Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Too Special

"I do one thing. I do it very well. Then I move on." --Charles Emerson Winchester III, M*A*S*H

It was Winchester at his most infuriatingly correct and absolutely wrong. There he was, a crack surgeon drafted into a front line mobile surgery, taking the time to be certain the work he was doing to save the life of a wounded soldier was done right and, in the process, ensuring the young man's survival, but in the process endangering the lives of several others stuck in the waiting area. Around him, his colleagues were taking all the shortcuts required of meatball surgeons whose goal was quantity over quality. They had learned through experience that there was no time to spare, that meticulousness cost lives, and that the sooner they could get the next patient on the table, the less likely they were to lose him. They weren't working in Boston's finest hospital, after all: their surgery was a tent. 

Winchester came late to MASH, joining the cast at a time when, it could be argued, the show was past its prime. And yet, in many ways, his character resonated with me as the others did not. He was an aesthete, a love of the fine arts; an intellectual; a highly mannered person who was frequently irritated by the hijinks of his tentmates; and something of a snob. I saw myself in all these qualities, but the one that especially grabbed me was his focus on doing things right. That's where I see myself most in him: I prefer to complete the task at hand before I move on to the next, and it's not complete until it's as good as I can make it.

This doesn't mean I can't multitask--or, as I prefer to think of it, switch focus. When I'm preparing a meal, I can move from dish to dish with aplomb. Tidying up a messy room, I alternate sorting, storing, and cleaning. And teaching general music, I have to be able to keep the lesson moving even as I tend to individual struggles my students are having.

But don't get me wrong: I haven't always been a pro at switching like this. In fact, in my ministerial days, I failed badly at it, especially when it came to tasks I didn't enjoy.

Winchester is not really a people person. He's happiest when he can be immersed in his music, a good book, or surgery. His bedside manner leaves much to be desired, and he can be quite abrasive to those who live and work with him. These are also qualities I share, though I work hard at keeping the abrasiveness in check. Put together with his task focus, his difficulty socializing makes me think he's somewhere on the autism spectrum--as I may be. Winchester has the advantage of being in a profession where meticulous focus is rewarded and human interaction takes a back seat.

I have not been so wise in my choice of professions. Pastors have to relate to people, and do it every day. That's even truer of teachers. Please don't be mistaken: I enjoy interacting with people, and relationships matter immensely to me. But it's never come easily for me. I can be awkward in a conversation, have a hard time reading social cues, and suffer from an anxiety of using the telephone that makes it the one task I habitually put off, sometimes until it's too late to make a call I really need to. I've lost jobs because supervisors and co-workers found me hard to relate to. It's the biggest reason I left the ministry.

Like Winchester, there were pastoral tasks I performed extremely well. I can say without boasting that I was an exceptional preacher. I viewed preaching as performance art, and prepared for it in much the way that Marc Maron fashions his stand-up sets, honing ideas each time I presented them, focusing in on those that worked well, delivering the final product as an extended improvisation that, nevertheless, was meticulously shaped. Similarly, I had a real knack for organizing worship services, crafting liturgies that were coherent, unified, and built to a spiritual and emotional climax. I had a deep understanding of the role of music in worship. And I could teach a Bible study, Sunday School class, or lay speaking course insightfully and inspirationally.

All of which is to say, I had the most visible hour or two of my work week down. The rest of it, sad to say, rarely got off the ground.

I understood that visiting was important, and in my first years of ministry, did it intentionally. And it actually wasn't all that hard for me, particularly if I was seeing someone in crisis. What was hard was picking up the phone to make an appointment to see someone. That's where I really failed as a pastor: I would rather do almost anything than make the phone call to set the time for me to come by for a visit.

More years on the job didn't make this easier, either. In fact, by the end of my fifteen year career in ministry, I was nearly paralyzed anytime I had to pick up the phone to set up an appointment with a parishioner. Seventeen years later, I still struggle with making phone calls, though I'm finally getting better at it. It helps that the parents I call almost always thank me for letting them know their children are having behavioral issues, and are quick to offer their assistance. Even so, I'd much rather communicate with them by email--but I'm also aware that the more direct, personal interaction of a phone call can make a real difference with most parents, and so I force myself to make the call, instead.

The rest of the things I do as a teacher, I'm fine with, thanks in large part to my embrace of the Orff approach which, I've come to realize, is fundamentally about getting over myself: allowing myself to be silly, to sing in falsetto, to not always know what the outcome of an activity will be, to experiment, take chances, play games, have fun, and above all, to let teaching be my primary performance venue. That has meant doing some things I never used to be comfortable with--movement, dance, singing--and to that, I've got to add making those phone calls to parents--but it's all part of the job. Being a generalist means doing lots of things, even if they don't all come naturally.

Winchester had to learn the same lesson: to set aside his preferred approach and engage in meatball surgery, prioritizing quantity over quality.

We have a President now who would rather not be a generalist. There's a part of the job he obviously loves: being in front of crowds, soaking up their adulation, being treated like royalty, sitting on top of the world and looking down on it as his domain. He likes public ceremonies, hates meetings; prefers photo ops to one-on-ones; would much rather dictate than collaborate; and is happy outsourcing any part of the job that he finds too difficult or boring. Just look at the sheer volume of photographs of him holding up executive orders he was happy to sign without necessarily having read them first. If he could, he'd be the King, carrying out the public pomp while the Prime Minister engaged in all the boring detail work that's really about running the country.

And yes, I know ceremony is an important part of the Presidency, that the founders intentionally resisted separating this function as so many other developing democracies had. There were specialists born into those jobs, trained from birth in the manners and comportment expected of a monarch. But the United States of America was going to be a different kind of nation, a nation that elected its leaders for limited terms, then replaced them when it saw fit; and expected those leaders to be far more than ceremonial figureheads. The President who gives speeches for large crowds is the same President who brokers deals in the Oval Office. The President who shakes the hands of the other world leaders at the opening ceremony sits through the boring technical meetings held during the summit. Presidents don't just address Congress, they meet with members of Congress. Presidents don't just cut the ribbon to dedicate a public works project, they're in the weeds in the years leading up to it.

And Donald Trump? He does one thing, he does it brassily, and then he moves onto another version of the same thing. He gets in front of the people, basks in their adulation (or, if it's not forthcoming, blasts them on Twitter for not acknowledging his majesty), then goes on to the next rally or gala.

This is going to be increasingly problematic for him and for us. He's neglecting essential parts of the job, including the nomination of other officials to whom he can outsource those tasks. So it's not just that he doesn't want to do the boring parts: thanks to his laziness, there's nobody else who can do them, either.

Like Winchester on his first day in surgery, he's going to find that the bodies are stacking up in the waiting room. And as with Winchester, if Trump doesn't learn soon how to stop being so specialized, people are going to start dying. The country can't go on operating without a fully functional generalist in charge. He doesn't have to be good at every task. He just has to do them.

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