The Christian tradition (and we are certainly not alone in this) has long sought to emphasize the value of regular self-examination. In the Book of Common Prayer, as part of the annual Ash Wednesday service, the congregation is invited to consider Lent, in part, a time of “self-examination and repentance.”
The two do indeed belong together. For the true meaning of the word “repentance” is “to turn around”, with the implication that having turned around, one is to head in a different direction. Far from the popular dreary notion of beating one’s self up for one’s sins and feeling very sorry for it, repentance is the positive process of recognizing where we need to make changes, and dedicating ourselves to starting over, to beginning a new and more healthy chapter. One cannot really do that, however, if one is unaware of the places in life where changes do need to be made. And that awareness is the fruit of self-examination. To examine one’s self is to be willing to face the truth of one’s life honestly. It does not mean to be undeservedly hard on one’s self. But it does mean looking at one’s life with both love and honesty.
Self-examination and repentance are not only good practices for individuals. They are also good practices for organizations and communities. Just as people have places in their lives where changes need to be made and new beginnings launched, so do groups. I have been thinking a bit about this in the wake of our recent national elections. Regardless of how you voted, the results of all of our voting brought one party success and the other much less success. In the aftermath of these results, a great many leaders of the Republican Party have been trying to explain their disappointment. They have sought to place blame in various different places. What has been fascinating to me as I have watched this blame game unfold is the reluctance that most of the Republican leadership seems to have to actually engage in the time-honored practices of self-examination and repentance. When things don’t work out the way we expected them to, sometimes it is indeed because of forces beyond our control. But sometimes (and more often than we probably like to admit), the results have to do with us: things we said or didn’t say, things we did or didn’t do. It is a very natural thing to want to find a scape-goat for our problems, someone or something that we can use to assure us that we have no need to change – rather, our problem is entirely due to someone or something else. But if we devote all our energies to finding a scape-goat (or many scape-goats), then we won’t have much left to devote to looking at ourselves. And that usually means we miss something crucially important.
This is not really a blog post about Republicans, nor is it really about Democrats, either. The reaction of most Republican leaders in the wake of the election simply provides a good real-life example of a problem that afflicts us all to some degree, that afflicts most organizations, and that seems to afflict politicians to a considerable degree. And that is our reluctance to really look at ourselves, to see ourselves both in love and honesty, and recognize where we need to change.
It takes a certain courage, a certain strength of heart, to do the work of self-examination and to follow that up with genuine repentance – true change. But if we are willing to find that courage, the fruit of these practices both for us as individuals and for the organizations to which we belong can be abundant, indeed.