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The Emotional Tax on Leaders in a Therapeutic Age
A Tale in Two Musicals
Over the last weeks as the evenings have grown darker earlier, we’ve sat down to watch great stories as a family — one of which was the newer version of “Les Miserables” with Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway. It’s a hard-to-follow tale for the younger set, especially as their familiarity with revolutionary life skews more “Hamilton” than French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. Yet, it’s a story for the ages. How many sermon illustrations have you heard about the Bishop who does not condemn Jean Valjean for stealing the silver but gives him the most precious silver candlesticks, buying back his soul to God? Who has not heard how it is the mercy of this moment that extends throughout Valjean’s life, this same mercy that poisons Javert and saves Cosette?
It’s a story of mercy and redemption; of desire gone awry; of brave young men staring death in the face and, whilst there is still the love story between Marius and Cosette, this is not the focus. After all the revolutionaries cry:
Marius you are no longer a child,
I don’t doubt you mean it well
But now there is a higher call
Who cares about your lonely soul
We strive towards a larger goal
Our little lives don’t count at all.
Sitting on our leather couch, I wondered: does this sort of sacrifice, this sort of all-encompassing mercy, this sort of participation in a cause that might demand one’s life make sense in a world of scrolling through TikTok? Does it make sense in a world dominated by politicians who show no integrity between what they profess to purport and how they act? Is this just an out-dated story without a touchstone in today’s late modern world? Is the musical just a relic from a bygone era?
Does this sort of sacrifice, this mercy, this sort of participation in a cause that might demand one’s life make sense in a world of scrolling through TikTok?
Another movie for another night: Newsies, The Musical. It must be stated, I have every song from the Christian Bale 1992 film memorized; and I’m fine with something being updated and reinterpreted for another generation. While some new changes are interesting, such as, the reporter who writes of the Newsies strike is female and we find out (spoiler) that she’s actually Pulitzer’s daughter. They’ve taken out some of the sexist language (good) and added several new songs (some good, some bad — as they transpose a late modern American sensibility upon newspaper boys of the early 20th century).
Like the newer version of “Les Mis” the new songs help us see more of the inner life of the characters. (In “Les Mis” there’s a song where Valjean reflects on how being a father changes him when he rescues Cosette). In “Newsies,” Jack (the hero) and Katherine (the reporter and love interest) have a DTR on the rooftops of NYC. They sing:
One night may be forever,
But that's alright, that's alright.
And if you're gone tomorrow,
What was ours still will be.
I have something to believe in,
Now that I know you believed in me.
Basically: tonight is great; let’s not define things. That could be too…maybe…desperate? Too vulnerable? Instead how about this: I’m just stoked you are a bit part where I am the hero and where you believe in me. That feels safer than love.
It’s as if they’re in a toddler universe of parallel play — only interacting to the extent to which the other impinges on the the self’s idea for how the script goes. But everyone who’s seen this stage in toddlers knows that it’s just a stage — it’s a developmental milestone that we move past, towards greater interdependence. The new "Newsies” — while it requires a community to make a social change (the Newsies showing up to strike, the governor to enact legislative change to change a corrupt system) — it nevertheless effectively captures our imagination with the same old myth of the isolated individual as the path to happiness and freedom.
The songs are what we remember. The chemistry is what draws us in. We get waylaid by what feels like bureaucratic details. But: the message works through the imagination. Through the songs we hum. Through the allure. That’s what we remember. That’s how stories get inside us. And the story today is always one of rugged individualism. Which leaves us always lonely, pining for someone or some place to make us make sense.
The Gospel of Self-Actualization Makes us Tired
Our musicals tell us how we might begin to imagine a life worth living. Will we “join in the crusade / … [where] beyond the barricade is there a world we long to see?” or will we simply move towards others for how they believe in us? And if it’s the latter, what is the effect?
I’ve been working my way through Phillip Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic. In the bit I read this week, he writes:
Psychological man takes on the attitude of a scientist, with himself alone as the ultimate object of his science.
and, in this science experiment of the modern person:
Well-being is a delicate personal achievement.”1
Sixty years on from Rieff, we feel the effects of this "delicate personal experiment." It's the reason why an article on languishing was the highest read article in 2021 at the New York Times. We feel these emotional states — the sort of latent depression and anxiety as ever-constant attendants of life in this age — and think that if we had a framework, an equation, an answer, a personality profile, a new therapeutic vocabulary for this state-of-life, then, we imagine, we’d achieve this ever-elusive ‘happiness.’
But this anxiety is the after-birth of our therapeutic age. We thought culturally that throwing off those sort of large-scale institutional and causal commitments would be freedom. (This is why I wonder if “Les Mis” makes sense anymore to a western, post-Christendom and post-pandemic age. Is it a relic to sing of causes beyond the self that require a death to self?) Instead, now, what we're left with is the enormous pressure to curate a life.2
This sort of self-actualization narrative is leaving us exhausted. Tara Isabella Burton wrote a lovely guest essay for the NYT recently on the way “therapy-speak” is ruining us; in it she references Dr. Illouz, a sociology professor:
We have withdrawn to a highly subjectivist form of individualism,” said Eva Illouz.[…] “This means that our emotions have become the moral ground for our actions.” The prevailing mentality, Dr. Illouz said, is: “I feel something, therefore I am entitled to make this demand” or “to withdraw from a relationship.”
What has become gospel is not a story outside the self (where the self is in need of saving and is drawn into, not away from, community), but a story of “private happiness…as the ultimate goal.”3 And our emotional, solitary life is supposed to get us there.
This good life is not a moral one but a self-referential one, where “I feel…” is the barometer for truth. This cacophony of alternate ‘truths,’ each with the passion of conviction, means our emotional energy can no longer be channelled toward virtue. Causes outside the self, where they do exist, easily morph into virtue-signaling. Issues of justice and pain become hashtags and fodder for the algorithmically determined social media platforms. Individual disencumberment is called courage. Prudence, detachment, equanimity, and moderation appear as shackles to an “authentic self”— not the way towards maturity.
If this is the emotional toll of the therapeutic age — where we’re anxious, exhausted, envious, detached from constraints and flailing about in the weeds off the pathway of moral virtue — we’re left, most often, numb and tired. If that’s the case, what is the toll for leaders who must lead us back to the path of formation?
What does this Mean for Leaders?
What do we do with the Jack Kelly’s who are asking us to define the relationship on the rooftops of NYC? How do we respond to a Marius Pontmercy who feels caught between love and duty? What is the path of virtue, grace, or real faith?
Do we tell them that “looking within” will solve it? Or if they can “name their feeling” that the moral challenge will go away? Or, will they, instead, in the face of limitless options choose to withdraw, to numb?4 For Christians, more biblical information has not made us a transformed, non-anxious presence. And the self-help language with a veneer of Jesus has cheapened the Galilean savior. There seems to be no pathway forward for leaders who desire to bring their people along the boring path of conforming oneself to the pattern of Christ's life. (A life that everywhere exuded death to self and joy in a coming and present kingdom).
Let’s zoom out a bit. The problem is well-known and finds words outside the church. In the Harvard Business Review, the author writes of “The Emotional Labor of Being a Leader,”
Leaders are expected to attend to employees’ mental and physical health and burnout (while also addressing their own), demonstrate bottomless sensitivity and compassion, and provide opportunities for flexibility and remote work — all while managing the bottom line, doing more with less, and overcoming challenges with hiring and retaining talent. They should appear authentic, but if they get too honest about their distress, others may lose confidence in their leadership, known as the “authenticity paradox.”5
The writers suggest some ways through this challenge are by recognizing that emotional weight is labor, as well as working towards giving self-compassion, training on emotional training and ‘compassionate detachment’. While some of these tactics might work for a while, ultimately they attempt to solve the therapeutic age’s problem with the tools the therapeutic age. Basically, leaders should sort of let themselves off the hook and practice some differentiation.
But this doesn’t get to the problem of inculcating virtue like fortitude in the face of danger (that we see terrifically on display with Ukraine’s Zelensky). How do we get that?
If the therapeutic age can’t solve its own problems with the tools it puts forward, what can? Only love. In the invasion of Ukraine, Zelensky showed the world a bigger story. A story of courage that only could be borne from love (not hate or comfort). And so, the challenge for leaders is always to lead from love. To first be acted on by a story with origins from the outside, that originates in self-giving love. This is a story that captures not just our policy, but also our imagination. We see glimmers of this story in the great stories, in courage in battle, in doing the good and true (even if it’s incredibly hard) thing.
Leading from love often makes a leader look the fool. While selfishness in its forms twists us, love does too — but not into a hard ugly thing. Love melts us. We are acted upon rather than the one doing the acting. It is a sort of holy responsive mode of life; the leader’s journey isn’t about self-help or self-actualization. It is responsive, capacious, full of listening and following the wind of the spirit.
But this story of love is age-old. It takes shape in particular places. A leader has a lineage of saints from every tribe and tongue and nation waiting in the wings. For a leader has a home to which he or she is going where they are not the hero and where justice really, truly, will roll down. And the beauty is that is is not at all up to the leader.
Perhaps it’s fitting to close this essay with this line from the speech writer Michael Gerson who has recently passed away: “It has been been said that when you choose your community, you choose your character.”6 Community, not the self, is what shapes the imagination. Tell the better stories. Get caught up into a story birthed not from fear or self-actualization, but from love. This is the transformative task of leadership: to love what is unlovely, to guide people back to a sturdy well-worn path of virtue outside of the self, and to proclaim the truth: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. In this late modern age in which we find ourselves, these are our musical anthems.
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I’ll be switching gears a bit — I’ll likely take the day after Thanksgiving off this series and will move to some different sort of writing during Advent. Thanks for being here. More to come!
Other parts of this series on the therapeutic age are below:
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Phillip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud, 41.
I write about this at length in A Spacious Life: Trading Hustle and Hurry for the Goodness of Limits.
Tara Isabella Burton, “The Problem with Letting Therapy-Speak Invade Everything,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/12/opinion/mental-health-therapy-instagram.html
Russell Moore, editor in chief at Christianity Today wrote about the numbness present in churches around politics: “In our churches, we might not see pushback from these voters simply because they’re already gone or they’ve already given up.” https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2022/november-web-only/donald-trump-politics-election-2024-wont-divide-church.html
Dina Denham Smith and Alicia A. Grandley, “The Emotional Labor of Being a Leader,” Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2022/11/the-emotional-labor-of-being-a-leader/.