Monday 1 July 2013

Mosquitoes, Comfort Zones, and Leadership

By Edmund Lo, S.J.


For five weeks this summer, I find myself again at the beautiful Camp Ekon, the Jesuit-run summer camp in Ontario, Canada. I have been here for a week along with the staff and counsellors, getting the camp-site ready for the campers. This “getting ready” can range from cleaning campers' washrooms to putting in the wooden swimming docks. I was assigned to rake the leaves off one of the trails on a humid afternoon last week, and this meant encountering creatures that bring out the absolute worst in me: mosquitoes.

Those of you who know me, will remember my deep dislike for mosquitoes. For this fateful encounter, I was already wearing long pants and a hooded windbreaker, but these creatures nevertheless swarmed and went for the part of my head and face that were not covered. I received five of these “head shots”, which I find to be the most irritating kind of bites. I thought to myself several times, “Argh! ARGH! Why am I doing this?” This blog entry is not meant to be another one of those mosquito rants, but the point is that these little devils certainly took me out of my comfort zone completely.

What is a comfort zone? It is difficult to precisely define it, but one can say that it is a state or situation in which we are not, or wish not to be challenged, and this in turn can have us remain stuck in neutral. What I would like to probe further is not the constitution of a comfort zone, but rather what happens when we are out of it. We can become flustered when things do not go our way; we can feel insecure when we are losing control of the situation. We can be out of our element.

The idea of comfort zone was revisited by the young camp counsellors at Camp Ekon – all in their late-teens –  when they were discussing the theme of this year's camp: “youth for others” (Y4O), a concept that originated from the Education Subcommittee of Canadian Jesuits International, and it can be seen as a kind of a derivative of Fr. Pedro Arrupe's “men/ women for others”. Quite a few of them mentioned that getting out of their comfort zone is a key aspect in being a Y4O. In the context of Camp Ekon, this has another significance: in addition to providing a great summer outdoor experience to the kids, this is also a place where leadership skills for young people are imparted, applied and polished. In other words, getting out of our comfort zone is part of the skill set of a leader.

Camp Ekon, the Jesuit-run youth camp in the Muskokas. (Photo: CJI)

When we think of situations where we need to be the leader, perhaps we instinctively ask ourselves this question, “How can I best maximize and utilize my abilities in this situation?” This is a good initial step, and the unofficial Camp Ekon motto echos this: carry the heavy load, look out for the little guy. This can be interpreted as a matter of ability; if I am able of carrying more, then help others out by all means. I would say that there is another layer that we should consider: being a leader is more than just taking bold initiatives, having good management skills and being sensitive to others when we are out of our comfort zones. There are times when we are called to lead by doing the dirtiest, most humbling job, not because of our capabilities, but because it needed to be done for some reason. Can you think of a “leader” who leads by these kind of examples?

I can think of one, and his name is Jesus. In particular, I am thinking of the passage of the Last Supper from the Gospel of John, where Jesus stooped down to wash the feet of the disciples. This act was not the job of the master, but it needed to be done, because whoever is to be “...the greatest among you must be your servant” (Mt 23:11). This is what is called servanthood. It is more than just taking one for the team; it is letting our acts of leadership be a service that is driven by love. I do this not because I am strong and capable, but because I love. When this happens, leading is not about me, but rather about others. Love sustains us and makes us grow when we are serving out of our comfort zones. Love is at the heart of any services of selflessness and sacrifice.

It is also helpful to remember that we cannot give what we do not have; if we have not been on the receiving end of a sacrificial love, it would be very difficult for us to believe that such a love is possible. Where do we get this? Again, from the Gospel of John, Jesus says: “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.” (Jn 15:12-13) The example par excellence of this sacrificial love is found in Jesus. We can also see the manifestation of such a love in our own lives, most notably from loving parents. We don't deserve this love, nor do we earn it. It is free, and it sets us free. If we cannot freely receive such a love, we cannot freely give it.

It can seem like a daunting task to jump from simply doing great things because I am capable to doing even the most menial tasks because I love in a sacrificial way, but this is precisely the game-changer: it transforms our relationships; we begin to see the true meaning of love and what it is capable of; our community resembles more and more the Kingdom of God.

I shall conclude this blog entry by inviting you to reflect on a few things:

1. What does my comfort zone look like? 

2. What are the things that prevent me from giving myself freely to others through service? In other words, how can I be more free so to serve others in a more profound way?

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