An Unexpected Journey
Here’s a familiar story many of us learned in our American history classes. The main characters are pioneer explorers Lewis and Clark. Their task was to find a waterway to the Pacific Ocean. Their journey begins on the Mississippi River. The journey ends where the Columbia River, which now forms part of the border between Oregon and Washington, meets the saltwater of the ocean.
The explorers were 15 months into their journey. Portaging their canoes, they were about to crest the highest ridge they had yet encountered. They made camp for the night, and the explorers dreamed with excitement about what they would discover the next day. Flowing down from the crest of the ridge would be a gentle descent toward the shores of the Pacific.
Or so they thought. The next morning revealed a surprising and unexpected reality. What they did see terrified them. Ahead was no gentle plain, no ocean shores. Instead, they faced the Eastern foothills of one of the most terrifying and deadly mountain ranges in the Western world: the Rockies.
Yet rather than turn back, they leaned into their charge to find a way to the Pacific. They left behind their canoes, knowing they could later make more. They made friends with those they met—natives for whom this new frontier was nothing other than home—who would lead and guide them toward their ultimate destination.
Suddenly making it up as they went, negotiating each new circumstance one at a time, the leadership writer Tod Bolsinger says Lewis and Clark learned how to “canoe the mountains.”
Facing New Frontiers, but Unprepared
Since 2020, ours is not navigating the formidable frontiers of new territory. Ours is a social frontier, one we never expected and for which we lack the training to navigate. In fact, we might even say the training we did receive has in many ways been detrimental.
By “training,” I mean something simple. To make our way in the world, we were taught to look out for ourselves. Much of the formation we experienced in our education encouraged this. “Think for yourself,” we were told. In the present time, we say to one another with a hint of vivifying encouragement in our voices, “you do you” (implying that we will do the same).”
And yet, life in the midst of what feels like a never-ending social crisis is difficult to navigate if we simply seek to serve ourselves and meet our own needs.
A recent survey showed that a vast majority of us are frustrated and exhausted by how divided we are. But what do we do about that? The divisions are clear. They run from politics to race, immigration to life issues, sex and gender to guns, and more. They were exacerbated during the pandemic, and it seems like we don’t know how to get along anymore. Navigating this social reality is new territory because none of us quite know what to do or say to others, especially those with whom we might disagree.
One thing seems clear. That so-called wisdom we were taught early on about thinking for ourselves, or encouraging one another with phrases like “you do you”–it’s proving not to be the wisdom we thought it was. After all, if “you do you” and so does everyone else, how do we move forward united?
A Hard Look at Ourselves
There’s a lesson to be learned from British intellectuals in the early 20th century. G. K. Chesterton was a journalist and essayist. He was one of a number of distinguished thinkers to whom The Times, a British newspaper, sent this question: “What’s wrong with the world?” Chesterton is said to have written the shortest response, saying something like this: “Dear sirs, In response to your question, ‘What is Wrong with the World?,’ I am. Yours, G.K. Chesterton.”
What if we adopted Chesterton’s posture? What would it mean if we began not by pointing the finger of blame away from us, but, in a reasonable and humble manner, toward ourselves? What if we answered, “What is wrong with the world?” by thinking first of ourselves and our own self-seeking, instead of the problems of others?
Of course, in a time in which we prize positive mental health and self-care, this approach could be rejected as just too damaging and brutal. Why cause more harm by thinking about our failures? Yet, it is meant only to recognize, that just as there are parts of the world that we do not like but cannot do anything about, so also are there things about ourselves which we do not like but can do nothing about.
Moving Toward Selflessness
Facing the frontier of the brutal West in search of the shores of the Pacific, driven by President Jefferson’s commissioning to seek a route for travel and commerce, Lewis and Clark “canoed the mountains” in part by seeking wisdom from those for whom that land was native territory, home. There is wisdom we can receive from others who’ve suffered difficult roads.
We are not quick to choose suffering. Yet, in all our myopic concern for ourselves, there is a part of us that longs to make a difference, that longs to live otherwise and meaningfully, to feel a part of something that connects us to others.
In the Gospels, we meet a man named Jesus who lived his life entirely for others, even to the extent that he let himself be killed so that others might live. His followers recorded these words, which give us a sense of Jesus’s philosophy of life:
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. (Matthew 16:24–27)
This is far from our contemporary saying, “you do you.” Yet Jesus doesn’t merely leave these words for us as a command or some point of reference against which we judge ourselves as a failure. Rather, he calls you and me and promises to help us do it. For those who follow Jesus, who reflect on their own lives realizing that there are things about themselves that they do not like but can do nothing about, Jesus gives grace, helping us to see that what we think is impossible, is very much possible:
These words of encouragement from one of Jesus’s greatest known followers, St. Paul of Tarsus, show us the way:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Philippians 2:3–5; 13)
Jesus invites us. Let us venture into our social frontier by taking stock of what we see in the mirror, asking God for help, and letting him use us to make a difference in the world, through the same care and compassion that drove him to give his life for us. Perhaps living our lives for others might truly be the wisdom (and revolution) we need.