Spring 2010 — From Center Hall
by Patrick E. White
May 17, 2010
From Center Hall — Spring 2010
Our Mutual Life
Wabash men manifest independence of spirit, self-reliance, and individualism—even eccentricity. Our mission to educate men to think critically, act responsibly, lead effectively, and live humanely seems well-suited to this individualist ethos. Yet at Wabash the virtues of self-development are learned in a community, a college that demands of us all a commitment to connection, to our mutual life.
I was reminded of this at Commencement. Class of 2010 speakers Spencer Elliott, who stressed the value of brotherhood in all its complexity, and Jonathan O’Donnell, who emphasized the grand conversation of the liberal arts, both expressed how our mutual life provides the groundwork for a Wabash education.
It’s easy to see living humanely and acting responsibly being enhanced by this recognition of a shared life, and critical thinking is invigorated by the give and take of discourse and the engagement of learning together. Leading effectively, however, is often understood as a solitary and independent attribute, honed by self-knowledge and courage and marked by independent strength of will.
During the many years I taught leadership workshops, most of my students came in thinking that leadership was either a character trait that they did not have, or a skill that they had to learn. Certain traits can be advantageous to leadership development, and there are skills that enhance one’s ability to lead, but these are not leadership. The essence of leadership is an act of imagination—discovering the interlocking web of connections, discovering the fact that, whether we like it or not, our life is already mutual. It is only then that leadership is possible.
Our mutual life is not something we create, not something that is handed down from our leaders, but something that good leaders empower people to see. To say that we need to create community is like living in the Amazon and saying we need to create the forest. As leaders we need to help people see the forest in the trees and to give them time, energy, and the way to know that forest—our mutual life.
Such leadership is not always demonstrated by firm decisions and quick action. It must be preceded by a clear vision of one’s situation. When Andy Dreitcer ’79 traveled to Zimbabwe to lead a reconciliation workshop for the victims of violence, he asked a man assisting him there how he could remain so confidently optimistic in the face of such chaos. The man replied, “Impatience would kill us.” In a much less traumatic situation, there were many arguments for precipitous action last year regarding the College’s economic situation. Action was needed: inaction would have been fatal. But the power of patience, care, conversation, time, and clear boundaries for the discussion helped Wabash see more clearly and meet the threats to our community head on by acting with dispatch, but with a lively imagination of our mutual life.
LEADERSHIP IS NOT SOMETHING DONE to the community but arises out of seeing our shared life and serving the community by calling others to action with patience, care, and deliberation.
Such leadership was demonstrated during the past two years by many from our own Wabash families working in collaboration with their fellow citizens of Crawfordsville to create what will become the Montgomery County Free Clinic. This important work recognizes that our mutual life includes the needs of more than 5,000 uninsured or under-insured residents of the area.
Here is where the complex webs of our mutual life meet the true nature of leadership. Many people simultaneously recognized the need. Dr. John Roberts ’83 was inspired to take a fresh look at his vocation of medicine after a colloquium talk by Wabash classmate Dr. Rick Gunderman at the 2008 Big Bash. He then became receptive to the work that was being driven by Wabash Professor Bill Doemel. Bill was working with the Christian Nursing Service Board, in particular Chris White, who as nurse practitioner and community health professional had long worked with clinic models, and Chris Amidon, Indiana’s School Nurse of the Year and President of CNS. Generations of faculty and staff and their spouses have served the Christian Nursing Service, notably Dr. Keith Baird ’56 who volunteered for years at the clinic and whose example inspired the imagination of these current leaders.
Chris Amidon, Chris White, Bill, and Isobel Arvin, long-time leader of CNS, traveled to Columbus, Indiana, to learn from the Volunteers in Medicine clinic established by Dr. Sherm Franz ’59. With Sherm’s help, this core team then joined with the Sisters of Saint Francis—Jim Seimers and Terry Wilson of St. Clare Medical Center—to support the project and continue to collaborate to find funding sources. Wabash was pleased to host the meetings and lend our support to this important work.
If this sounds complicated, it was; and I only trace the barest outline of the work here. Like any truly collaborative effort of leadership, it was difficult, tenuous, and complex, and it is not yet finished. No one person or institution had the power, resources, or energy to drive this forward alone. I have been tangentially involved through infrequent meeting attendance as a board member, but if you were to ask me, “Who is the leader here?” I would have to say, “That depends on what task, what time, and what action you are talking about.” There are many catalysts and many leaders involved. There is no one charismatic person doing the work, and indeed, I think that if I asked, every one of these people at some point wished someone else would be the leader.
Here lies another aspect of leadership in our mutual life. Great leaders are not born, but developed, and I am sure no one is a leader 24 hours a day. But I am convinced that the circumstances and the challenges of life can call all of us to extraordinary action. Some people have leadership thrust upon them, and because of their ability to see the life we all share, feel the need to take action. At Wabash, we work to develop in students this vision and the capacity to respond to calls for leadership from the world around them and from their own hearts and minds.
I WRITE THIS ON THE BIRTHDAY of Walt Whitman, one of the two greatest poets in American literature (Emily Dickinson and Walt divide the territory of profound influence on all poets who follow.) This being Memorial Day, I read Walt’s long masterpiece in 52 sections, “A Song of Myself.” I read this for pleasure and in reverence to Walt, but also in homage to my best friends from my student days at the University of Chicago, who gathered every May 31 to read “A Song of Myself” aloud. Our majors were all over the liberal arts: We did this reading because it was fun and a sign of what we all cared about and valued.
As I was reading Walt this Memorial Day, I marveled again at the curious combination of ego and sympathy in his voice. He entitles this very long poem “A Song of Myself,” speaks of himself as a “kosmos,” one who sounds his “barbaric yawp over the roof tops of the world,” a voice who encompasses “multitudes.” Walt’s vision of self is both a monument to the individual and an invitation to participate in the mutual life. “What I shall assume you shall assume” he writes and takes in all of America, all the “richness and variety” of this land and its people.
In this Walt is so different from our contemporaries who would divide and limit our mutual life to only those who are like us or agree with us. In “A Song of Myself” he joins the best virtues of Emersonian self-reliance to the larger complexities of what it means to live in ever widening circles of community and mutual feeling. In this he speaks today for the best ambitions of Wabash, that we will be able to be true to who we are and yet reach out in ever-ready responses to the larger life we share with one another on this campus, with alumni throughout the globe, and with the world beyond Wabash. Walt never went to college, but I like to think that he would have made a good Wabash man had he found his way out to the frontier.
YOU HAVE READ IN THE OPENING PAGES of this issue of the medical mission trip five Wabash students took to El Salva-dor over Spring Break. Junior Alex Moseman summed up the trip as he watched a mother holding her son being treated for a bad fall.
“Seeing the tears in that mother’s eyes and hearing her child cry was a crystallizing moment. I knew how she felt —we’re both human beings, the sound of her child crying was the same as any baby in the U.S. No matter where we’re from, we all feel the same things.”
In this, Alex and his fellow Wabash men are one with Walt Whitman and with the highest ideals of American individualism and democracy, sharing the realization that to turn your back on our mutual life is to turn away from your own life, to fail as a leader, and to lose both the possibility of community and the highest ambitions of the self.