), Carter didn’t propose himself or his party as the solution to these problems. Knowing that he was speaking to Christians who would understand what he meant, he proposed behaving like Jesus: treating all people as if they have value, walking in humility rather than self-promotion, speaking on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves. Although it’s been many years since he was president, Carter is still a leader, from heading up an international humanitarian organization to teaching Sunday school in his tiny hometown church. And even though I haven’t followed his career, I know from what I heard on Saturday that he’s a good leader, mainly because he’s a compassionate leader. There were tears streaming down my face (yes, it was raining, but I was also crying) when I heard him talk about the crisis of human trafficking in his home state of Georgia, not only because of the facts he cited but also because I could hear in his voice that he cared. I, too, want to be a leader who cares.
I can’t remember the exact quote, but I heard a good leadership statement last night on Talking Dead, when Garrett Dillahunt, the actor who plays the new Fear the Walking Dead character John Dorie, said that he likes characters who don’t feel the need to force themselves into leadership roles or to clamor for attention–who are, in fact, reluctant to lead but will do so if it’s necessary. This brought to my mind a lot of great leadership examples, from George Washington to Rick Grimes.
Also last night, I finally went to see Avengers: Infinity War. I have a lot of thoughts, but some of them are spoilers, so I’ll restrict myself to comments about leadership (and also to this: Captain American looks really good with that beard and longer hair. Can I get a witness?). First of all, too many leaders spoil the soup–or something like that. There were too many characters in that movie, period, and that’s a storytelling issue, but if we can suspend our disbelief for a minute and pretend it was a documentary, the more important issue is that there were too many people trying to be leaders. This concept was used for comic potential with Thor (the pirate angel!) and Starlord, and it had more serious consequences in the disagreement between Ironman and Dr. Strange. (We’re using our made-up names, as Spiderman said.) One of the ongoing themes of the Avengers movies is that it’s hard for superheroes to act like sidekicks. But sometimes success requires taking a back seat to someone we may not even like. Second, leadership sometimes requires self-sacrifice. Again, we’ve been exploring this in the Avengers movies ever since Captain America #1, but the concept finally hit critical mass in this one–it almost seemed like this was a competition going on to see who could be the most self-sacrificial. And I’ll stop there, because of spoilers. But I guess my overall point is that if we can keep these two principles in balance–being willing to lay down our lives but also being okay with being the loyal comic relief guy who doesn’t have to, or get to, do anything so dramatic–then we will be good leaders. No capes, masks, or metal suits required.
With apologies to the Christmas season (which I do love), the time of year when I typically experience the greatest and most consistent sense of well-being is the mid-to-late spring time period we are in right now. Here are some reasons why:
It’s warm, and the days are getting longer. In case you care, here are my favorite seasons in order: spring, fall, summer, winter. I like change as long as it’s regular, predictable change, so the seasons in which the weather, plant life, and day length are going through obvious transformation are my favorite. Of those two, I prefer the spring for the obvious reason that everything is coming back to life. It’s not just the symbolism; I actually feel physically and mentally healthier (aside from pollen allergies) when the world is waking and warming up after the seemingly interminable winter.
It’s a time for celebration. This is the most exciting time of year in my world of academia. I’ve always loved graduations, probably because I’m secretly British and therefore really enjoy pomp and ceremony (also “Pomp and Circumstance,” the graduation song). As a Harry Potter fan, I also appreciate long robes and funny hats. So even though I’m not a fan of crowds or of wearing heavy black garments in the blazing May sun, I enjoy putting on my doctoral regalia (for which I paid a hefty price in both effort and actual money) and marching around as a symbol of intellectual weightiness. Even more, I enjoy seeing graduates celebrate with their loved ones and anticipate the future with joy and hope. (Crap, I’m starting to cry!) I especially like the opportunities this time of year provides to see students share what they’ve learned and what they’re passionate about. (See my post on this from a couple of weeks ago.)
I’m about to be a lot less busy. Another good thing about working in academia is that, for most of us, there’s not as much going on in the summer. I don’t truly get the summers off because I’m also an administrator and therefore on a 12-month contract, but I don’t teach on campus in the summer (I’ll have one online class), and the cycle of department, committee, and student meetings slows way down. So I’m looking forward to reading the backlog of books I’ve bought over the past few months, spending lots of time outdoors, going to bed early more often, and having adventures (or just passing time) with my favorite people, near and far (because I also have more time to travel in the summer). I got a little taste of that this past weekend when I had only a few children’s lit papers left to grade. Friday night I read a little bit of Jurassic Park (the book I’m reading for fun right now) and then went to bed at 9:30, with my windows open and my Thomas Newman Pandora station playing. Saturday morning I got up at 5:30, threw some clothes on, got an iced caramel mocha at McDonald’s, and headed to a local park, where I spent three hours. I did some yoga on the lake pier, walked around the lake (it’s more of a large pond), read my Bible and another book, and did some journaling. That may not sound like a fun morning to you, but I had a great time. And I still had the whole day ahead of me when I was finished! This is why I sometimes fantasize about being retired. Anyway, although point #3 has been, strictly speaking, about summer, I still count this as a reason why I love spring, because right now I’m just beginning to enjoy–and still anticipating–all the delights of the coming season.
Do you enjoy this time of year, and if so, why? (That feels like an essay prompt. It’s also final exam time.)