Note: This post uses Barack Obama as an example to discuss a broader point, though it’s not a post about his policies. However, if you are someone for whom any mention of the President makes your blood boil, you may want to skip this post. Go in peace.
I’ve always admired the university tenure system. Academic tenure’s original purpose was to guarantee the right to academic freedom: it protects teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinion, openly disagree with authorities of any sort, or spend time on unfashionable topics. (That’s Wikipedia’s explanation of tenure–whether it works like that in practice or not, it’s an admirable concept. Good scholarship depends on it.)
For many years, my friend Gini and I have talked about what we call “spiritual tenure.” Spiritual tenure is not granted by any external body–you grant it to yourself. Spiritual tenure is being able to speak the truth as you see it, with integrity and without fear. Spiritual tenure does not shield you from consequence, like academic tenure might do. But it does give you the personal strength to recognize when it will cost you more to shrink, to keep your opinions quiet, to keep your self to yourself, than it will to stand in your own truth and let the chips fall where they may.
Perhaps you saw this image make the rounds on social media recently:
Meryl Streep has oodles of spiritual tenure.
When Gini and I were younger, we did a lot of work around the spiritual lives of young women, mainly because we were annoyed by the Oprah-esque, “life-begins-at-50” messages that we saw all around us. As if we were merely women-in-training, biding our time until our moment of enlightenment arrived. We didn’t want to wait for wisdom, we wanted to seek it out and celebrate it even in our tumultuous 20s, imperfect though that wisdom may be. I remember a book came out around this time called The Quarter-Life Crisis, talking about the sense of drift that people can feel in their 20s. When the authors were interviewed on the Today Show, Katie Couric sniffed, “What, do you guys have an aunt in publishing?” Nice attitude.
Now that I am solidly in my 40s, I’m reluctantly realizing that the Oprahs of the world have a point. Spiritual tenure is something I’ve been able to grant myself gradually over time. (At the same time, the young women I know are so much more evolved and self-possessed than I was in my 20s. My hat is off to them. Maybe they’ll get tenure sooner than I did.)
Anyway, I thought about spiritual tenure again this week when I read about President Obama’s interview with Marc Maron in which he said, “I know what I’m doing, and I’m fearless.” Indeed, the man has had a pretty notable week, what with the Supreme Court’s decisions on the Affordable Care Act and marriage equality… and his soaring eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. There’s something very attractive about a leader who operates without fear. I’m not talking about bravado or over-confidence. And certainly fearless leaders still make mistakes. I’m talking about being purposeful, even graceful, with the actions you take as a leader.
In fact, Obama’s entire quote has even more power. He was talking about what he’s learned about himself and compared his experience to that of a professional athlete past his prime. “You might slow down a little bit, and you might not jump as high as you used to,” Obama said, “but I know what I’m doing, and I’m fearless.”
As I continue in this transition period, in which I’m not currently a pastor but am exploring other identities and callings, I’m thinking a lot about this fearlessness, and cultivating a sense of spiritual tenure. I’m trying to speak up more and qualify my words less.
I’m curious what your own milestones and markers have been for this kind of work.
There’s a coda to all of this. That quote in the Meryl Streep photo? Didn’t come from her. It’s from a Portuguese author named José Micard Teixeira. He’s quite a bit younger than Meryl Streep, which goes to show–some spiritual tenure committees work fast. May yours be swift too!
Image: Pete Souza captures Obama’s reaction on hearing the Supreme Court decision about the ACA. Official White House photos.