Monday, May 07, 2012

The Illusion of Power - It's Time to Step Aside

Big Egos and all of that

We have all come across those individuals in our lives who would literally walk on others to get to the top.  We all know only too well how certain careerists work.  They court success at all costs and are somewhat sycophantic to those in authority.  They know how to sing the correct tune at public occasions, the right person to praise, the correct committee of which to be a member, what function to attend and so on and so forth.  I worked with one such gentleman once who always wanted to be seen to be involved in all committees, to be acknowledged as the initiator of this or that, and also indeed to be thanked profusely for his contributions.  Now, he was and is extremely generous, but always by way of being acknowledged for being so. 

Questioning our Motivation

I think here of those famous words which the modernist poet T.S.Eliot puts in the mouth of Thomas a Becket in his famous play Murder in the Cathedral that it is better by far to do the right thing for the right reason rather than the right thing for the wrong reason.  On checking, I see that the actual couplet runs: "The last temptation is the greatest treason://To do the right deed for the wrong reason."

In other words, what T.S.Eliot is on about here is our motivation.  This, in turn, reminds me of the old Jewish Rabbinical story where the disciples gather around the deathbed of the dying Rabbi and ask him for his last words of wisdom, and they are "always question your own motivation."  Do I do what I do from self-interest or do I do it because it is the right thing to do? Do you? Do any of us?

The Conscience of the Cardinal

Here I am alluding doubtless to the refusal (or maybe just delay) in Cardinal Daly's stepping down as Cardinal Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.  I am also reminded of a more famous Cardinal from Victorian times, namely John Henry Newman (1801-1890) who said wisely that he'd toast his own conscience first before he'd toast any Pope.  The actual words he said run thus: "I shall drink to the Pope, if you please – still, to conscience first and to the Pope afterwards."  Now, there is a lot of wisdom in that quotation.  Would that the Cardinal Archbishop of Armagh would toast his conscience first before bowing the knee before the Throne of Peter.  The assumption I am making here is one which I first heard adumbrated on the national airwaves here in Dublin, namely that Cardinal Seán Brady had wanted to step down some two years ago but that it seems the Vatican did not so wished him to do.

The Nature of Careerists

In an effort to understand Cardinal Brady's motivation in staying on, I come back to this yet again.  In all walks of life I have encountered careerists who are quite often people who tow the line, or as we more colloquially put it "brown nose" or still more coarsely render it "lick arse" all those in authority above them. These people would certainly defer to the immediate authority above them and leave whatever the case is or was fully in their hands. Then, we have to remember, what obedience to authority was in the 1960s and indeed 1970s in these islands (this most likely did not obtain to such an extent in either the USA or certain countries in Continental Europe who were possibly more come of age).  I remember the attitude well as a boy - you simply did not question authority.  Even when I had begun to teach school in 1980 no teacher presumed that it was his (our staff was almost fully male) right or duty even to contact a parent.  That was left to the good offices of either Principal or Vice-Principal.  Likewise, I knew Rev Donal Murray, who later became Bishop of Limerick, as a young and brilliant lecturer and a man of very high moral fibre.  He too passed on files to his immediate superior believing that it was their duty alone to follow up on those files.  I believe that their natural belief and trust in authority led them to believe that their superiors would take action.  Now here, I am not excusing either gentlemen at all.  I am merely attempting to explain their state of mind and conscience at the time of the incidents they were called upon to investigate and their later motivations for their wishing to stay on.  Obviously, in their mindset they can absolutely see no fault.  However, they did and do fail at a most profoundly human level, and it is to this I will address my thoughts in the next paragraph.

The System is Never greater than the Person

Ah the ego, the ego, the ego.  As Qoheleth or Ecclesiastes so well puts it: "Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity." (New American Standard Bible, 1995).  Or as a more trenchant version puts it: "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless." (New International Version, 1984) (Eccles 1:2) 

This book of the Bible shares a similar philosophy with that of Stoicism and Epicureanism, argues Michael V. Fox, a contemporary Biblical scholar, and may have been influenced by them as "The boldest, most radical notion in the book is [...] the belief that the individual can and should proceed toward truth by means of his own powers of perception and reasoning; and that he can in this way discover truths previously unknown. [...] This is the approach of philosophy, and its appearance in Ecclesiastes probably reflects a Jewish awareness of this type of thinking among foreign intellectuals..." (However other scholars point to the lack of use of certain Greek words which show that it was written earlier, and therefore could not have come under such influence).

Now, my reason for quoting Ecclesiastes is precisely this philosophical turn or edge we find in this wonderfully "modern" book, i.e., that the individual should follow where the lights of his own conscience and mind lead him or her, that this existential truth is personal and authentic and more authentic indeed than any truth purveyed by any system.  This is the mistake made by both gentleman referred to by name above, and by many other "dignitaries" of both Church and State.  The individual is always and everywhere more important that the system.

Too Easy to Point the Finger

I am conscious of how easy it is to blame others and to find a scapegoat.  It is somehow part of human nature to do so.  As a teacher in quite a small school, I often find it hard to go against the prevailing culture of our little organisation.  Have you ever tried to run counter to any culture at either your place of work or place of leisure?  If, like me, you have now and then - all too infrequently, I admit to my shame - you will have had your head shot off or at least been wounded.  It is indeed hard to become counter-cultural.  However, if you are a Christian or a Buddhist or even an agnostic or atheistic conscientious objector you will have stood up and have counted the cost.  What I am humbly saying here is don't point the finger too readily, because more often than not three point back at you.  However, that is not to say that the two leaders above have not failed and failed badly - as indeed most of us poor weak humans will do -  along with many other leaders in the Church, the Medical, the Legal and Teaching professions have to our disgrace.  We as a society have failed our children. 

Yes, I have written this piece with a passionate conviction that no man (indeed it's mostly men!) can stay in a position of authority when his moral judgement has been found so wanting.  For this reason alone, any leader worth his salt must resign.  And so, Cardinal Brady, it is time to stand aside.  As Shakespeare so well put it, "Stand not on the order of your going. But go at once!" Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Act 3, Scene IV).