Matchstick Men

When we engage in public discourse, we often try to frame discussion on a rational level as we discuss (or argue) the legitimacy of different institutions and their behavior. Once upon a time, I had the naive self-confidence that debates could be solved rationally so long as one was sufficiently rational in one’s own behavior. But I quickly found that most of the deepest and most fundamental arguments did not admit to rational discussion or principled debate, because they were not in fact rational arguments to begin with, but rather matters close to the heart. I found this to be not only true of the people I debated with, but of myself as well. That is to say, I found that my passion for debate to be based on ground that was not strictly rational, but served to justify my own legitimacy in the same way that my own discussions and discourse has tended to question the legitimacy of others, especially others in authority.

This world is full of matchstick men, people (and not only men, but women as well) who claim great power and prerogatives for themselves but whose insecurities belie their claims of legitimacy and comfort in the robes of their offices. I do not say this to insult them or to make them more insecure (although I have found that recognizing the insecurity of authorities, and having the temerity to point it out in public, is not exactly polite and it tends to be treated as seditious and threatening). Instead, I say this to lay our discourse on the ground of truth. If we know that those who lead are immensely insecure and threatened by the truth, their behavior makes rational sense, because their desire for power and position does not itself rest on rational grounds (their competence, their love for the people, their possession of knowledge and ability to help others) but rather on emotional grounds (the desire for office to increase their own personal honor and security). We must be candid and admit that whenever a debate is really about emotional grounds, then rationality is a difficult matter, regardless of the legitimacy of the positions that are held.

I feel a great deal of pity, even compassion, for those who lead. I know it is a difficult matter to handle authority well from the limited experience I have in positions of authority myself. I know that one often has to deal with insubordinate and rebellious people who simply do not honor and respect authority, and that it is a very difficult challenge to judge justly and avoid hypocrisy, living up to the standards of conduct and behavior that one enforces. None of us are perfect, or even close, and there are many who would use our own slip-ups to justify their own rebellion, which increases the temptation for leaders to silence those who speak dangerous truths and to present themselves as more virtuous than they are. I even have pity for those leaders who do not even attempt virtue, for I know that they await judgment, and that the pleasures and vices of authority they indulge in now, whether those be sensual or violent or any other kind of wickedness, will be repaid on their own head. I would wish that even such leaders would repent and escape condemnation for their sins, which would also make for less suffering on the face of this deeply troubled earth.

I say this without in any way minimizing the wickedness of this corrupt world or its own personal dangers to me. A friend of mine told me earlier this morning about a Qatari poet who had been sentenced to life in prison for a reading of a poem that compared all Arab citizens to Tunisians given the thievery of their corrupt governments that was videotaped and posted online without his knowledge [1]. Clearly, if a poet can endanger a regime by saying truths that everybody already knows, then that regime is truly deeply insecure. My own problems with insecure regimes and the lack of strength of the United States in defending the freedoms of loudmouthed Americans abroad is also sufficiently well known that I do not need to discuss it in detail here [2] [3]. If as an American I am in enough danger for being outspoken against the evil and corruption of this world, surely those in less free nations are in even more danger. My compassion for leaders, even wicked leaders, does not in any way imply a lack of understanding of their threat to my own well-being and safety and that of others like me. Nor does it imply that I have forgotten the treatment I have received throughout my life from many of these insecure matchstick men. Quite the contrary.

Rather, my thoughts and feelings about leaders and authorities tend to be complicated. Regardless of whether a leader is good or corrupt, a godly servant or a petty tinpot dictator, I automatically tend to start with feelings of great concern and anxiety when I am dealing with authorities given my personal history. There is a respect of the office, as well as an intense curiosity to determine what kind of officeholder a given leader is. There is the usual ambivalence and tension between my general friendliness as well as a great deal of concern and caution. The end result is, as can be expected, somewhat complicated. I find both open contempt for leaders as well as adulation to be deeply troubling for the same reasons. Leaders are merely human beings, like everyone else, but that applies for the good as well as for the bad. We know our leaders are going to fall short of perfect, because we all do. We know that our leaders will at best struggle to do what is right against their own weaknesses as well as the general insecurity of our age, and therefore our respect for leaders needs to be realistic and open to accepting their faults without considering them worthless because of them. After all, we would be hard-pressed to do a better job ourselves in the same positions. On the other hand, it is because even the worst leaders are people too, we should have some love and respect for them on that level alone, besides the impersonal respect for an office (no matter how unworthy the present holder of that office may be of that honor). All human beings, no matter how corrupted by sin and evil, are still created in the image and likeness of our Heavenly Father, and on those grounds alone they are worth some love and respect.

I often wonder what it would do to make such insecure people feel more secure in their offices without forsaking the responsibility to hold such leaders accountable to the standards of God. I wonder this in large part because my own painful life experience has shown me that I do not do a good job by nature of making people feel comfortable and secure, even those people I deeply care for and respect highly. I figure that my love of pointed questions, my intensity, and my often blunt criticism do a good job of inflaming the insecurities of most people who find themselves on the receiving end. Far more difficult is showing that this intensity and criticism is not a personal matter, nor is it the only feelings I have about others (even leaders), being mixed at the same time with a deep concern for the well-being of others, and a compassion for the struggles that we all face in this present evil world. But writing, and blogging in particular, are about speaking and it can be hard to show that one is a good listener when one is a prolific talker. So, I would like to close with a question for those who are leaders in some fashion and who may happen upon this entry. What ways does someone make you feel more secure? I have found myself that it usually takes no more than someone who is willing to listen sympathetically. What about you?




About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to Matchstick Men

  1. Sonya says:

    Before reading this tonight, I was reminding myself yet again after a painfully illogical disagreement with an individual that some people and discussions can not be handled rationally. And since I am opposed to handling things irrationally, it often means the end of discussion. At any rate, I am not exactly a leader, but I shall answer your question despite this. I feel most secure when I know that there is a mutual respect and a commitment to “fighting fair” on both sides if any disagreement/argument is to occur. If I know we can disagree without personal attacks being made, or risks of back-stabbing, etc, then I feel secure enough to disagree openly. But, a better question to ask would be: In what ways can you become more secure in your identity as one of God’s children, so that you are no longer reliant on feelings of security from others? I too have found that those seeking power and control tend to have great insecurities (like all of us…), and (when I’m not throwing up my hands in frustration) feel a great deal of compassion for their dilemma.

    • That is the better question–how to become secure enough that one does not need approval from others or the borrowed dignity of offices and positions to be worthy of respect. I try to cultivate openness to others, and work on developing my respect and concern and my devotion to truth, and build relationships with those who share the same commitments.

  2. Raymond Ramlow says:

    I’m no leader, except in my own household. ;]
    Though most people outside the home wouldn’t know it, my wife & I have plenty of disagreements. However, they’re generally a pretty easygoing affair, as each values the perspective of the other. I can trust that if one of us tries to float an ill-supported point, in all goodwill the other one will mercifully shoot it down. I have in my wife a very good example of what has historically been called a “loyal opposition”, and from this I’ve learned that leaders need people they trust to criticize them only for the best reasons, and discreetly.
    Also, there is the issue of balance. I’ve read that the difference between a doomed relationship and a successful one is just 5%… Marriages that have 95 (or better) positives out of 100 interactions will tend to last, and those with 90 (or fewer) out of 100 will tend to fail.
    If these principles hold true for other kinds of relationships, it would seem that leaders need criticism they can trust, but they also need a good balance of positive input, as well.

    • That is always a difficult balance. I know that by nature I tend to be fairly critical and analytical, and providing that positive feedback can help people see that I’m not being a jerk. If you can build trust, everything else becomes much easier. As far as marriage goes, that’s something that has long been a subject of musing and pondering, but it’s quite good to know how vital positive interactions are in keeping people together.

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