Mature Leadership: On Bending the Arc

By | LwCH, Politics, The Long Road | No Comments

Shortly after Barack Obama won the 2008 Iowa caucuses, I wrote a blog post entitled Toward a Mature Politics that began with the Kantian idea that enlightenment requires us to relinquish our self-incurred immaturity. Then, as now, I associated petty hyper-partisan politics with adolescence; and I saw in Obama’s candidacy the possibility of a more mature politics.

As President Obama returns again to his role as citizen, I want to pause a moment here to reflect on an aspect of his legacy that has meant a lot to me as someone who has sought over the last eight years to chart path to leadership: his maturity.

Although Kant connects the maturity of enlightenment with the capacity to think for oneself, maturity of leadership involves much more than independent thinking.

Mature leaders are able to listen attentively through the noise of the moment so as to discern how best to put values into practice; they are able to distance themselves from their own cathartic reactions in order to consider what the situation requires. There is a stillness in maturity, a groundedness that anchors the courage to enact a more just and beautiful world.

A model of mature leadership is what I yearned for in Obama then, and what I am grateful for now.

The change we believed in at the time remains most palpable to me today when I look back to see how much our kids have grown.

Less obvious, however, is the distance each of us have travelled over the past eight years. For me, it has involved the decision to put my educational commitments to the liberal arts endeavor into practice through administrative work first at Penn State, and now as Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State, our first two land-grant universities.

This decision was informed in no small part by the hope of which Theodore Parker first spoke before Martin Luther King, Jr. refined it and Barack Obama wove it into Presidential politics. Parker, a 19th century Unitarian minister and abolitionist, put it this way:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but a little ways; I cannot calculate and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice. Things refuse to be mis-managed long.1

Taking up this idea, King distilled it to its essence when, in his 1956 Statement on Ending the Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, he said:

The arc of the moral universe, although long, is bending toward justice.2

Expanding the idea yet further in an April of 2008 speech entitled “Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Obama emphasized that the arc of the moral universe does not bend on its own:

You know, Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends toward justice. But what he also knew was that it doesn’t bend on its own. It bends because each of us puts our hands on that arc and bends it in the direction of justice.

These three articulations themselves arc over a 150-year history that ties the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement to the election of the first African-American President of the United States.

But even as we celebrate the justice toward which this arc undeniably tends, maturity requires us to remain vigilant, for the facts of the world teach us that the bending is not as smooth as the eloquence of the formulation leads us to believe. And yet, without the eloquence and the hope that a more just world is possible, maturity, for all its sobriety, will remain unable to chart a course toward a more perfect union.

So, if “things refuse to be mis-managed long,” mature leadership will be needed to bend the arc yet further. A commitment to that endeavor is the most enduring of Obama’s legacies, and the most urgent of our responsibilities.

Anticipation

By | Living, LwCH, The Long Road | No Comments

Excitement abounds here in the Long household as preparations are made for the arrival of Santa.

At 9- and 8-years old, the girls are at that prime age when Christmas is long anticipated and full of magic.

This morning snow fell lightly coating the ground in white after a week of rain.

These are the moments for which I am grateful.

As the girls grow, the excitement of Christmas will change.

But for me, it will be forever marked by the spirit of anticipation and hope these two little girls have always embodied.

Here they are at 3 and 2 in 2007:

Anticipation from Christopher Long on Vimeo.

Evening Sledding

By | Living, LwCH, The Long Road | 4 Comments

It was dark before I got around to shoveling the walkway.

The girls were excited to be outside, but I had a chore to complete. They wanted to go sledding, so they started down the hill toward the fields where there is a nice slope. They were sure I would tell them, “No, it’s too dark, and I have to shovel snow.”

But I decided to let them go themselves.

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DancinGirl Turns 7, Ponders Finitude

By | LwCH, The Long Road | 2 Comments

DancinGirlTurnsSevenAs we pulled into our driveway after running errands preparing for her Monster High birthday party, DancinGirl, who was generally excited about the day, announced that she has been thinking a lot, recently, about death.

“I wonder what happens after we die,” she says. “I don’t want to be stuck in the ground in a graveyard the whole time.”

At such moments of truth, I consider very carefully my response – I don’t want my anxieties to eclipse her genuine attempts to come to terms with her own finitude.

Val and I look at one another, we’ve been here before: both ArtGirl and DancinGirl consider the question of death on a regular basis. In fact, just last year, ArtGirl, gave a beautiful account of how difficult it is to live with unanswerable questions.

We offer an agnostic response, affirming how difficult it is to live with the knowledge that we really just don’t know what happens when we die.

DancinGirl knows what she wants though: “I just want to keep on being as I am.”

I want that for her too and for her sister, because there are no two beings more beautiful in their being than these two quickly growing little girls.

So on her seventh birthday, my wish for DancinGirl, and for Val and ArtGirl and myself, is that she keep on being as she is and that she continue sharing her beautiful self with us as long as we are here together.

Happy seventh birthday, DancinGirl.

Literacy in Bloom

By | Education, LwCH, The Long Road | 3 Comments

DancinGirl has fallen in love with words. Actually, she has always loved to play with words, singing, rhyming, mimicking.

Literacy in BloomBut now her love of the verbal has exploded into literacy.

She is reading voraciously; book after little book, she reads, sounding out words she does not recognize, learning the joys of story. There you find her, in a chair in the spare bedroom, on the floor in her own, on a sofa, with a book.

She is always under the caring tutelage of her mother, well versed in the ways of Vygotsky, who makes sure she has a book just challenging enough to push her, but not too challenging to frustrate her.

Tonight, however, the reading inspired writing. She had recently read in school a book by Kevin Tseng entitled Ned’s New Home, and she took to the chalkboard to write.  She spent almost an hour writing her story, after which time, she read it to us.

Here is DancinGirl’s version of the Kevin Tseng story with, as she said later, a few words of her own: DancinGirl Reads Her Version of Ned’s New Home

To listen to your daughter discover the beauty of the written word is awesome.

Complementarity

By | LwCH, The Long Road | No Comments

LITCHFIELD, SC – Vacation can be a time for moments of insight and tenderness. One such moment came this week for me at a restaurant here in South Carolina called Studio Café. (You can see my Yelp! review here).

SC MarshThe restaurant is also an art studio and the owner, Pat Ghannam, both shows here work there and serves tables when they are short staffed. She was serving us that day and she mentioned that the chef was her husband and a co-owner of the restaurant.

At few minutes later, when other members of the table were engrossed in conversation, ArtGirl (7) came to sit on my lap. She had something she wanted to tell me; it was a revelation she’d had.

This is what she whispered in my ear:
ArtGirl: Daddy, I think when you decide who to marry, you should try to find someone who makes you better.

Me: I think that is a great way to think about it, Sweetheart. But how come you are thinking about that now?

ArtGirl: Well, it’s like the server. She is an artist and a server, but her husband is the chef who makes the food for the restaurant. Neither of them could do it alone, but together they can.

And it’s like Mommy and you. There are some things Mom does to make you better and there are some things that you do to make her better.

Me: You know something, you are a very wise person.

And think about this: when you have that sort of relationship, it can also happen that you might just have a daughter, and maybe even two daughters, like you and [DancinGirl], to make your whole family better.

Then we hugged and went back to lunch.

For DancinGirl on Her First Day of Kindergarten

By | LwCH, The Long Road | No Comments

Dear DancinGirl:

Gotta DanceDo you know why I call you DancinGirl when I write about you here?

It is because, from the moment I met you, now almost six years ago, you were dancing. At first, it was with hands and feet wriggling every which way, then it was the inimitable way you crawled – a sight to behold! – and eventually, as you learned to stand and walk and run, you danced and danced and danced.

Always, you danced.

I love the way you dance. There is a spirit in it that is uniquely you.

You have always moved through the world in a way that is all your own. It is one of the things I admire most about you.

As you start Kindergarten, and the long and wonderful journey that is your formal education, my greatest wish is that your creative, dancing spirit is nourished along the way.

There are so many ways that educational institutions and the culture of schooling dull the very spirit of creativity and imagination on which all real education depends.  But there are also so many people who can and will help cultivate your dancing spirit.

On this, your first day of Kindergarten, may that dancing spirit be magnetic: may it attract others who recognize the beauty of your dancing and who can dance with you; and may the life of education and learning on which you are about to embark enrich the way you move through the world.

Love,
Dad

Beginning in Wonder

By | LwCH, The Long Road | 7 Comments

Aristotle, of course, famously said: “For it is by way of wondering that people both now and at first began to philosophize …” (Metaphysics, I.2, 982b13-4).

Tonight, ArtGirl began to philosophize.

She wondered so eloquently that I had to record it. As we were preparing for bed, she began to consider the beginning of things.

In this short audio clip recorded on the spot, she beautifully articulates a poignant sense of her own finitude, and she does it in a remarkably matter of fact way.

For Hannah on her Fourth

By | LwCH, The Long Road | One Comment

Dear Hannah:

Today is the day we have been talking about since the summer – finally, it’s your birthday!

Today we celebrate you and the way you have celebrated us everyday since you arrived four years ago.

I have always admired the way you inhabit the world. You bring a sense of joy to everything you do and to everyone you meet. You have your own way of moving through the world that makes me smile.

And when you dance, it is something to behold…

Hannah Dancing in WoodsSo on this day of celebration, I have produced a little recording base on our discussion about your fourth birthday.

The two pictures here mark the day of your birth and the weekend before your fourth birthday.

We all wish you a very happy birthday and look forward to being with you as you grow into your fourth year.

Love,
Dad

Life with Chloe and Hannah 01 – Early Snow

By | LwCH, The Long Road | No Comments

I have posted Life with Chloe and Hannah, episode 01 below. It is the first of what I hope to be an ongoing collection of podcasts that capture something of the daily life of my daughters, Chloe and Hannah.

The idea of the podcast is to focus not on the big events–birthdays, holidays, vacations, etc.–but on the beautiful little events of daily life.

The podcasts are produced in the spirit of that Hasidic Jewish tradition of hallowing the everyday. The format is to allow Chloe and Hannah to speak, as much as possible, for themselves, although at the beginning at least, there is much prompting from their father.