On anthropology and angsty oceans
November 20, 2013.
The sun cuts through the large glass window in front of the stooled butcher block bar top that runs along the east side of the Roast Rider Coffee House in Virginia Beach. This coffee shop wasn’t here when I was a kid. I’m a tourist now; I moved away from the beach years ago. But at this moment, in a very non-touristy way, I wonder if everyone smelled the air this morning. Something salty in me resurrects when I come home, home to the sea. The ocean is 2.5 miles from here. Not far up the coast is the section of beach where I took my first steps as a kid, graduating to toddlerhood. And still, at a little less than three miles away, the salt air, blowing in off the Atlantic, met me as I walked from my car to the coffee shop, haunting me. I feel like I can smell it through the glass, smell it over the scent of the ground coffee bean and the chai tea.
In November, the ocean air smells angry and antagonistic, like it wants to exceed its tidal curfew and cause mischief around town. Summer tourists that visit the boardwalk and sip adult iced lime drinks at the Neptune Festival don’t ever meet this ocean—the ocean irritable and irascible. When I was a teenager, I bought a wrist-to-ankle Quintanaroo wetsuit just so I could swim in the sea in the winter, to taste its rage and understand its moodiness. I was a teenager and angsty too.
Banging My Head Against a Wall
But now I’m here in this coffee shop barricaded in from November salt air. I’m about to start day two and am staring at a Moleskin with a G-2 pen in hand. I’m four years into the most challenging leadership position I’ve held. The challenges have been relentless, crushing, and serial. I’m not sure I’m the right guy for the job. Impostor syndrome doesn’t come close to describing how I’m feeling. It feels like beat-your-head-against-a-cinder-block-wall syndrome. But I’m also stubborn and still believe in what I’m doing. A friend of mine is a leadership coach and invited me down for a two-day intensive. Day one was brutal—reliving my leadership challenges as far back as high school, when I wore wetsuits and coached swim teams and swam in the curmudgeonly ocean in the winter. I expect day two to be just as difficult.
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All of this leadership talk has me thinking about anthropology, about what makes a man, a leader, the ontology of a leader. As I think about my past—of wetsuits and the salt air and anthropology—I doodle in my journal, writing out the age-old triumvirate of human modes of operating1: head, heart, and hands. It is at the point I should add a disclaimer that I have a distaste for most things therapeutic, like I dislike men in ski masks in dark alleys at night with crowbars and police chasing them. I’ve done enough reading and spent enough time on a counselor’s couch to back up that simile. Therapists love to dissect people with assessments, metrics, tendencies, and personality tests. When I talk about doodling the three modes of operating, I’m thinking about a person—a leader. I’m not approaching the topic like a therapist, like a biology student with a dull scalpel and a preserved dead frog. What I’m doing is searching for a way to describe how people—all people—function, a working definition of the person. One of my favorite theological writers, Herman Bavinck, had similar thoughts. Under the subheading “The Whole Person,” he wrote,
Here, too, every faculty exists and functions in a person according to its own nature. Knowledge is primary. There can be no true service of God without true knowledge. . . . But that knowledge of God penetrates the heart and arouses there an assortment of affections, of fear and hope, sadness and joy, guilt feelings and forgiveness, misery and redemption, as these are pictured to us throughout Scripture but especially in the Psalms. And through the heart it in turn affects the will: faith is manifest in works, in love (James 1:27; 1 John 1:5–7; Rom. 2:10, 13; Gal. 5:6; 1 Cor. 13 etc.). Head, heart, and hand are all equally—though each in its own way—claimed by religion; it takes the whole person, soul and body, into its service.2
So, without belaboring the point, I want to give some justification for this triangle of words I’m drawing in my journal. I’m not riding the Brené Brown crazy train to cute memes with ornate three-sided symbols. I’m just a beat-up leader in a coffee shop trying to make sense of myself while the November salt air beats at the window, trying to get in.
The way I started thinking about it was through the illustration of isolated islands. We all spend most of our time hunkered in on one of these land masses. Some of us lean intellectual, operating in the world as if data, and knowledge, and wisdom, and books, and conversations about Heidegger are what matter. Others of us are more emotionally wired. Those who inhabit emotional island are socially aware, regularly weep for all kinds of good reasons, and appreciate most forms of art. Then there are the doers. These folks are get-r-done kinda people. With their heads full of blueprints and clear action steps like how hard to swing a hammer about to make impact with a five penny nail set in a pine board. All of us are operating out of one of these primary ways of engaging the world. All of us are on an island. That is a starting point but not the destination. A whole person lives on all three islands—simultaneously. But how can that be possible? I had to start thinking about bridges.
Now, we should probably stop at this point to discuss the whole island and bridge thing. My thinking about all of this didn’t start so cute, illustrative, and packaged. It started all meta, obtuse, and clinical. I’m not particularly proud of that, but it is the truth. As Tolkien’s Gandalf says of Saruman, “He has a mind of metal and wheels.”3 It is more true of all of us than we’d like to think, that mechanistic impulse to orthogonal thinking. As my thoughts progressed, I realized I talked this way because I was stranded on an island, a cognitive island. This was my native tongue. And I wanted to visit other islands, where the natives weren’t so scientific and dorky. This brings us back to this discussion of bridges.
Bridges to Everywhere
Between our three islands are three bridges. Between head and heart islands runs the story bridge. By story, I mean your story. Why you think the way you do and feel the way you do about what you think and think the way you do about how you feel—well, all of this is set by the sum of your life experience heretofore. Between the heart and the hands islands is the bridge of desires and passions. So much of what you do is because you “feel” a certain way about the world around you. There is a reason they call them crimes of passion. Lastly, connecting the head to the hands is the bridge of skills and habits. Skills connect our knowledge to our actions. We read the anglers handbook, bait the line and cast, then catch the fish (knowledge—skill—action). There is more to say, but at least that provides an aerial view of our little anthropological archipelago.
Functionally, what all this means is that I want to be a frequent visitor to all three islands, traveling across all three bridges regularly—growing intellectually, emotionally, and conatively by revisiting my story, cultivating my desires, and honing my skills. Like like my beloved Tidewater region in Virginia, you’re always crossing a bridge of some sort, no matter where you’re going. If I’m stuck in my head and am developing the characteristics of an unfeeling robot, there is a good chance I’m ignoring some part of my story. If I’m stuck in inactivity, it could be for two reasons. I may just lack the desire to do anything, or maybe I lack the skill to do the thing I have a desire to do.
These are all some basic ways of talking about how I use the growth triangle—this anthropological archipelago. It’s given me insight into myself and guides me as I have coaching conversations with the men I coach. I’m constantly asking myself, “Where are they now, and where do they need to go.” And it all started one November morning in a coffee shop beat an ocean’s rage, and me uncertain about what my future held as a leader.
I hate this term. But I couldn’t think of anything better.
Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Volume 1: Dogmatics, 267–268. Emphasis added.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers, 76.