Do you normally think of humor as an important quality for a leader to have? Before I read Al Mohler’s The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership That Matters (Bethany House, 2012), I didn’t. I thought of humor as something that might add to the character appeal or charisma of a leader, but not really as important, or even a virtue.
But consider what Dr. Mohler has to say about the way that humor can be used to serve and, by showing humility, build respect among those you serve as a leader:
“We are not called to be comedians or humorists, but the effective leader knows that generous, self-deprecating humor is a gift that leaders can give to the people they serve.
“Humor humanizes and warms the heart. Those who follow you know that you have weaknesses and foibles, so let them share in the humor you direct at yourself. Humor should never be used at another’s expense, but it can be used to make people feel at ease, to relieve tension, and even to affirm humanity. Humor must never be crude or disrespectful, but it can build respect.
“… Leaders know how to laugh with their team, with their people, with the public, and at themselves. Humor is a public admission that leaders are completely human, and that, in itself, is a virtue” (155-156).
NOTE: In this book, Dr. Mohler (President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) has some wonderful things to say about many topics, including reading and the use of social media for leaders. Stay tuned for posts on these!
Cicero’s On Old Age is ancient wisdom at its best. In it he answers the charges of younger men against old age, such as lack of physical activity and the loss of mental acuity and bodily pleasures, such as taste and sex. To each of these charges Cicero responds by arguing that much of the discomfort and failings of old age are due more to the bad habits of earlier years and personal character faults than to old age itself. Old age, he says, has much to offer to those seeking the improvement of their mind and the refining of their spirit. As the French essayist Montaigne said of the work, Cicero makes you look forward to old age.
Written about 40 years before the birth of Christ, this work also shows human wisdom’s limits as well as its glimmers of eternal wisdom. For example, Cicero’s affirms the immortality of the soul but is unable to imagine much else beyond death. As the last quote below shows, however, he seems to have understood that this life is a temporary stay on the way to our true home, much like the Christian concept of pilgrims on the way to our true and final home.
I encourage everyone, young and old, to treat themselves to this classic work. It’s only about 30 pages. But if you won’t get to it for a while because you have so much to read as it is, here’s a (completely free!) sampling:
“A person who lacks the means, within himself, to live a good and happy life will find any period of his existence wearisome.”
“[In old age] there is great satisfaction in the knowledge of a life well spent and the memory of many things well done.”
“The evils for which ignorant people blame old age are really their own faults and deficiencies.”
“Great deeds are not done by strength or speed or physique: they are the products of thought, and character, and judgement. And far from diminishing, such qualities actually increase with age.”
“At the very least we must concede age the capacity to teach and train young men and fit them for jobs of every kind; and no function could possibly be more honorable than that.”
“When its campaigns of sex, ambition, rivalry, quarreling, and all the other passions are ended, the human spirit returns to live within itself – and is well off. There is supreme satisfaction to be derived from an old age which has knowledge and learning to feed upon.”
“Old age must have its foundations well laid in early life.”
“Old people are also complained about as morose, and petulant, and ill-tempered, and hard to please…but these are faults of character, not of age…For the fact is that not every personality, any more than every wine, grows sour with age.”
“The particular harvest of old age, I repeat, is its abundant recollection of blessings acquired in earlier years.”
“Since death is an imminent possibility from hour to hour, you must not let the prospect frighten you, or you will be in a state of perpetual anxiety.”
“What nature gives us is a place to dwell in temporarily, not one to make our own. When I leave life, therefore, I shall feel as if I am leaving a hostel rather than a home.”
On reading Cicero’s On Old Age, the great French essayist Montaigne said, “He gives one an appetite for growing old.” And he really does, for it’s a delightful, wise, and surprisingly optimistic work. I first read this in a Georgetown class taught by the legendary and beloved Father Schall, whom I credit for introducing me to the “great books,” and I’m thrilled to share it with you now. Though this work deals with old age, it’s profitable for all people, young or old, who desire to acquire wisdom and live life well.
Written in 44 B.C., Cicero, a respected Roman statesman and master orator, answers charges against old age, beginning with: “old age takes us away from active work”:
He begins, “surely there are also occupations fitted for old men’s minds and brains even when their bodies are infirm” (219).
“So people who declare that there are no activities for old age are speaking beside the point. It is like saying that the pilot has nothing to do with sailing a ship because he leaves others to climb the masts and run along the gangways and work the pumps, while he himself sits quietly in the stern holding the rudder. He may not be doing what the younger men are doing, but his contribution is much more significant and valuable than theirs. Great deeds are not done by strength or speed or physique; they are the products of thought, and character, and judgment. And far from diminishing, such qualities actually increase with age” (220).
In showing us Lincoln at his lowest – in the darkest fits of gloom and depression – and at his best – telling humorous stories to guests, comforting others who are suffering, and achieving great political triumphs – Joshua Wolf Shenk offers a picture of an integrated life.
He shows us that suffering, even in the form of mental illness, which Lincoln had, need not be the whole story. Indeed, it can be a crucial part of one’s personal growth and maturity into greatness. Lincoln never wished for affliction and surely he must have wished depression away many times during his life. But with the help of others as well as several coping mechanisms, such as reading poetry or telling jokes, he harnessed the monster of depression in a way that strengthened his character, his endurance, and allowed him to rise to the great historical challenges that confronted his presidency. I like how Shenk puts it in some of the last lines of Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (Mariner, 2006):
“The overarching lesson of Lincoln’s life is one of wholeness. Knowing that confidence, clarity, and joy are possible in life, it is easy to be impatient with fear, doubt, and sadness. If one desires to ‘stir up the world,’ it is easy to be impatient with work for the sake of work. Yet no story’s end can forsake its beginning and its middle. Perhaps in the inspiration of Lincoln’s end we can receive some fortitude and instruction about all that it took for him to get there…The hope is not that suffering will go away, for with Lincoln it did not ever go away. The hope is that suffering, plainly acknowledged and endured, can fit us for the surprising challenges that await” (215-216). (Emphasis mine.)
Earlier in the book he notes that unlike in ancient cultures and in every major religion, modern Western society is often unable to adequately deal with human suffering. Many see it as an accident or inconvenience of life that simply gets in the way of our comforts and happiness.
I share this excerpt because as someone who’s been influenced by this world, I’ve sometimes viewed suffering in this superficial way, especially my own. But we should be equipped to wrestle with it so as to learn from it and through it grow stronger. This isn’t the same thing as glorifying suffering and claiming that it is good in and of itself, but it is meant as a perspective that I believe is often missing but which is at the center of the Christian faith – where the greatest triumph over evil was achieved through the great suffering of a Perfect Man on a cross. As Keller writes: “Trials and troubles in life, which are inevitable, will either make you or break you. But either way, you will not remain the same” (190). Below are his points. His explanations for each point are worthwhile, so I encourage you to read them:
1. Suffering transforms our attitude toward ourselves.
It humbles us and removes unrealistic self-regard and pride. It shows us how fragile we are…average people in Western society have extremely unrealistic ideas of how much control they have over how their lives go. Suffering removes the blinders.
2. Suffering will profoundly change our relationship to the good things in our lives.
We will see that some things have become too important to us. [Here he gives the example of someone who’s invested too much of their hopes in their career, which when this is lost or threatened, is devastated.]
3. Suffering can strengthen our relationship to God as nothing else can.
When times are good, how do you know if you love God or just love the things he is giving you or doing for you? You don’t, really. In times of health and prosperity, it is easy to think you have a loving relationship to God. You pray and do your religious duties since it is comforting and seems to be paying off. But it is only in suffering that we can hear God ‘shouting’ a set of questions at us: ‘Were things all right between us as long as I waited on you hand and foot? Did you get into this relationship for me to serve you or for you to serve me? Were you loving me before, or only loving the things I was giving you?’
4. Suffering is almost a prerequisite if we are going to be of much use to other people, especially when they go through their own trials.
Adversity makes us far more compassionate than we would have been otherwise. Before, when we saw others in grief, we may have secretly wondered what all the blubbering was about, why people can’t just suck it up and go on. Then it comes to us – and ever after, we understand. When we have suffered, we become more tenderhearted and able to help others in suffering. Suffering creates wisdom in people, if they handle it and it doesn’t make them hard.
Plan to read a lot this year? Yes? That’s awesome! As we enter 2014, here are 14 tips* for better reading so you can get the most out of your books.
Happy new year and happy reading!
* NOTE: Almost every tip here is borrowed or taken directly from Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (Crossway, 2011) by Tony Reinke, an exemplary bibliophile who also writes a great blog about books. I thank him for writing such an excellent and helpful book, and for inspiring me both as a reader and a blogger. I also am indebted to Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book (Simon & Schuster, 1940), an invaluable classic beloved by generations of readers.
1. Read good books.
Not all books are created equal. Today we’re blessed with many good books, and unprecedented access to them, but there’s no substitute for spending time with those books that have stood the test of time and shaped our world. The effort they require is more than surpassed by the reward, like digging for gold – difficult but profitable. If you’re not sure where to begin, a good place to begin is Mortimer Adler’s “Great Books,” which covers the foundational texts of Western world.
To get the most out of your reading, establish priorities to guide your reading diet. A good way to set priorities is to base them on your roles in life, such as husband/wife, father/mother, student, professional, friend, and so on. For me, these include: Christian, husband, son, brother, and friend.
For example, here are Tony Reinke’s priorities, in order of importance:
- Reading Scripture
- Reading to know and delight in Christ
- Reading to kindle spiritual reflection
- Reading to initiate personal change
- Reading to pursue vocational excellence
- Reading to enjoy a good story
3. Read every day.
To read more, you must read consistently. 15 minutes every day is perfectly doable if you’re serious about reading.
4. Read everywhere.
To read more, find time everywhere and anywhere to read. These small chunks add up faster than you’d think. For example, Tony Reinke says he reads over his morning scrambled eggs, lunchtime tuna salad, at the DMV, and to his kids before bed.
5. “Install a transmission.”
This analogy by Tony Reinke perfectly captures the right approach to reading speed, correcting the mistaken approach of trying to speed read everything. Basically, your reading speed should be determined by the terrain: some books, and even some parts of books, require you to slow down, whereas with others you can go faster and even “cruise.”
6. Use a pen, highlight, circle, and make notes on the margins.
Tony Reinke calls this the art of “marginalia,” which is to deface a book’s margins with your thoughts, questions, and protestations. These show that you’re engaging with the material and the author, not simply passively absorbing words on a page. Also, know that you can do this with an electronic reader, so for all the Kindle lovers out there, this goes for you too!
6. Keep a dictionary handy.
Want to grow in your vocabulary and improve your ability to understand more difficult reading? Keep a dictionary handy to look up words you don’t know. I myself have often tried this but not kept up, but it’s a worthwhile habit that pays off in the long run, and not just because you can drop big words at cocktail parties like Snoop Dogg drops it like it’s hot. Again, electronic readers have a dictionary as a built-in function, so use it!
7. Summarize, make outlines, or paraphrase chapters.
This is another useful tool of active reading. I confess that I don’t yet do this, but it’s a valuable and worthwhile effort by the reader, if he wants to better understand and retain what he reads, to briefly summarize or recap what he’s read, both at the end of chapters and at the end of a book.
8. Dog-ear pages containing “Wow” passages.
One of my most useful habits is to dog-ear pages that contain a striking passage to which I may want to return later, making it easier to find these. This, moreover, helps set apart the “Wow!” passages from everything else you underlined, circled and highlighted. Some people view dog-earing pages as a barbaric act unbecoming of those who respect books, but I think this is baloney; I value books not for their neat packaging and pristine look, but for the content of their pages. Don’t be afraid to really own your books.
9. Read 3 books at a time.
Tony Reinke explains that he reads three books at a time because different times of the day are suited for different types of books. For example, most of us won’t dive into a breezy, light novel at the beginning of our day, just like we won’t try to read a more demanding book about, say, theology or philosophy, just before bed.
10. Read together.
Tony Reinke devotes a chapter to this, arguing that reading and discussing books with others not only helps to retain what is read, but it’s a great way to build community. Read with a friend, with your significant other, or with your family, and join or start a book club. Spread the book love!
11. Stop and think, don’t just react.
We’re quick to react and share what we read on Facebook and Twitter (I’m the chief of culprits). This is great, but too often we don’t first stop, and think, about the meaningful, striking or perplexing passage we just read. As Tony Reinke writes, “I am quick to Tweet and slow to think. I am quick to Google and slow to ponder.”
12. Read critically.
First seek to understand the author’s message, and once you understand it, evaluate the strength of the author’s main argument(s) and the ways she supports it. And always, always, always ask the most important question you can ask of anything you read: is it true? Does it accord with what is real, true and good?
13. Teach what you read.
Teaching, or sharing, what you read is a fun and great way to better your own understanding. Knowledge is to be shared, for the good of others and yourself.
14. Read the Bible (and throw in some Shakespeare).
For life, wisdom, joy, and faith, read this book above all. Even if you’re not religious, the Bible is not only beautifully written, but it will enrich your reading in general because Western literature is filled with biblical allusions and references. As some have said, the Bible and Shakespeare (who knew his Bible well) are two foundational sources of Western literature.
As we pause to consider the start of the new year, and the opportunity to grow in different areas of our lives – such as health, intellect, relationships – let’s not neglect to give attention to the most important area of our life: our spiritual condition. This condition, the state of our soul, must be given life and nurtured because it reflects the quality of our relationship with our Maker, and determines our posture toward life and its inevitable trials.
We must always stand ready to examine our own souls before the searching but gentle Spirit of God; but as J.C. Ryle wrote in his classic Holiness (1877), certain seasons afford a welcome opportunity to set about this happy and most important business, the business of our souls:
“To every one who is in downright earnest about his soul, and hungers and thirsts after spiritual life, the question ought to come home with searching power. Do we make progress in our religion? Do we grow?
“The question is one that is always useful, but especially so at certain seasons. A Saturday night, a communion Sunday, the return of a birthday, the end of a year – all these are seasons that ought to set us thinking, and make us look within. Time is fast flying. Life is fast ebbing away” (99).