THE BLOG

Bullying, Caretaking, and Spiritual Community

09/19/2012 12:10 pm ET | Updated Nov 19, 2012

"And there is no peace, no true release

No secret place to crawl

And there is no rest for the ones God blessed

And he blessed you best of all."

-- "King of Bohemia," by Richard Thompson

Last month on the Blog o' Gnosis, I wrote, "As a society, we cope uneasily with the fact that gifts and talents are not evenly distributed among the population." Seeing someone in action who is incredibly talented can be inspiring, and it can also make us feel acutely our comparative lack of that talent or skill.

Because they are so good at some stuff, we often build up as leaders those who are gifted -- especially if what they are good at includes speaking, writing or performance. Sometimes they even become spokespeople for entire communities formed around their ideas and aspirations. This is especially true in spiritual communities, where all too often the emotional release of a great performance is mistaken for genuine enlightenment or transformation. In this game, the ones with the most charisma usually win.

And what do they win? Power. We listen to them, we defer to their opinions, we assume they are right until we are forced to disagree with them -- often through painful experience. Meanwhile, we trust them to guide us and keep the community's well-being foremost in their minds as they go about leading things.

But being comfortable with power has very little to do with being a good leader. And sometimes those who like the power we've given them feel the most trapped by the responsibilities of actual leadership. One could almost say victimized.

Hearing these Richard Thompson lyrics in the car the other day reminded me how those moments feel. You give it your all, and still you get criticized. Blamed when things go wrong, sneered at by those who used to hang on your every word. Every parent knows this feeling -- and if you haven't felt it yet, just wait.

So much depends on exactly how we rise from this spot. Our response at this precise moment determines whether we truly are leaders, or just despots. If we lash out because we are tired, or pissed, or had a bad day, or even if we truly feel that nobody should ever question us, we have set in motion a bullying/caretaking dynamic from which our community may never recover.

Here's how the bullying/caretaking game goes: Someone realizes that the person at the top isn't leading well, and says so. The leader retaliates by participating (or in some cases being the instigator) in trashing the person who speaks out. Policy issues are re-framed as personality clashes, with the whistle-blower now characterized as gunning for one of the leader's favored deputies rather than voicing a legitimate concern. The pile-on continues until the person who originally spoke out is either bullied into silence or driven out.

This is old news to anyone who's read my book on Reclaiming, a spiritual community where I have watched this dynamic play out more than once. I'm kind of tired of thinking about it, and I'm definitely tired of writing about it. But when I heard about their latest kerfuffle, what got me interested enough to write again was the other side of the bullying/caretaking equation: the caretakers.

Caretakers are the peacemakers in the group. They strive to help everyone get along, they tend to avoid conflict, and they are so aligned with the group's ideals that they will put up with a significant amount of less-than-ideal behavior to get to the good parts again. Usually they do a lot of volunteer work to keep community events running smoothly. They often have great leadership skills but may be more comfortable in a secondary role, so are happy to cede the limelight to the natural performers.

Caretakers find support and friendship in the group, and this benefit usually trumps their periodic misgivings. But caretakers are not completely altruistic. So long as they stay peacekeepers while others get trashed, they do accrue some power without having ultimate responsibility to lead.

And the benefits of the role can be significant. If your livelihood is dependent on the clients or students you gain from the group, why would you risk that income source to speak out? What could possibly compel you to try to change the group dynamic, if failure meant financial struggle or open conflict with your friends?

It is quite possible to be a caretaker until you are financially stable enough, or have a strong enough support network outside the group, to leave. Or, if you live far enough away from the epicenter, it may require only occasional gymnastics to stay out of the fray while building your network at a safe distance.

Changing the DNA of an established community is a daunting task. Because each role is dependent on the other, it takes a tremendous amount of energy to reverse the cycle. Leaders who don't see the harm in lashing out have to actually listen, and begin the hard inner work of changing their patterned responses. Caretakers have to step out of their comfort zones and use their power to stop the cycle in spite of the personal risks.

Or, nothing can change. Caretakers will keep things running, while a new crop of gifted people sees the model of leadership in place and figures their performance skills are up to the job. Sadly, no one is there to teach them otherwise.

This article was originally published in the Blog o' Gnosis.

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