Tell me, are you tired of watching the people above you on the success ladder live one life on LinkedIn and another one in real life? It seems 50% of them talk about Shepherd Leadership and don’t even know what shepherds do! A shepherd is not just someone who maintains a flock by meeting their immediate needs and keeping them in a cohesive, functioning flock. A shepherd also actively protects their flock from dangers that may be encountered in the act of existing. Sheep are prey, after all. Shepherds mediate that risk through protection. In doing so the legacy of the shepherd and sheep is protected for themselves and future generations.
We also see leadership all over the world talking about silos. They misunderstand silos too. Silos are easy to unpack. They keep a thing that once lived and is now a commodity safe and dry and free from sunlight and the risks that come with it. They have two openings and all you have to do is drive trucks right up to them to fill or empty them. Silos are storage facilities where the business is delayed until it is needed.
We might have seen the flaw in our shepherd and silo analogies if we’d been a little more analytical in typical times, but Covid-19 has pushed this problem into the forefront. Flocks of people are falling apart everywhere after 10 months of prolonged crisis and stress. Humans aren’t meant to be prey, but if they live like prey, they quickly come to adapt to it. That’s why our problem is rabbit hole culture. Our challenge is how to address the expansion of our collective fear and trembling during this pandemic.
Rabbit holes are more than homes for rabbits. They are a carefully placed network that supports the immediate needs of safe shelter for life-maintenance activities like eating, sleeping, and breeding. Rabbit holes are also the mapped safety of a group of rabbits. They address the vulnerability of the rabbits as prey. They afford them protection in a hostile ecosystem where they must coexist with predators. Because rabbits are prey, they live fragile lives trembling in fear for most of it.
We have rabbit hole cultures in places all over the world and we have for some time. That’s because some people, especially poor people and the vulnerable, as well as those who’ve survived trauma, have been living like rabbits for years while the rest of the world has been able to maintain a false façade of normalcy.
All life is a protection racket—that’s the very meaning of surviving. Some have been born into or been able to create an ecosystem where they can thrive without trembling, but not many recognize their human-to-human responsibility to bring up people behind or under them. They may talk a lot about it in political, religious, and cultural expressions, but how effective are they if they have the analysis wrong? And what are the direct acts that can show, not tell, the vulnerable their willingness to sacrifice for the greater good?
Now the tables are turned, and more of the privileged have come to know the desperation of the vulnerable. We are all so vulnerable just now. The people who have had protection have (usually without intention) created that at the expense of those who don’t. Now we are all living with heightened risk and we have been for almost a year. As that privilege is stripped away, the chaos of the world as it is, without protection, becomes experienced by more and more people. That process happens in the context of fundamentally transforming our society to either a more brutal one, or a more humane one. That is our collective choice right now. It depends on this individual choice replicated 8 billion times: Do we get more agitated or more engaged? Guiding those individual choices is the duty of all leadership in the world right now. Leadership is a privilege and in times of need, leaders have duties.
If you’ve had a good life and a lot of protection, you have my empathy right now. That privilege and protection has left you without the fitness a common rabbit would have. Your trembling is new and it evokes my empathic abilities because I have lived so much of my life like that. Your trembling, like my own trauma, is the result of the fitness your training in life prepared you for. I was left woefully inadequate and unprotected at a very young age. Now you are left wherever you are, and like me and those like me, you must make the best of a very bad situation.
Like us, you now must adjust to that reality while observing that so many others have far more privilege and protection than you have. And like us, you also likely have grief that no one felt you were valuable enough to save or protect. Not even one of our leaders, from politics, to business, to entertainment and tech, truly cared for or about us when the crisis hit. They too found rabbit holes, and generally nicer ones, where they often broke the rules they imposed on us. They chose entrenchment or disengagement, and we saw it.
We are alone, and we mostly know it now. And we are very angry about that, aren’t we? We should be. But we can’t let that anger own us anymore than we can let our fear own us. That is the path to a more brutal world. We have work to do if we are to engage each other for a more humane one.
When you are vulnerable, you must tread a very fine line between surviving and recognizing the right of survival of other people. Bunnies do not run about the rabbit field killing each other precisely because they recognize how fragile and connected they all are. We humans do harm to other humans, and that increases our danger, and thus our need for protection. We really only get to survive to the extent that other people let us. And as far as we truly know this is the only life we get, despite any beautiful spirituality that tells us differently.
We have the tools and abilities, and Covid-19 has provided the opening for a real commitment and change. Our free society in America has a great deal of power to drive huge groups of people through diplomacy, law, modern information, pedagogy, and social media paradigms. But still we hesitate. Still we refuse to pay that price. Still we fight each other using those tools. Why?
Protection. Privilege. LinkedIn Lifestyles instead of true engagement and the sacrifices that comes with it. People at all levels have obligations to each other in their mutual survival. Instead of posting memes on Facebook and LinkedIn about the kind of people we wish we were, I want us to embrace the risk of connection. I want us to engage with each other across these artificial constraints we’ve placed on our ability to encounter each other even before Covid-19 tightened those constraints further. I want us to stop segregating for protection and make human protection our goal.
Who will confront themselves and engage this obligation? Who will act with me, and truly be a leader in this together? Will it be you? Some sage advice, from lived experience with trauma and poverty:
Do not give money to another nonprofit or charity because this article inspires you. Do get in your car and drive down with friends to poor areas so segregated from those who thrive. Take food, masks, hand-sanitizers, soap, disinfectant, and money to hand out. People are desperately struggling for basic safety right now. Do volunteer to mentor a poor child or youth through an organization. It can be virtual, and if the organization hasn’t figured out how to facilitate virtual mentoring, you can build that process with them or for them. Do look for uncommon places on social media or in real life to give money directly to people in need. Do pay the rent for a person or an entire apartment building every month you can reasonably afford it. Do pay off someone’s student debt instead of waiting for the government to handle that. Do start an equity fund for first mortgages in families with a history of not being able to afford property.
Talk intelligent people without resources into starting nonprofits and then fund them and mentor them. Tip the waitstaff $100 on a $25 check. Hire a homeless person to a leadership position. Put a former foster-kid in charge of a child-welfare agency. Receive letters from people in need, and then meet those needs directly. Don’t segregate your support based on your personal feelings about a group’s worthiness or channel it through an epically warped charity system.
Take the risk. Directly engage and act. Stop seeking your own protection and work to foster the protection of all people. That’s a better and healthier way to facilitate your own protection anyway, and that mutual protection can be a legacy you leave to a world that will outlive you. That’s being a real shepherd. That’s real legacy.
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