Monday, April 23, 2012

administrative and command decisions

In one of the volumes of "The Brotherhood of War," author W.E.B. Griffin depicts a dust-up between a commanding general who is intent on sending a wounded soldier back to the United States, where he could receive treatment not available on a hospital ship in the war zone, and a lower-grade, but nonetheless senior officer who points out that such an action would be "against regulations."

Thus challenged, the commanding general blows a gasket and points out in an icy fury that regulations are for the "guidance" of commanding officers and that he "commands" his constituency ... a horse of a completely different color. The confrontation was a wonderful depiction of the friction between chair-warming bureaucrats and battlefield officers: The former administer; the latter lead.

Anyone who has worked in an office knows this friction first-hand -- the executives who, through diligent following and application of the rules have advanced to pivotal posts and yet are dogged by the inability to do more than follow the rules.

And in spiritual life, I think the same format exists -- not just in an organizational sense, but also at a very personal level: We follow the rules because without following the rules, the chances of reaching our goals go begging. You can't play baseball without learning the rules and yet if the rules are the only thing you can exercise, winning the game, while possible, recedes from view. A single swing of the bat has precisely zero to do with the rules in one sense: It is sui generis; it is now; it is everything; it commands.

In spiritual endeavor, the rules and format, lend a helping hand. They guide the uncertain. They point out the direction. And they are not, in themselves, necessarily wrong. If everyone did what s/he wanted, then what was sought would not be attained.

But how many times has anyone seen this observation extended to mean that if you follow the rules and keep following the rules and rely utterly on the rules and keep relying on the rules that therefore you have attained the goal or are somehow in compliance with that goal? Becoming a spiritual-endeavor administrator is an easy tar pit to slip into. And there are plenty of examples anyone might point to ... the bureaucratic administrators of spiritual life ... so correct, so observant, so undeviating, so deserving ... and so full of shit.

What others do and do not do really is not the point here. A critique of others is no more helpful than the role played by those critiqued. The point is not someone else's bullshit. The point is my bullshit, my own willingness to settle for a spic-and-span cubicle whose walls are lined with the true regulations.

It's a sticky wicket. Dismissing the one and elevating the other doesn't work. Becoming a bull in a china shop doesn't work ... but neither does becoming and administrator in a china shop. Between these two extremes (and let's steer clear of using administrative nostrums like "the middle way"), there has to be a willingness to seek out the peace ... or to lead ... or to win the war.

Maybe it's like this at a personal level: 1. The student enters the spiritual fray. S/he is uncertain or sad or finds life somehow unsatisfactory, so giving spiritual endeavor a whirl may appeal. 2. S/he learns the rules of the road and exercises them with whatever wholeheartedness s/he can muster. 3. Some spend the rest of their lives in this administrative mode ... having learned the rules, s/he is content to remain in these comforting doldrums. Others, however, begin to recognize what was true from the get-go: Rules are by nature limiting and what is sought is unlimited. This can be pretty upsetting, given all the effort that has preceded the recognition. A kind of fuck-you of disappointment can rear its head: This bullshit is not what I signed on for. I need to breathe ... to lead ... to win the war and find peace. This realization can be explosive: Fuck this cubicle lifestyle! 4. A revised course of action opens up, one in which the rules, as in the military commander's observation, are for the guidance of the only true commander. The commander is in charge. S/he leads. S/he is attentive. S/he is wholly responsible.

All this may sound sexy and alluring from a hypothetical distance, but up close and personal it can be a surprising and scary approach. It is scary because heretofore there has been an implicit reliance on something or someone else, a reliance that assured, if not accolades, at least fewer reprimands. In this new world, however, the audience has gone home, the boss is no longer looking over anyone's shoulder. Suddenly I am the boss and the number of ways I can screw the pooch, the number of ways in which I can to harm, the number of ways in which others may criticize my conduct, the number of ways in which failure and success are viewed ... well, it's all on me ... just as it was all along, but in times past, I could escape the lash by nesting in administrative comforts. Now, the excuses, the limitations, just don't work.

It is common to want to be the leader, the chief, the commander and less common to want to be the spear-carrier, the Indian in the crowd, the follower. But, in making the peace necessary between commander and administrator, between limitlessness and the limited, maybe it is useful to wonder, "What if you became king or queen and there were no realm, no peasants, no courtiers, no lands to tax, no wild applause?" And the same question might be asked of the administrator -- what end do these regulations actually assure?

Once the fear and glory have abated a little, I think it is time to relax ... to command when it is time to command. Use the regulations when the regulations are needed.

And don't allow yourself to be tricked by either.

Or maybe not.

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