Update + Chat about Power, Expertise, & Education

It’s March 11, and I’m still thinking about January 1st. Back in October, I started carefully planning, scheming, and devising New Year’s resolutions. I read Harkavy & Hyatt’s Living Forward the week of Christmas, and two days before New Year’s, I followed their prompts and wrote a Life Plan that turned out to be an eight-page document, including my eulogy (how I want to be remembered) and 20-year goals for myself in the areas of spirituality, health & wellness, friends/church community, family relationships, career, and finances. Each category included specific “next step” goals for this year that move me toward 5, 10, and 20-year benchmarks. I bit the bullet January 1st slowly picking away at each goal (some are daily, silly things like flossing, or a bit of reading, and others are weekly or monthly goals). It’s been my Life Plan that’s sent me to the gym five or six days a week.

Goal-setting is entirely unromantic! In some ways, I despise the Life Plan! But I’ve found it to be an exceptional tool to help me think about “drift.” Have you ever found yourself thinking, “How did I get here? And how did I become this person?!” Harkavy and Hyatt’s concepts and tools from Living Forward are very practical for thinking through who you want to become and how you want to become.

Over and above these changes, beginning in January, I also started weekly voice lessons. My voice teacher is so gracious with my timid attempts, and I’m discovering so much about my voice and me in these weekly sessions! I love the challenge!

February 26 also marked the beginning of the season of Lent (which I’ve blogged about here), and for forty days there is no snacking after dinner, or Youtube/Netflix.

I’ve been able to finish a few books due to all this structure. One of the most notable is one by Peter Scazzero, called The Emotionally Healthy Leader. (I once quoted Scazzero in a blog about Empowering Single Women as Leaders in the Home, and I had forgotten how inspiring I had found his writing then. It’s been fantastic to fully digest his ideas in a book-length work.)

Besides gaining the confidence to take drastic steps to seek emotional health as a leader, I’ve also felt empowered to make much of my current singleness.

Scazzero argues that emotionally healthy leaders do four things: (1) face their shadow, (2) lead out of their marriage/singleness, (3) slow down for loving union with Jesus, (4) practice Sabbath delight.

Scazzero makes driving claims – that marriage (and/or singleness) is a vocation, and that our marriage/singleness should be the loudest gospel message that we preach:

“When I say that our loudest gospel message is instead our marriage or singleness for Christ, I mean that our vocation points beyond itself to something more important—to Jesus. In this sense, singleness, just like marriage, is a sign and wonder… as a single leader, you bear witness to the sufficiency and fullness of Jesus through your celibacy… You are married to Christ. Your whole person belongs to him. This serves as the foundation of your life and leadership. Your commitment affirms the reality that Jesus is the bread that satisfies—even amidst the challenges of being a single leader. Every day you choose to maintain that commitment, your singleness stands as a countercultural and prophetic sign of the kingdom of God—to the church and to the world.” (110)

Beyond this call to prioritizing the type of healthy relationship needed for marriage and healthy singleness (he offers all kinds of little quizzes as rubrics to see how “healthy” your singleness/marriage is), Scazzero also gets down to the brass tacks of leadership in chapters about power and team building.

In one of my favorite chapters, readers are instructed to take a power assessment. What are different kinds of power, and how much of each do you have? Scazzero lists six kinds of power: (For some of you, this might be a little chilling. You carry more power than you can even imagine!)

  • Positional Power – what formal titles do you have, and what privileges and opportunities does this open up for you?
  • Personal Power – what gifts, skills, experiences, education, natural competencies, and personality do you have that exponentially expand your influence within positional power?
  • “God factor” Power – do you carry any “sacred weight”? Do people look to you for spiritual wisdom and counsel? Are you in any way perceived as a spiritual authority who speaks for God?
  • Projected Power – Who might idealize you from afar because of what you represent as a leader? Does any of that projected power come from that person’s unmet or unresolved needs?
  • Relational Power – How long have you mentored a group of people though life’s challenges and transitions? How does their vulnerability and trust in you influence their perceptions and expectations of you?
  • Cultural Power – What is your age, race, gender, and ethnicity? How do these cultural factors serve as a source of power or influence for you, especially over those of another age, race, gender, and ethnicity? Further, does your influence change as you move from group to group, culturally?

I encourage you to take a power inventory! (For fun, discuss it in the comments!) (Hee hee you can surmise a guess as to how much power Shasta’s Fog wields.)

I tend to get around to popular things about two years after the fact. (Save only for January’s Little Women review. Shocker!) Case in point, I just pulled a new pair of running shoes out of my closet that I bought 1.5 years ago and laced them up for the first time. I got a new coat in November and didn’t wear it until months later. Such is the case with the 2018 book Educated by Tara Westover. Last week I finally read it.

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Westover fans! Where are you?!

Educated is a gripping memoir about a girl raised by (Mormon?) conspiracy theorists in Idaho (who both become mentally ill), who refuse to send their children to school, and their daughter, at 17, decides to take the ACT, and she gets accepted into college, and then finishes her doctorate at Cambridge.

I find the themes of mental health, religious and ideological fanaticism, skepticism of education/establishment, and Tara’s thirst, or great need, for education to be so, so relevant for our cultural moment, and so relevant, unexpectedly, for me.

(Here’s the thing that separates my thinking from some in my community. I believe in expertise. There is a strange movement afoot, politically and ideologically, that denounces expertise. (If you need examples, I’ll point you to recent elections examples.) Yet no memoir more perfectly questions the legitimacy of these self-sufficiency movements than Westover’s story. Doctors don’t know much about coronavirus and vaccines, some say, but what happens when your brother’s brain is dripping on the floor, and you’re not allowed to take him to the ER? Therefore, I find there are limits to this cultural questioning of expertise, and I am infinitely interested in discussing instances in which expertise helps, rather than hinders. At what point does your self-sufficiency and self-education break down? Where might you be helped by an expertise, an authority, a tradition, beyond your own? Furthermore, for those who claim self-sufficiency and self-education, is there any authority, any authority, to whom you still subscribe? I contend there is, though it may be masked in homemade activist posters and shiny Instagram accounts.)

Back to Westover: besides weaving dynamic characters into a personal story of self-realization, she crafts these beautiful lines that can only be understood by first-generation students, or anyone who has felt that incredible ache, or thirst, to know. She lays hold of the “world-expanding” experience of being a liberal arts student: “By the end of the semester the world felt big, and it was hard to imagine returning to the mountain, to a kitchen, or even to a piano in the room next to the kitchen” (228). (I’ve always explained my college experience in this way. College opened my world exponentially.)

Jagged memories of her academic life are shoved between graphic descriptions of verbal and physical abuse committed by her brother and father. Tara’s father has a junkyard, and she is raised as a scrapper – she is constantly being sent to the house due to some floating hunk of iron whacking her in the head/legs/stomach.

While at BYU, Ms. Westover completes a study abroad program in Cambridge, during which she studies under an eminent professor who asks her to write an essay comparing Edmund Burke to Publius. She alights on a change in her approach to texts that is so revealing (I think) to religious students, to those raised in a culture of thou shalt, and thou shalt not. She writes, “From my father I had learned to that books were either to be adored or exiled. Books that were of God—books written by the Mormon prophets or the Founding Fathers—were not to be studied so much as cherished, like a thing perfect in itself… I read them to learn what to think, not how to think for myself. Books that were not of God were banished; they were dangerous, powerful and irresistible in their charm.” She goes on, “To write my essay, I had to read books differently, without giving myself over to either fear or adoration” (239-240).

I think a lot of Christian students arrive at this moment at some point in their academic career, and it’s a beautiful thing (though a bit unsettling). (Think of it as ridding oneself of Orwellian crimestop.) Developing the ability to critique a text, to examine it from all sides, to see it from all facets and angles, is in one sense, the type of education Ms. Westover was denied for most of her childhood.

Tara also invites us into her struggle for identity, not necessarily between being educated vs not being educated, but rather the struggle to see herself in any other light than an identify chosen for her by her abusive brother. He regularly calls her a whore and at times forces her head into the toilet. Yet 95% of the time she experiences him as a loving, caring brother.

One day in a clock tower in Cambridge, Professor Steinberg asks Tara where she might complete her graduate degree after she finishes her bachelors at BYU: “I imagined myself in Cambridge, a graduate student wearing a long black robe that swished as I strode through ancient corridors. Then I was hunching in the bathroom, my arm behind my back, my head in the toilet. I tried to focus on the student but I couldn’t. I couldn’t picture the girl in the whirling black gown without seeing the other girl. Scholar or whore, both could not be true. One was a lie” (241).

This “toilet girl” persona forced upon her by her brother seemed to block out other possibilities for her. Tara writes, “He defined me to myself, and there is no greater power than that” (199).

It would diminish Ms. Westover’s story to say that there are forces other than abusive brothers that choose identities for us, forces that choose identities for us where we cannot imagine one outcome simply for the sake of the identity. And yet…

At the closing dinner for Ms. Westover’s study abroad program, she slips out of the dinner, but Dr. Kerry, her BYU professor catches up with her. He asks her the Cambridge equivalent of, “What gives?”

“This is a magical place. Everything shines here.”

“You must stop yourself from thinking like that,” Dr. Kerry said, his voice raised. “You’re not fool’s gold, shining only under a particular light. Whomever you become, whatever you make yourself into, that is who you always were. It is always in you. Not in Cambridge. In you. You are gold. And in returning to BYU, or even to that mountain you came from, will not change who you are. It may change how others see you, it may even change how you see yourself—even gold appears dull in some lighting—but that is the illusion. And it always was” (242).

Reading that paragraph, I blinked back tears, knowing that I would write this blog, retype that paragraph from page 242, and dedicate it to some exceptional female students from the last six years (you know who you are) perhaps so that such a dedication would be a feint, a slight of hand, in which my pebble memorial would function not only for them, but also for me. For I, too, have identities chosen for me.

Westover also alights on that “apart-ness” of leaving: “When you are part of a place, growing that moment in its soil, there’s never a need to say you’re from there” (206).

And isn’t that an education, distancing oneself far enough from the mountain that you can look back on it and finally draw its shape?

Things I Didn’t Do in 2015: the Truth about Mediocrity

I’m a fixer. I have little tolerance for poorly-functioning organizations and irrelevant traditions. Yet I want to imagine myself as someone who is not afraid of daily sacrifice and short-term discipline that lead to long-term results. But do you ever get overwhelmed by your idea-bank, that list of things that need to be addressed and that list of ideas you might implement to address the challenges you’re facing? Sometimes, because of my perfectionistic tendencies, I can tend to think too small and only address a few things because I want to do everything perfectly. (Not “perfectly,” per se, but perform things with some level of thought, skill, and professionalism.) But do you ever feel like you don’t have the needed expertise, education, or even the proper personality or social skills needed to address the issue at hand?
Last year, I found myself in this situation only like a HUNDRED TIMES, and I’m learning that even though I’m 26 and supposed to know Stuff, it’s okay to experiment sometimes; I can guarantee you it will lead to important observations along the way.
Don’t be afraid of trying new things. I mean, there’s a possibility that you might learn something, but that’s just a risk you’ll have to take.

Things I did imperfectly in 2015, but at least I TRIED:

1. Motivate my students to get better grades and to enjoy school.
Um. So promising to take kids skiing may not be the best idea ever because, what do I know about organizing school trips that have the potential for breaking bones and being canceled due to the weather?
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Also, due to students’ requests, I organized a trip to a local mosque for visiting a weekly service. What do I know about Jumu’ah, and what should I tell my students about respectful interchanges with Muslims? Despite my lack of experience in these types of exchanges, we went anyway. Unsure what to do when we arrived, I told the boys to just “figure it out,” as they were whisked away to a different part of the building before we even left the parking lot. In the end, I found that doing something that doesn’t follow “my plan” and isn’t especially comfortable for me can be really beneficial to those around me, specifically my students.
This year I also implemented a “Blessing Slip” policy for my homeroom to complement our school’s “Demerit Slip” misbehavior policy. I haven’t implemented this policy perfectly, and I don’t know if it’s working how it’s supposed to (to motivate students to develop good character instead of just pointing out their faults), but it at least SOUNDS like a good idea.

2. Actually cooking.
So I made this salad.
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And a bunch Greek-seasoned meat in my crock pot. And I burned a bunch of salmon. But. I learned that if you don’t know much about cooking and if you don’t have a recipe, you really shouldn’t bother. So. 2016. Year of the Recipe. This is also the year of perfecting my French press brew. (I’m so bad at brewing freshly-roasted beans. But I have 365 days to keep practicing getting it perfect, so… things are looking up.)

3. Celebrating friends and family.
BOOM. Golden birthday this year!
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I spend a lot of time talking to people in their 20s, and one thing that these (single) people talk a lot about is how our social groups aren’t very large or varied and how hard it is to develop community and fellowship for ourselves. Even though many of us do not have the support, friendships, or even church relationships that we always imagined, that does not mean that we shouldn’t celebrate the people we’re surrounded with, no matter how complicated those relationships are. We’re realizing that community is a beautiful thing that should be celebrated in all of its forms.
We are also realizing the immeasurable value of family. And that some of the best celebrations are the quiet, unpublished ones you share with family.

Because, seriously. Aren’t my parents SO CUTE.
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And. Even though the internet is OVERRUN with baby pictures. (Seriously, is that all that is on Instagram these days? Kid pictures?) I’m indulging myself and publishing pictures of MY CHILDREN, my ahDORable nieces.
Sabrina, the impossibly thick-haired infant.
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Cassidy, the incredible smart almost 2 year old, who already excels at imaginary play.
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She loves dollies and measuring spoons and pretending to feed people. She is also extremely gentle, patting her infant sister in the tenderest of ways. Honestly, my favorite memory from Christmas was when we were alone in the kitchen together, and even though I am very self-conscious being with children, I found that jumping as high as I can makes her smile, so I kept jumping and jumping, and it was so ridiculous, and I realized, Oh. This is what is beautiful about hanging out with a child. Letting go of your inhibitions to love them.

4. Exercising safely.
Failing to finish a marathon was one of my biggest disappointments this year, along with suffering a pretty significant running injury that is forcing me off the road for several months. Is it ironic that the year that I’ve focused the MOST on my health is the year that I’ve spent the most time in the doctor’s office? However, I’ve learned a ton about this specific running injury and other aspects of healthy living and healthy exercising.
Also, is it ironic that the year that we have an impossibly warm winter, I’m laid up from all exercise due to strict instructions from my podiatrist, and I’m missing what could have been the most active outdoor winter exercise season ever in my minimalist, gym-less existence? Friends, we will be having a moment of silence for all those missed winter runs.



Sigh. Thing I’m not doing in 2016: giving up on exercising safely. Weight room: I am looking at you. (Staying off one’s foot makes it nearly impossible to exercise (cheaply), but I hope to at least return to cross training soon! Also, to lifting all the [small] weights.)

5. Writing more.
Last spring had flown by, and I, realizing my poor blog had been neglected, quickly typed out a snarky little post and dashed off with friends to celebrate that another year of teaching was in the bag, and that day for the first time Shasta’s Fog BLEW UP with caring and crotchety commenters. While I’m not going to relive the finer points of the things I learned from THAT experience, I think it is safe to say that (1) it happened, and (2) I’m still writing despite.
I’m also occasionally sending pieces over to The Elkhart Truth as a community blogger, and while I’m not nearly as prolific as I want to be as a writer, I’m realizing that even small steps count, and really great things can come out of doing even a little bit, rather than doing nothing at all. For example, there I am, sending occasional pieces to an online county newspaper when Jeffrey Trachtenberg from the The Wall Street Journal reads my summer reading post on the Elkhart Truth page and reaches out to me and ends up quoting Shasta’s Fog in an article about Harper Lee’s sequel Go Set a Watchman! It was a lesson to me that in writing, every little bit of effort counts.

In conclusion, I kind of hate this post, because I hate mediocrity, and this post is pretty much me telling you: it’s okay to be mediocre. But the point is: being mediocre is better than not being anything at all. Living imperfectly and asking for the grace of God to infuse your experiments is better than giving up and saying, “It’s impossible to expect change here.” Demanding small changes is better than suggesting monumental revolution at the expense of relationship. (Hmmm, do I believe that? It remains to be seen.)

I think this year, I’m in the balance. Between shielding blossoms in hope and crushing those growing blossoms, outfitted in rugged hikers, and climbing for higher ground.

In 2016, don’t stop.

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