Gordon Self


July 21, 2014

I hate drama. Admittedly, it sometimes comes with the territory given the clinical and operational realities of Catholic health care. But I subscribe to a preventative ethics strategy whereby through investing our energies in preventing ethical conflict we can spare much unnecessary drama and hardship, including moral compromise.

One issue where this applies is the ethics of power.

In Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer observes that "a leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light upon some part of the world, and upon the lives of the people who dwell there." We use this quote in our leadership programs as it speaks to a theme I raised in my last column about Pope Francis' call to engage both the gifts and the messiness of our lives.

It acknowledges how power, which we all possess, is exercised to bring about good or to sow harm. Palmer challenges that we need to first become conscious of our power and to pay attention to how our words and actions impact others.

Unless we are in touch with the stuff of our lives, including the messy, unresolved issues, we will end up spilling it out all over others.

People in positions of leadership or authority must especially take care to judiciously wield the power we have been given, "lest the act of leadership do more harm than good," says Palmer.

Whether leaders of hospitals, governments, churches or families, we need to recognize our own areas of shadow and propensity to error. Shakespeare recognized this psychological reality when a character in Hamlet observed another "doth protest too much."

Indeed, the harshest critics of the moral lives of others may reveal their own unhealthy inner disposition. Pope Francis has been a healthy voice in the Church, not because he is perfect, but because he acknowledges in humility his own sinfulness.

In health care, we strive to discern the right thing to do when faced with difficult decisions in which there may be no good answer. In an increasingly hot labour market, for example, we need to weigh our options carefully in competing for a limited pool of staff to ensure we keep our beds open.

Should we impose mandatory overtime, and risk depleting our staff or triggering medical errors? These are not easy decisions. But they are made more difficult if we are not honest about our own compulsions.


I am a baby boomer, who, like many of my generational peers, is tempted to work myself to the bone at the expense of my health or the well-being of others. When it comes to overtime, or giving up earned days of rest or vacation, this lens may limit the solutions I propose to solve our staffing challenges.

If I am not in touch with my inner life, I may, as Parker Palmer warns, create conditions that are either as illuminating as heaven or as shadowy as hell.

Good ethics requires personal investment in understanding ourselves – not just the outer projections of our roles as leaders, but also, honest acceptance of the messy stuff within.

Pope Francis challenges us as a people of faith to be honest about our own inner realities, and by doing so, being able to reach out in compassion to others who also struggle with life's challenges.

Living our lives in constant fear that someone may see through the thin veneer of our self-imposed moral perfection is a sad state, and I think we as a Church have to grapple with the drama puritan attitudes can create.


This is not condoning moral irresponsibility. On the contrary, we are more apt to lead people to Christ by being Christ-like ourselves, including the humility, vulnerability and humanness of being a wounded healer for another.

We cannot do so if we hide behind our roles and authority. We must instead be prepared to stick out our necks, risk being a church that Francis prefers that makes mistakes.

Jesus teaches us that the kingdom of heaven is within. What is within our lives, if not fears, insecurities, doubts, as well as ardent dreams and hopes? It's all there. The wheat and the weeds that we are called to sift through.

It's in the mess of our lives that we are called to befriend, where the springboard of compassion and authentic ministry is rooted. This is where we discern, make choices and walk ethical lives.

(Gordon Self is vice president, mission, ethics and spirituality for Covenant Health and can be reached at mes@covenanthealth.ca.)