God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains.
— C. S. LEWIS, THE PROBLEM OF PAIN
I grew up believing my father was a sandy blond golfer-turned-insurance-broker from Omaha, Nebraska. As a black-haired, olive-skinned kid from Orange County, I never connected with that narrative. Surfing was my bag, not golf, and just the thought of golden cornfields was enough to send me running for deep, blue water. That’s why a twenty-seven-year-old me didn’t flinch to hear my mother eke out these words: “Your biological father isn’t who we thought he was. He’s a Brazilian hairstylist from Newport Beach, California.” My first reaction wasn’t anger. Instead, I said to myself, “This explains everything!”
Fast forward. A year later, I’m standing in the lobby of a chic Newport Beach salon staring into the eyes of its owner — my long lost father. I could immediately see myself in him, but all he saw in me was another customer. After the most awkward haircut of my life, I pulled him aside to talk. I don’t know what he expected, but I can guarantee it wasn’t these words: “I think you’re my biological father.” I don’t know what I expected either, but I can tell you for sure it wasn’t that he’d turn away.
I’d spend the next twelve years waiting to find out whether it was true — that this black-haired, olive-skinned man from Newport Beach was really the father I’d been missing my entire life.
The Paradox of Modern Pain
Any effective salesperson will tell you that the key to selling something is to identify a buyer’s pain and then offer a cure. In a world where the average consumer sees anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 brand messages per day, you and I are literally inundated with “remedies” for every little thing that ails us. Struggling under the weight of your hectic schedule? Amazon has over 50,000 time-management resources to help you get things done. Worried you’re drifting out of touch with your children? Facebook’s Messenger Kids app will help restore that relationship. Think you’re losing your mind? There’s a mental health app for that — and plenty more if the first doesn’t work out.
Absence creates a particular kind of pain. It wasn’t until a paternity test confirmed my father’s identity that I realized just how much his absence had impacted my life. Personal drive, hunger for relationships, anxiety, insecurity — I began to realize these good and bad features of my persona were rooted in an attempt to deal with the fact that Dad was never in the picture. As I recognized how deeply I’d been shaped by my father’s absence, I wondered what my presence (or lack thereof) meant for those around me. Was I truly there for my wife and kids? Was I engaged or was I going through the motions? Who was I hurting when I failed to show up or truly be present? Did the pain of my father’s absence guide me to struggle with and need presence?
This book was motivated by the problem of absence and the pain it causes to us and those around us. Pain is a tricky subject for Christians. Why do bad things happen to good people anyway? That may be a strange question to ask at the head of a book on mindful Christian leadership,1 but when it comes to God and pain, it’s one of the only questions most of us know to ask. Whether the pain comes from poverty, cancer, or terrorism, writers like C. S. Lewis help us to find some comfort in knowing that, underneath it all, God’s holy, wise, and good purposes give meaning to the suffering we see out there in the world.
But what about the pain in us? What about the everyday grief we suffer as leaders? From the mundane discomfort of one “pointless” meeting after another to the immense heartache of a failed product launch or ministry kick-off, we are surrounded by people and circumstances that seem as though they’re designed to inflict maximum psychological torment. It’s no wonder 40 million American adults suffer from some form of anxiety disorder right now.2 Of the 16.2 million who experienced a major depressive episode in 2016,3 a quick scan of the growing literature on depression among executives confirms that leaders take up more than their fair share.4
Psychology aside, what about the physical pain tormenting leaders today? Chronic headaches, insufferable back pain, high blood pressure, unexplained weight gain— these are just a few of the embodied afflictions that plague modern leaders. But instead of stopping to consider whether this might be the kind of pain God wants to speak through, we pop another aspirin and soldier on. We go to bed late, wake up early, mainline coffee, and skip lunch, all so we can keep up with the never-ending barrage of items on our to-do lists. We beat our bodies into submission, fooling ourselves into thinking that someday we’ll be able to cut back, get a good night’s sleep, and remember what it feels like to be a human again. But what if that day never comes? What if the perpetual grind slaps us with the absence of forced retirement or early death before we ever realize just how far we’ve wandered from the path of fully human presence?
The paradox of our moment is this: despite a virtually endless supply of digital and analog therapies, leaders are in more pain than ever — physically, psychologically, socially, and spiritually. We may be surrounded by the most technologically advanced healthcare system in the world, but most of us struggle to get even our most basic medical needs addressed. Psychologically, we’re overcome by anxiety and depression. Socially, we’re plugged into every social network, yet we feel more disconnected than ever. Spiritually, we wonder if the Bible has any practical wisdom to speak into our situation. And in our most honest moments, we can’t help but look in the mirror and ask the vexing question: How long can you keep this up?
How long can you keep
• grinding out eighty-hour work weeks before you go down in flames?
• putting your marriage on the backburner before your spouse decides to give up?
• missing your kids’ soccer games before they stop looking for you in the stands?
• treating your employees like cogs in a machine before they walk out?
• pushing your life aside before you realize your time is all up?
Conclusion: Presence, Absence, and the Journey Ahead
To bring this introductory chapter to a close, Eboni, Kenny, and I want to make a claim in no uncertain terms: the pain we experience as leaders is a function of one thing — absence. What does absence look like? We’re going to spend the rest of the book fleshing that out. But for now, absent leaders
• spend more time looking at a clock than at their employees,
• build spaces that discourage interaction and wonder why their team can’t collaborate,
• burn the wick at both ends until they burn out,
• drive disengagement by neglecting relationships and alienating their team, and
• let their past distract them from engaging the present and charging into the future.
The remedy we’re after — the cure we believe will not only rid us of our pain but help us find a new level of fulfillment and success — lies in rediscovering what it means to be fully present as leaders.
For now, we’ll define that sense of presence as being where you are in time and space, fully attuned to your bodily and social presence with a clear sense of where you’ve been (past), where you’re going (future), and how that story impacts the present. Don’t worry if that sounds a bit abstract right now. Like absence, our idea of presence is something we intend to fill out more concretely as the book goes on. Before we can do that, we need to get a deeper sense of the cost of absence and what presence can do to lift that burden.
Before You Move On
Take a moment to pause with a simple breath prayer. Pray it for as long as you like, feeling yourself relax and become more centered in your awareness of God’s presence with you right now.
Breathe in: Abba Father.
Breathe out: I’m home.
1. Mindfulness is a difficult concept to pin down in modern usage. In this book, we’re not taking a hard line for or against it. Rather, we’re treating mindfulness as a way to apply the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16; cf. Phil 2:5) to every dimension of our humanity. For more on what mindfulness is and how we intend to work with it, see appendix A.
2. Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Facts and Statistics,” ADAA, https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics.
3. National Institute of Mental Health, “Major Depression,” NIMH, most recently updated February 2019, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/major-depression.shtml.
4. For a brief introduction to the problem, see Jeanne Sahadi, “Depression in the C-suite,” CNN Business, August 7, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/09/30/success/ceos-depression/index.html.
Excerpted with permission from How to Be Present in an Absent World by Daniel Montgomery with Dr. Eboni Webb and Kenny Silva, copyright Daniel Montgomery.
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For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ. — 1 Corinthians 1:5
What pain are you experiencing right now? How can you begin to get back presence in your life to help lift the burden? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
How to Be Present in an Absent World: A Leader’s Guide to Showing Up, Paying Attention, and Becoming Fully Human