Seek And You Shall Find . . . Unfortunately

PERHAPS IT'S THE ELECTION YEAR or perhaps it's just the stage of my life, but I'm a little worried about our culture. Everywhere I look, I'm assaulted by images of people frantically searching for someone to follow, or by images of people seeking to lead. One would think that this would create a nice mix: the followers want a leader; the leader wants followers. Voila! A match made in heaven.

But what concerns me is the dynamic itself. There was a moment in my life, one I now recognize as the moment I became an adult, in which I realized there were no real leaders for me anymore. It happened in stages. During the Watergate and Vietnam episodes, like most young Americans I came to distrust the government (in addition to anyone over thirty.) At the end of the 1970s, when popular music basically died, I realized there would be no more Beatles. When Jimmy Stewart passed, I realized there were to be no more movie stars, either. I read one too many books about religion in general and mine in particular to believe in people with a hotline to God or who brunched with Jesus. My parents' foibles became excruciatingly apparent. Even my peers, those who I celebrated for their vision and courage, proved that they, too, had feet of clay.

All that was left was for me to realize that the time for following had ended. There were no experts, no professionals, no prophets, no gurus, no teachers of transcendence. Only people who were facing middle age as I was, as sadly unprepared as I was, and as afraid as I was, truth be told.

So I grew up. I quit listening to the "expert," who, my dad always said, was just "some guy from out of town with a briefcase." I started thinking for myself. Not just criticizing, rebelling, or being contrary, but actually thinking: considering the facts, weighing the arguments, coming to a conclusion, and putting it into practice. In that order.

And guess what? Life went on pretty much as it did before. I had my successes and failures, my ups and downs, and I became aware that I had made my life's decisions pretty much on my own. This is not to say I didn't benefit from the years when I had leaders and teachers and guides and parents, only that I took from them the wisdom and knowledge they had to share and then struck out on my own.

I became aware that the answers I came up with were pretty much as good (and once in a while better) than the generic, one-size-fits-all answers my "leaders" had always given me, answers that seemed, like any policy, to ill-fit almost everyone, even though they were designed for wide application. I came up with a quip: "Policy is what you come up with when you're tired of dealing with individuals."

So my life became a reasoned attempt to weigh the aphorisms and advice I'd received from my "leaders" with my own experience and wisdom. I became less interested in joining . . . anything. I found myself uncomfortable sitting in an audience while some "expert" spoke to me about things I already knew. I still saw the power of unified action, but most of the time when we sit at the feet of "leaders," we are passive and nothing much happens. I found sitting in such environments actually painful, even when the speaker or leader or expert was sincere. In terms of religion, I heard Jesus say, "Love one another." Because of the astonishing difficulty of actually putting this advice into practice, I found I had little time for the further nuances of religious differences, doctrine, or dogma. And since I believe we all have a personal relationship with God, and He knows us better than we know ourselves, how can another human being possibly teach and guide us better than He can? So, to quote a good friend: I "cut out the middle man."

I found that my life took on a wonderful new direction. I still made many mistakes and false starts, but at least they were my mistakes and false starts. As a proactive person, I no longer had the luxury of blaming others for my plight. If I didn't like my job, no one knew me as well as I did and could not possibly advise me better than I could advise myself as to the course of action I should take. If I was uncertain about an idea or philosophy, it was up to me to suss it out and discern a proper course of action. When elections rolled around, I almost reflexively shied away from the candidate who promised me anything. As an adult, I know there's no free lunch, so if this pol wants my vote, it's going to cost me something, usually my freedom. Ben Franklin said, "anyone who would trade freedom for security deserves neither." So I chose freedom.

Spiritual leaders, convinced of their own insider knowledge and wisdom, abound, but I eschew them all, because no one knows me better than God and He and I already have a relationship. I don't need anyone to tell me what God has in mind for me; I'm in the process of learning from Him what that is, though it's often slow going.

I worry about a country and culture where there are so many eager leaders and so many passive followers. What I wish there were more of were adults, those who are reluctant to join not only a rally or a party, but also a mob or a church. So long as we find ourselves in large groups, I do not see how we can discern what our individual purpose in this life is. No one, not even the most prescient prophet, can know that any better than the individual himself.

So the next time anyone tells you how it is (including me, I suppose), your first response should not be, "How many honorary degrees are appended to your name?" or "How big is your constituency?" or "How many books have you written and have you ever been on Oprah?" but perhaps, "I'm sorry, but I'm in a bit of a hurry... I'm busy living my life right now, but when I get done with it, then you can have it."