Make your inner world small: You are what you do
Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.
― G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.
— Paul Graham
He must become greater; I must become less.
— John 3:30 NIV
An awkward conversation
I am quite the introvert. When not engaged in my work roles, my default setting is a need to be alone to replenish. I love people and find them utterly fascinating, and small talk is often the doorway to finding out just how interesting people are. Ask enough questions, and others will share something of themselves, sometimes revealing slivers of their backstories. Everyone has a back story beyond the surface assumptions we make about them.
Interactions with people produce in me a strange mix of delight and enervation, as my love of people tangles with my introversion. So when one of my friends invited me to a celebration, at which some of his guests were well-known Christians, I was delighted and apprehensive in equal measure; delighted to celebrate my friend in an intimate setting over good food, along with the opportunity to interact and speak with his other friends. Yet, I was equally apprehensive about the small talk I would need to make all evening with complete strangers.
As it transpired, I was seated with the most well-known Christian present. And I did not need to ask any questions for him to spark conversation. I say conversation, but it was more of a monologue. For he was happy to immediately let me know who he was, and to list all his accomplishments, even though I had not asked for them. A litany of dropped names, books he had written and was writing, and networks he oversaw began to deplete my will to live. My introvert defence mechanisms made my face smile, while my mouth said ‘umhum’ in response to each new achievement. I looked at the clock and began to count the minutes until I could leave.
Then I began to wonder: who was this man outside of his extensive doings? So I interrupted with a question: ‘With all you are doing, what is one of the biggest personal challenges to those things, that you are facing?’ He seemed flummoxed at first and stopped talking. I pressed my advantage with his pause, and told him a little about my special needs daughter and the latest legal battles for her care, its emotional impact and the challenge of getting done the things I was trying to achieve.
There was another pause and the silence opened up further between us. I expected him to turn away to the guest on his other side. But with a slight sigh, he closed the silence and proceeded to tell me about the most painful situation he was facing with a family member. He told me a tale of grief, loss, and of a cast of characters who ran the gamut of judgement, love, and care. And as he shared, I lost all track of time.
You are NOT what you do
I share this story, not as an example of any supposed dinner party etiquette, but because it reminds me of how we often reduce who we are to what we do. Henri Nouwen knew well the danger of mistaking activity for identity when he said, ‘We are not what we do, we are not what we have, we are not what others think of us ... I am the beloved child of a loving creator.’1
Who we are is not intrinsically what we do. There is so much more to us than the activities we undertake. We are always in danger of fusing all we are with the things we have done and continue to do; actions and activity can take the place of being. When our activity ceases, we are impelled to look inward for who we are, only to find no one there. We must then begin the journey to find ourselves.
Our ability to do things comes to natural ends, or is oftentimes forcefully and unexpectedly curtailed. A church planter whose church does not grow – or shrinks – discovers that the size of their church has become too much of who they are. The academic, proud of their publishing prowess, faces a debilitating disease and loses the ability to think as they once did. The helicopter parent, with little sense of self outside of their children’s care and activities, falls into an identity abyss when those children leave home. The leader who discovers that their accomplishments count for nothing when realising the relational emptiness they feel, falls into an affair, the pain of divorce, and a broken family. The pastor who works more and more hours to appease people and rescue others, collapses under all their doing with breakdown and burnout. All of these people and more stare out at the chasm between what they are doing and who they have become.
You ARE what you do
Many of us have become aware of this danger – the collapse of being into doing. ‘You are not what you do’ is the frequent and well-meaning aphoristic warning offered by pastors to church members, and then by spiritual directors back to those still overly-busy pastors. It is true that you are not what you do. Or rather, it is partly so, for there is also a danger of doing collapsing into being.
Julian of Norwich was an anchoress, a woman who was voluntarily walled up into a room attached to a church. In the Middle Ages, the anchoritic life was surprisingly popular with some men and several hundred women. Julian of Norwich was, on the one hand, withdrawn from the activities of daily life, but was also at the centre of community life. Her daily activities were reduced to prayer and contemplation. She, like other anchorites, received visitors with whom she would share spiritual advice (The only written texts by an anchoress to survive are those written by Julian of Norwich. Moreover, her writings are the first known work in English written by a woman).
One of her most well-known and oft-quoted writings is from her near-death experience, the thirteenth of fifteen revelations, where she declares, ‘… but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’. T.S. Eliot took these words for his poem Little Gidding (which, despite the title, is a very long poem). Others have also taken these words for use in spiritual direction and formation. The first time I heard them, they were quoted by a spiritual director to justify the call away from doing and into being. The use of the quote was then closely followed by the related claim that we are, after all, human beings, not human doings. Now, if we set aside for one moment the context in which Julian of Norwich wrote these words – they were about sin, not about a dichotomy between doing and being – the use of Julian’s words for this claim caused me great consternation.
What rose up within me was the thought that of course all will be well for Julian and others like her. Because people like me come along and take all the actions and doings that make things well for others. That thought process alone revealed more about my fusion with doing, and less about the misquoting of Julian of Norwich by spiritual directors. But reflecting on Julian of Norwich, we see that for Christian spirituality, doing and being are not two separate ends of a spectrum, or two sides of the same coin, but that doing emerges from being. By that, I mean we instinctively know along with those like Julian, who are given over to an intense focus on being before God, that being is more valuable than intense doing. There are many Christians religious ‘orders’ and societies in history. But there is no Christian spiritual order of activity, or the society for intense work and doing. Or rather there is. It is the rank and file of the church of Jesus Christ, who make daily liturgical confessions of how busy and tired they are. We know that overdoing leads to dangerous things. Being before God is the foundation, the starting point, and the root for our actions.
Being takes priority, is indeed a priori to action and doing. But it is wrong to over-prioritise being. Claims that we are not what we do are only a partial truth, for we are in fact what we do, in so many important ways. Carl Jung reminds us that, “You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do”. For there is no being without doing, and no doing without being. Who we are flows from what we do, and what we do flows from who we are. The two are intrinsically linked.
Perichoresis: the relationship of doing and being in the Godhead
The early Church Fathers, in trying to describe the nature of the relationship between the three persons of the trinity, coined the term perichoresis. It was, and is, a theological analogy to attempt to describe the co-inherence of the God Head, Three in One. The term is replete with meanings, including to make room for, to go around, to step, to approach, the kiss of God, the son and the father breathing forth the Holy Spirit, the embrace, immediacy, partnership, movement, and indwelling with each other. Within this beautiful description of being are the actions inherent to such being. Indeed, perichoresis describes the divine mission and activity of the trinity. The being of God himself gives rise to His actions that created the possibility of all human doings. We are created in the image of God, as His creations, in order to cocreate with Him. And since human beings are made in the image of God, it follows that this provides the Christian understanding, not only of God’s being and action in human affairs, but of the reciprocal nature of human beings in terms of identity and action before God.
We are before God, each of us, weighted differently in our orientation towards doing and being. Some of that weighting comes from gifting, and personality and strengths - things located in our sweet spot. Yet much also flows from – as spiritual directors tell us – our shadow side; the part of us in our brokenness that has us act out and create false and damaging identities. I have an overweighting and proclivity towards action. One of my abilities is to out-work most people I know. Yet that ability springs in part from being a child who had to undertake actions no child should take, to survive abuse and neglect. Overwork to the point of breakdown is something I have faced. But as a recovering workaholic, I have found a freedom in not abandoning my ability to work hard, but instead, locating it within its proper place within a healed identity. As I press into healing and transformation, my weighting towards action has changed, and has been moderated.
I see this dynamic of weighting in my pastoral and leadership role. As a pastor, I have had to counsel and care for those caught up in too much doing. Their actions come about as a way to control their fears and anxieties about themselves and about life. I have had to advise them to make the choice to pause and take stock, before the un-sustainability of their lives forces them to do so. These are often moments when I seem to be looking in a mirror of my own overactivity.
Similarly, at times, I have pastored those overly obsessed with being, seemingly cut off from any doing of anything much at all. They are always about to do something, and talk about what they think they will do, intend to do, will one day do. These poor souls often tell me they are overburdened with doing, and just need to be for a time. On examination of their life, I have struggled to identify what they could possibly stop doing, other than regularly complaining about how they are doing too much.
My most helpful friends, who have signposted me away from overactivity, often challenge me on my overdoing. There is often a passionate doing going on in their lives, but it is weighted differently in their actions, with a different disposition. It’s like they are balanced around being and doing, with movement and joy, like a children’s seesaw that moves between the poles of doing and being, in a way that is playful and life-giving.
Prayer, retreat, and sabbath are the doings that anchor their being differently. Somehow, they are a beautiful admixture of doing and being – they have better mastered the perichoretic dance of doing and being before their creator. They delight in their doings, but who they are transcends and remains part of their being away from their actions, and they are not diminished when they can no longer take the actions they once did. They are what they do and they are not what they do, in some related measure.
Make your external world small
Leaders are called to action; to move things along, bring vision into being, instantiate things that are not, and bring things into existence. It takes action and great doing to lead. But it takes great being to birth and sustain such actions. History is full of examples of leaders collapsing under and into the poor foundations of their identity. But closer to home, our own lives are replete with friends, family, colleagues, and perhaps ourselves, where the weight of things built on actions have collapsed on the shoddy foundations of an identity that was unable to underpin them.
I think for leaders in any field, our world has become and is becoming so big, that we are overwhelmed by it. The forces of technology and globalisation move at such a pace, they constantly present opportunities, data, and resources that overload our senses. We see so many more opportunities. But what was once a simple endeavour has become too big to undertake. And we try to manage the complexity and overload by working more and harder, to manage and action the variables. There are ways to learn to be a leader within complex systems. It will take some time for us to catch up with the skills required to operate in our new, complex world.
Then, just as we do so, we will see that the world has moved further on into more complexity. For our work is never done; we can never rest as more is required from us, with what at times seems like less and less. And in Christian leadership, it seems people want and expect more and more with less commitment from them in terms of time, money, and participation. Is the future of the Christian leader one in which doing less is expected of them by those they lead? I suspect not, and leaders roles will expand into larger domains of expertise and expected abilities.
So we, as leaders, will need to own and set the pace of our own leadership activity. I suspect all leaders know that the expectation and demands of others, is where the overwhelm of over-action often arises. The people and the world around us will never ask for less while providing more. It is up to us to become leaders who can self-anchor, differentiate, and allow the storms and tidal waves of doing to toss us around, without relocating us, staying anchored in our being. So how do we undertake this task?
So, as leaders with a role and mandate towards doing, how do we ensure that we do not fall captive to overdoing, or are at least able to detect when we have fallen prey to it? In what I have already said, is a mapping of the nature of doing and being that might alert us and help us. But now I offer an idea: a concept for being that is also a practice of doing. For it would seem that a primary disposition and orientation of being that is close to – indeed, inherent to the nature of doing – is more readily deployed day to day. Like moving from the ends of the doing and being seesaw, into the centre. Something that brings the two closer to each other to better understand and engage in healthy doing and being.
There is a scene in the Superman movie, ‘Man of Steel’, where a young Clark Kent starts to discover his superpowers. His super-senses switch on all at once; he can see through things, and hear things up close and from far away. The amount of sensory information overwhelms him. Hiding away in a closet, he tries to explain to his mother, Martha Kent, what’s wrong. ‘The world’s too big, Mom’. His mother’s reply? ‘Then make it small’. We might heed the words of Martha Kent, as if they were the gentle admonishment of the Holy Spirit. ‘My world is too big’… ‘Then make it small’. Making the world small is about focus, about saying no to many things that shout for our attention. We likely all know as leaders – unless we have been living under a rock with regards to our leadership development for the last few years – that the art of leadership is focus around less. Less really is more.
But every time we try to make things ‘less’, the pull to ‘more’ drags us back out to sea of over activity. When my parents committed suicide, six months apart from each other, after twenty years of separation, my world became very small. It compressed down in order to process those events. I remember the kind words and support from my church. People meant it when they said, ‘take all the time you need, we are here to help’. Yet, the volume of the external world remained as big as ever, and I noticed it more than ever at that time. My trauma made me over-sensitised, but also able to see the volume of the world around me in a new way. Some of those around me, who told me they wanted less from me, meant that. But what they often and subconsciously meant, was that they expected me to do less for others, not for them. Their needs, conflicts, struggles, requests, and inputs seemed to remain undimmed. For that is the way of life for us all. Our own worlds are now so big that they constantly intrude with demands upon others.
Make your inner world small
I found in that experience, and in many since, that something else needs to happen within me to make my external world smaller. My internal world needs to be made smaller too, and not just when trauma strikes and forces me to reduce my inner dimensions down to the things that matter the most.
Back in 2009, Paul Graham wrote a short article. His primary concern was how arguments too often arose around political and religious issues, because the threshold for expressing opinions in those domains is so low. All that is required to argue about politics and religion is passionate conviction, not any real understanding of issues. Indeed, we are now regularly told that anyone with education and expertise is an elitist, and that we are tired of experts, who are dismissed with a wave of the hand, and consigned to being ignored, like those who warned us about the millennium bug. Ignored, of course, until we need an expert for surgery, or cancer treatment, or to fly our aeroplanes.
And perhaps, presaging the state of identity politics we face today, Paul Graham saw how we take our convictions into our identities. So much so that we can no longer discuss important issues because too many things have become part of our identity. To discuss has become to argue at the level of our identity and being. The reason we cannot think clearly with others about pressing issues, is that too many things have become the core of who we are. Therefore, the best plan to counter this, and for thinking well, is to let fewer things into our identity. Or, per the title of Paul Graham’s article, to keep our identity small.
Now, this insight explains much about the state of current public discourse. It also explains why we cannot seem to make progress in our church environs around pressing issues, because good thinking is held captive to inner worlds that have condensed big issues into identity markers. For example amongst christians a review of egalitarianism and complementarianism, quickly devolves into anger. For to even consider the other’s point of view is to betray our core identity before God - no matter how little we actually know about the issue at hand. The threshold for responding with anger and resentment, when perceiving our identities as being at stake, is all too low.
We might extend and deploy this insight from Paul Graham, away from identity politics, and overlay it in another way upon our inner worlds. With the world around us too big and overwhelming, we are prone to draw what is external into ourselves. The doorway from the external to the internal is now often held open by our attention to the devices and lures that billion-dollar companies have sought to addict us to. Twenty-four hour news, about which we can do nothing other than become anxious, stressed, and angry, becomes internalised and taken into our inner worlds. The complex worlds and needs of others become fused with our own, as we scroll through emails and social media feeds. We are prone, like those around us, to over-read the world through social media and the internet, and take too much within ourselves. All this becomes a decentring ballast, that weights us towards overaction. ‘Just one more email, one more meeting, one more season to push through, then I can attend to doing less’: this is the lie we order ourselves around.
I found myself, while on sabbatical, making sure everyone on my Facebook feed, in particular my church community, saw my travels through one lens – images of visiting cathedrals, and taking part in training and conferences. The message I was sending was, ‘I am away, but I am busy doing things you might approve of, or that I want you to approve of’. The photos of me on the beach, or watching the sunset, or riding an ATV with my wife’s arms wrapped around me, I only felt safe to share with my family and close friends. In this is, on the one hand, a duplicity of presenting work and action to justify my being, and on the other, it represents the wisdom of taking care, for the sake of my identity and being, of what I share and with whom. But underneath my carefully-nuanced justifications, I discerned my shadow self, and it was apprehensive of what people might think if they saw me not working.
The great psychologist and contemporary of Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, said that overwork is one of the great ‘life-lies’. Counterintuitively, at the heart of the life-lie for overwork is not that we have not made enough of ourselves, but that we have made too much of ourselves..
Cutting the Gordian knot: The freedom of self-forgetfulness
We are a muddle of contradictions; things we know about ourselves, and things we don’t. At some moments, we see ourselves more clearly and resolve to only do the next right things, and not those tasks others expect of us. We commit to not live the life-lie of overactivity. But, submerged back into the mix of our daily life – if I can use one final metaphor – doing and being become a Gordian knot that we remain unable to untie. The Gordian knot serves as a metaphor for intractable problems that are not solved by untying the knot. They are solved by finding an approach to the problem that transcends and renders the constraints of the problem redundant. In the case of the Gordian knot, the solution was not to untie it, but to cut it loose!
In our case, as leaders, I have claimed that cutting the knot of our dilemma of doing and being can be done by making our inner worlds smaller, rather than unravelling the knot. But such cutting requires a suitable sword, so to speak. That sword is the word of God, and is signposted to by something Paul the Apostle learned, and wrote for us. If ever there was a Christian leader who navigated the intensities of doing and being, it was St Paul.
I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.
— 1 Corinthians 4:3-4 NIV
Here is the identity and nature of being we are called to cultivate, and one that brings order to all our activity. The self and core being of Paul we see revealed here is so often unlike ourselves. We are prone to think too often and too much of ourselves, of our standing, the acceptance of and our impact on others, locating who we are in relationship to them. It is a small step from leading in our sweet spot for the purpose of impacting others, to relying on that impact for our identity. And on the other hand, Paul’s identity is not one of self-loathing, and thinking too little of oneself. It is instead something altogether different from the common polarities of self-obsession or self-negation. Paul’s identity in Christ was such that he did not take the opinions of others as his foundation of being, nor did he have his own opinions of himself as the focus of his identity. He had an ego that neither drew attention to, nor negated itself, but instead, his ego simply worked in the world, for who he was and what he did.
We see in Paul this self at work in the rest of his letters, and how it was manifest. Criticism didn’t diminish him, and in the face of it, he did not prop up his ‘self’ with self-talk. Paul did not need honour, but neither was he afraid of it. This is, as Tim Keller describes, ‘self-forgetfulness’:
Don’t you want to be the kind of person who, when they see themselves in a mirror or reflected in a shop window, does not admire what they see but does not cringe either? Wouldn’t you like to be the type of person who, in their imaginary life, does not sit around fantasizing about hitting self-esteem homeruns, daydreaming about successes that gives them the edge over others? Or perhaps you tend to beat yourself up and to be tormented by regrets. Wouldn’t you like to be free of them? Wouldn’t you like to be the skater who wins the silver, and yet is thrilled about those three triple jumps that the gold medal winner. To love it the way you love a sunrise? Just to love the fact that it was done? For it not to matter whether it was their success or your success. Not to care if they did it or you did it. You are as happy that they did it as if you had done it yourself – because you are just so happy to see it.2
Paul received this identity via a validation from God, not from others, or himself. This was the anchor and weighting for Paul, and it is also available to us as Christian leaders. How do we press into and take hold of that? When facing the knots of leadership and ministry, between overwork and the state of our being, we might hit the pause button and ask a few questions. Questions such as: ‘Am I doing this so I can be validated by others? Am I doing this out of my own overinflated concern with myself? Am I avoiding engaging in activity due to an undue lack of self, and fear of others?’ And ultimately, ‘Who does God say I am?’ That is the truth that cuts every Gordian knot.
I am a four on the Enneagram, with a strong three wing. Prone to deep introspection, I can dive into the depths of pain and suffering with others and help them navigate it. My tendency is towards action, to see things I think deeply about come to life and be changed, and moved. But I am also prone to being enmeshed in the validation of others, fearing they will leave me if I do not care for them enough. I am also prone to over-attachment to my own thoughts, and regularly have to remember to get over myself. Others do not think about me as much as I think they do, and I think about myself too much. I continue to learn to ask what my Heavenly Father thinks of me, and I am discovering that his thoughts are turned towards me constantly. There is not one moment, or one situation I face in which I do not have his full attention, in which he would speak to me (if I listened) about who I am, and allow me to glean from that what I should, or should not do.
So, what would a better weighting in doing and being look like for me? It would mean the ability to let people leave and not take it so personally. For me to leave some things undone, things that are good but are not the better and best things. To know that being disliked does not diminish me but is at times the nature of pressing into who God made me to be. It also means the harnessing of my ability to work. My heroes of the Bible now are Joseph, Daniel, and Nehemiah. They worked very hard and skilfully in complex situations. They did not, as I have often done, worked hard in the hope God would then join in with their activity. Instead, they worked hard on what God was already doing in the world, on what God had His attention fixed to.
So this is the leadership confession that I make to you. about my relationship with doing and being. How is is the Gordian knot of doing and being in your life? What threads are tangled up – threads of your insecurities, self-image, and validation? What threads do you find yourself pulling too often that make the knot worse? What would happen if you took the truth of God’s validation to the knots in your life at this moment?
1 Home Tonight: Further Reflections on the Prodigal Son, p38.
2 The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness, p35.