Authoring Lives and Authorizing
October 3, 2011, 8:48 am
Filed under: practice, providence, renewal | Tags: , , , , ,

As you return to your familiar pathways this week—whether musing about some time away last week or ‘simply’ a weekend of Sabbath and service—I find myself asking you to think about how you authorize teachers in your path. To whom do you grant authority in your life? Religious folks may respond, almost immediately, “God,” with all the implicit and explicit difficulties/delights that entails. We meet God in Scripture, certainly, but also make scripture an idol for our desperate clarities. Secularists, or at least less-religiously-minded folks may respond with “Reason or Logic,” with similar difficulties/delights but vastly different expressions. Rationality, whether we want to see it or not, has purely culturally determined facets or orders that do not translate into other cultural settings. Anyone who has ever tried to understand Japanese advertisements in English will know my point.

Here I want to have the question move into our relationships of teaching/learning and spiritual maturity within (or outside of) traditions/philosophies. How do you authorize those who are teaching you, will teach you? Those whom you grant particular voice in your thinking? How do you decide their voice is the one of hundreds today that deserves attention and value?Integration students will be attending to this specifically in these next weeks, but it’s important at every stage of our journey, I think. Later I may urge reflection more deeply with institutional dimensions too, but as you author your lives, how do you authorize those who teach you, who companion your learning?

Authority is a slippery thing, you see. I remember a student of mine asked in a seminary class on the East Coast, “When do I have or get authority as a pastor?” I don’t remember precisely what I said. I probably evaded the question first, broadening it outward for class response. My recollection goes something like this, for what came out of my mouth, “Authority is a funny thing in congregations, for pastors. As soon as you grab it, you’ve lost it. As soon as you believe you’ve lost it, you may find it’s been given.” There’s something deep at play with authority, in my mind. It’s a primarily relational phenomenon—it must be given, not grasped. But there are behaviors and characteristics of a person to whom congregations will give authority, (which I will define arbitrarily-summarily for now as) a responsibility and voice accorded to those who lead or teach, who ultimately encourage the authoring of others’ lives in love, knowledge, and contribution.

One of the figures in my own path whom I have granted inordinate authority is Julia Cameron, whom I’ve never met. She is author, artist, mother, playwright, composer, and more. Her Artist’s Way: a Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity has become a classic in the art/self-help world, confirmed in the variety of spin-off products the market can get persons hungry for more of her work to buy. As one who usually evades what I call “market tchotchke”—items or books that sit on one’s shelf and collect dust—I’ve even purchased more Cameron products than I care to admit. Her work, what she has contributed to my life, holds great authority for me, my profession, my life.

When I was floundering in doctoral training, in search of “a creative dissertation proposal,” I found her book in the bookstore section subtitled, “creativity.” Yes, a type-A person would go to a bookstore to find a book under the label “creativity” to learn how to do it for a dissertation. I was finally out of a relationship that had been a whole lot of work and very little fun. I was completing another unit of some pastoral training as a Hospice chaplain. I was completing, had completed, my comprehensive exams at great personal-mental cost to me and those around me. I was reconnecting with an old college friend, who was to become my fiancé now husband, but neither of us had any remote intention in that direction yet. The Artist’s Way practices began, for work-product: morning pages, artist dates, magazine collages, fairy-tale writing, and more. A world of serendipity—what Presbyterians might call ‘providence’—unfolded before my very eyes (and ears, nose, fingers, mouth, even my mind). An awakening was underway from which I (and my life), thank God, would never recover.

One year later, I had my successful dissertation proposal. More importantly, I had a vibrant life of curiosity, new love, self-confidence (or at least self-commitment), and good work to do. My path within Cameron’s vision, work, and proscribed practices has waxed and waned as I’ve learned more about who I am as an artist, how I become attached to practices as the point, not a path. But anything Cameron will catch my attention with a special authority. “Listen!” I seem to hear in my mind when her work appears in my view-finder, my search-engine box, my Amazon “recommendations.”

So imagine my surprise when I read her autobiography on a plane-ride toward vacation-time with my husband in the San Juan Islands, and I learned I did not like Julia Cameron. The book showed me a woman who has lived a life of audacity, yes, but also privilege and traditionally baby-boomer values. Connections to a well-monied family in NYC, jet-setting life between New Mexico and the Upper West Side, NYC. Pursuit of her artistic path in locations across the globe, so detached from anything I know as real or connected to community life in my own path. All of a sudden, her mantra for my life, “Leap and the net will appear,” became empty. “Isn’t it easy to leap when you have your child’s grandparents’ money buffering a fall, assuring a net?” I thought to myself. How does such a life of at least two homes, various locations, accord with resources enough for all? And where is the life of the community, the common good in this path?

Such questions, such judgments—as that is what they are—are not really fair, of course. It’s never easy to leap into what is one’s calling, and others’ money may or may not be the net it seems to be from the outside. As a matter of fact, the judgment of family-others may make the leap even harder. And none of us in North American abundance can throw the first stone at any other of us. I live an extraordinary life of privilege myself, with more than I need to do what I still struggle to do. The resistance I have to baby-boomers is my own generational-learning-curve—how do we honor the contributions of the previous generation when boomers are the ones against whom we must differentiate ourselves, to work for the world within institutions they have deconstructed for all of us?

Such content of my awareness is not nearly as important or interesting as the fact that the awareness arose. A teacher in whom I had placed extraordinary authority for my path had become more of the frail and real person she actually is. Instead of this authority figure with an aura, of a sort, she became a human being, just like the rest of us. Liking her or not does not really matter in the end. All of the negativity that arose could even arguably be seen as liberating, the next necessary step on the path to seeing my own pattern of authorizing, a next step toward learning to trust my own voice and intuition as it is. Not transferred onto someone else, but as something holy and mysterious that arises at odd moments from within my own being, body, spirit when what I have to offer speaks truly to another, to others. Cameron contributed an extraordinary wisdom to my own path, not only because of her ability to “leap” and “articulate for others,” but also because something in me authorized her to teach me, to lead my actions. She has had authority in my life because I gave it to her. Something in me surrendered to something she had to say, wisdom she was to offer for the good of all, including me.

I don’t know why we seem to need authority figures to discover our own voices, our own teachings (mishna, some of my friends would call it) that we are to offer the world. I don’t know when the moment was that I decided her voice and pathway was to be so significant for my own. I do know that authority is something that Cameron earned in her audacious and fully human offerings. She has walked the walk more than most teachers I have had. I do know that authority was something that I needed to give her were I ever to mature enough in my own self to begin to trust my voice, my gifts to offer the world. I will always be grateful to her, though I doubt I will ever meet her face to face. (She’s an introvert, after all, and struggles with public contact. Learned in the autobiography!) I am speechlessly grateful to have had my illusions broken open here too. But this has taught me that authorizing another can be risky, painful, even hurtful for the one(s) we authorize. Perhaps that is simply how it always is. Growth requires deep connection and then the pain of departure or recognition of frail humanity which is never ‘enough’ in sacred desire.

It seems to come down to the rather staid cliché that no one is ever an island, or each of us needs others—at least an other—if we are to learn most deeply who we are, what we have to offer. Only by the act of surrender to this other do we gain the life we are to live. And that’s the tricky thing…being wise about that “other” is such a crucial decision. Julia Cameron was a safe bet, and I recommend her work to you as teacher, as companion for the path. But more importantly, I encourage you to consider what your pattern is of authorizing others whose voices you value, will listen to. It’s an intimate decision. It requires an act of risk, to trust. But it’s one of those choiceless choices. You will not grow in the ways that matter without it.


10 Comments so far
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I really get much out of these posts each week. This post spoke to me as well. Sometimes we do tend to put people on a pedestal, especially those with whom we receive authority from. But at the end of the day these people are just as human as we are. They make mistakes along the way as well. But it is important to have authority figures. We are not an island. I know in my life I could not have gotten to the place where I am at without the help of others. I am excited to see where God is going to lead me and to see who God will put into my life.

Comment by Michelle Wilkey

Thanks Michelle for insightful post. I think we can all relate to the fact that even those holding positions of authority and status are not perfect. But I believe that they speak into our lives for a reason.

Comment by Larry Whatley

I agree that authorizing someone to help you find your voice is risky. Over the years, after so many authorizations to so many people of wisdom, you learn to mature to the point where you are not as devastated to find out that they have frailties. You learn to glean whatever you can from them, that helps to affirm and guide you in your journey. You also develop instincts that enable you to discount those ideas and opinions that may not work for you. I appreciate the comment that the decision to authorize others is taking a chance. In a way you are giving them the key to your life’s learning experiences, and those intimate beliefs that you hold sacred. However, as the article points out, it may be just what is necessary for our growth.

Comment by Larry Whatley

I was thinking as i read your post that it really is an issue of maturity, the way one of the things a child must do to grow up is to see their parent as a person with faults. But the other thing I thought of was the way this sets you free in a sense too: it helps answer the question, “how can I possibly presume to be an authority of some kind for anyone else knowing all my frailties and weaknesses?” And yet, as a pastor, you will be seen as an authority in your church.
By realizing that these less than perfect people–these wounded healers as Nouwen would call them–were authorities in my life and left their insights with me, frees me to dare to think I can do the same.

Comment by Cheryl Brown

I had a wonderful teacher as an undergraduate student who pushed me to the edge of my ability and talents as a writer. He made me a better writer and convinced me that I was a writer. He was a great teacher and one of those teachers who liked to go to the bars with his students at the end of the day and hang out and drink beer–or stronger libations. He also introduced me to jazz music as he played piano in a trio in a local club and I would go often to see him. But I also got to know a dark side in him as he was clearly having relationships with female students. He was married. I was torn about this and it troubled me and it returned when I was a graduate student a few years later and he was essentially being put on probation because one of those relationships had exploded into the public. Again I found myself drinking with him after classes in the evening and the topic wasn’t about excellence anymore. Instead it was all about misery and mistakes. I began to wonder how or why I had given this man authority in my life. It was a hard series of lessons to learn. But, at the same time, I have him to thank for turning me into more of a writer than I ever thought I would be. So, like much in life, you kind of walk away with that feeling that things are just gray. Black and white is a hard world to live in when you stumble into things like that. But that’s also a good lesson to learn when you’re in your 20s and you’re sure you know all there is to know. And then you don’t.

Richard Jarvis

Comment by Richard Jarvis

Such thoughtful insights into the giving and sharing of authority. I wonder as a baby boomer and a previous modernist, if I have given authority to those with experience and expertise (apparent or real). But I also wonder if you believe that the baby boomers have deconstructed everything? and of those things that have been rearranged, and reconstructed have not some very important things been brought to light for examination and reconsideration?

Comment by janet

Once again, I have been deeply moved by your writing. I think there are many reasons why this is so. To name a couple: 1)your writing seems to be the most authentic and clear expression of God’s Spirit in you. Because of this, the truth that God desires me (or us as the case may be), is not hindered by cloudy or conflicting sentiments. 2) You ask questions that prompt and I even want to say provoke deep thinking/reflection about some really important awarenesses (Is this a word?) of self.
These questions lead me to this understanding: I believe that authority comes from all of God’s creation. Truth can be found in everything from the ocean’s waves meeting the shore to the gentle kiss of a child. I might learn something invaluable from an alcoholic who has something to say just as well as from one of the strongest leaders of my congregation.
Your question, “How do you decide their voice is the one of hundreds today that deserves attention and value?” is all the more significant in light of this. I can’t possible give full weight to all of them can I? I’m wrestling with this as we live and breathe.

Peace and Grace,


Comment by afi dobbins

It is hard at times to trust those who I would accept as a teacher or mentor. When accepting those who would lead me on a spiritual journey I would first pray about the situation. Not only do we have to build trust in those who teach us but we must remember the day will come when we must say goodbye to that teacher or mentor. We must grow through out our journey and mature along the way so that we may stand when we do say good bye to our teacher or mentor.

Comment by Thomas A. Miles

Great reflection on who we choose to give and from whom we accept their authority. It is something to continue reflecting upon in my own life as I grow my relationship with God and those with whom I live, work and play.

Comment by judy niday

There are times in our lives when the guidance of a mentor is a huge gift and we can soak up their wisdom like sponges.

I have found that one has to be open to experiencing and learning new things. There are times when I am much more guarded and cautious. Something that you mentioned in your blog really resonated with me. In a moment when I really needed my mentor to be there for me, this person could not handle it. She let me down. I was beside myself with fear, anxiety, and vulnerability. My guard was completely down; but instead of being brought into a safe haven, I was blasted. Much later, I would learn why, but at that moment–I felt like a human target.

Since then, I have had many more opportunities to allow people (and their wisdom) into my life. If I do not allow someone into my life, I do not get hurt–but I do not gain anything, either. I am trying to develop a thicker skin, but it is not easily done.

There is a friend that I have that has been with me through many ups and downs in my life–they have seen where I have excelled and also seen my shortcomings. AND–still, he loves me and sees my potential.

Some of the authors that have helped me figure things out are Parker Palmer, Thistlewaite, Wink, Borg, Trible and some others. I find that there are times when I am pushed in directions that I may not have ventured–and this is a good thing.

Comment by Michelle McDonald

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