“DOES IT GET LONELY AT THE TOP?” (Mk 3:7-12) :24 January 2008 (Francis de Sales, Thursday)
Two years ago I watched “Superman Returns” and came away from it both inspired and sad. I was inspired because for those who read between the lines, it turned out to be an eloquent parable about Christ. Many have long pointed out the numerous parallels between the character of Superman and Christ, but in this movie, the filmmaker seems to have gone out of his way to uncover and even strengthen these parallels between them.
But I also came away from it feeling sad because more than anything else, what struck me about this latest incarnation of Superman was his immense isolation and loneliness. In one unique scene not found in other Superman films, the superhero hovers in space at night, as he listens to the multitude of prayers rising from the earth, hearing people’s hopes and dreams and their fears and anxieties. In one conversation, Superman refers to that experience when he tells Lois Lane, “You say that the world doesn’t need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one.”
I thought of that scene when I read today’s gospel, which provides us with “a day in the life” of our Lord’s ministry: Lots of people, lots of different pleas and prayers, all pushing to be near him. Our Lord goes about his ministry, healing as many as he can, driving away evil spirits, but amidst that crowd and even in spite of his disciples, he is alone, if only because he is different from the rest of us.
In “Superman Returns,” the voice of Jor-El, Superman’s father tells him, “Even if you’ve been raised as a human being, you’re not one of them.”
The question I’d like to ask the Lord today is: “Does it get lonely at the top?”
Even if the things we do are nowhere near those of Superman and especially of the Lord, those among us who have held leadership positions know the answer to that question. It does get pretty lonely at the top. No matter what we do or say, the very position of leadership you hold inevitably creates a distance between you and the people you lead. The fact is, you’re now different. A newly promoted supervisor who rises from the ranks realizes this sooner or later. The way chatter dies down when he joins a table–or the way people suddenly tiptoe around you, choosing their words when they speak in your presence–these are but small reminders of how you are now no longer simply one of them.
It gets worse when you have to make decisions that others will not understand or will not like. Leaders know–and dread–that such decisions have to be made once in a while. And at times, given one’s best lights and despite every effort to forge a “win-win” situation, one still ends up hurting others–or one’s self. Being misunderstood, rejected, even maligned when you actually mean well–these experiences can get pretty lonely and painful too.
There is also the loneliness that only the solitary dreamer knows. As a leader, you dream of what’s best for your people, and given what you see and know, especially after listening to so many, you think you know what’s best for them. Some leaders shove their vision down their organization’s collective throat, but experience tells you that it simply doesn’t work that way in the long run. All you can really do is share this vision with others, of how much more wonderful and better you believe things can be. But given human nature and human freedom, when you deal with different characters with different life histories, different needs and agendas, things just don’t always turn out they way they should. Others don’t always understand you; they don’t always get infected by your enthusiasm. And sometimes you find yourself standing on stage–dreaming alone. Does anything get lonelier than that? Isn’t that enough to make one lose heart?
I sometimes think that being a leader of an organization provides one with a glimpse–but certainly, a poor and limited one–of what the Lord might have experienced in his earthly life. Think about it: He knows what’s best for us and he wants what’s best for us. The people who flock to him do so to get what they want, not what he knows they need. Others couldn’t care less, while a number actually can’t stand what he stands for. And it’s not really their fault because they don’t see what he sees. But instead of losing heart, the Lord chooses to continue doing what he is called to do. Instead of running away from the loneliness that comes with the job, he does not give up, despite being misunderstood and maligned.
Many of us have been called to leadership, so here’s one for the leaders among us: Perhaps today we can pick up a lesson or two from our Lord, who has learned to “walk with loneliness,” as the title of one book says. Instead of losing heart, he gathers his patience and waits for us to see the light and to come around.
Dearest Lord, you whose face we occasionally catch a glimpse of in our lives: Wrap us with your loneliness, and wrap our loneliness with yours. Grant that I may know you more as I swim in the Divine Loneliness that embraces this world–a loneliness that comes from knowing what’s best for us and from at the same time, seeing how far we are from your dream. Use us, Lord, to lead others closer to your dream, and give us a share in your Divine Patience.
(image: from “Superman Returns”)
Note: I’ve uploaded a trailer of “Superman Returns” where you see some parallels and references to the Christ story. Just grin and bear all the details about the DVD version that come afterwards.
Now, here is a Quick Question for YOU: “Are you afraid of loneliness? What could be the reason?” Think about it, and feel free to share any thought, feeling, or question.