We are getting our noughties on (that’s an era, okay?), and reflecting on lessons from The West Wing. Grab a blue folder and join us:
West Wing Wisdom 2: We are all uniquely gifted and can do amazing things when we work together.
Let’s make it clear: this is a fictional show. The overly-idealistic portrayal of politics and its operatives has been noted by critics, such as Salon’s Heather Havrilesky who lamented ‘What rock did these morally pure creatures crawl out from under and, more important, how do you go from innocent millipede to White House staffer without becoming soiled or disillusioned by the dirty realities of politics along the way?’ (full article here).
But despite its obvious fiction, we can still learn from it. Idealistic is called idealistic for a reason: it’s how we’d love things to be. The collegiate nature of the fictional West Wing staff gives us a tantalizing glimpse of what could be achieved when people know how they fit in a team, and are encouraged by each other to do the best they can.
The characters on The West Wing are, for the most part, fighting alongside rather than against one another. They have their roles and seem to be able to express genuine happiness when others succeed in theirs.
Of course, there are instances where the staff annoy one another. They sometimes disagree with each other’s decisions. Josh and Toby even get the fists out at one stage. But for the most part, there is a great sense of teamwork in how they go about their business. Not only teamwork, but a real respect for each other’s talents.
Leo, the Chief of Staff, had a long career as a successful businessman and high-ranking politician, and had it not been for a history of substance abuse he would have been a potential presidential candidate himself. Rather than wallow in self-pity, he sees the potential in Jed Bartlet and throws his energy into seeing him succeed. When Sam has to unexpectedly take on Josh’s job description for a day in Season 4, he muses that he now realises Josh is smarter than he is. When Leo falls ill and the President needs to appoint a new Chief of Staff, the promotion of one staff member over the others is handled with surprising grace.
We real human beings are not products of Aaron Sorkin’s idealistic imagination. In real life you’d be hard-pressed to find a workplace where there was as little bitching and backstabbing as there is within the core staff of the fictional West Wing. But imagine if we could throw ourselves into not only doing our best but in actively helping other people succeed too!
This is relevant not only for our workplaces but for our church communities as well. Are we actively celebrating and encouraging each other in our respective gifts? Are we visibly championing not only the up-front gifts but the behind-the-scenes gifts as well? Are we genuinely able to be happy for others when they grow in the same gifts that we’re trying to grow in ourselves? Do we genuinely believe that there is plenty of room in the body of Christ for all of us and our unique strengths, passions and interests?
If we can truly understand our uniqueness and value in the eyes of God, how much easier will it be to live free from jealousy or unnecessary competitiveness? If we truly appreciated how we fit into the body of Christ, and how others fit as well, imagine how much more we could achieve – and enjoy it so much more in the process!
West Wing Wisdom 3: We get lost when we try to push an agenda while forgetting our values
In Season 4, Episode 1, the President’s re-election campaign is in full swing. On the campaign trail, Josh and Toby speak with Cathy, a local farmer’s daughter, about the economics of farming and how government policies are affecting livelihoods in her community. While Cathy tries to communicate the human reality of the situation, Josh and Toby keep re-focusing the conversation back to the politics – namely, to the President’s re-election campaign. For the rest of the day, the two men argue with each other about campaign strategy, until Josh’s assistant Donna loses patience and reprimands them for their lack of interest in the struggles of the people: ‘…and in that whole time, nobody mentioned [the election campaign] but you.’
In their desperation to see the President re-elected, Josh and Toby had forgotten the very values that caused them to work for him in the first place. Instead of being genuinely concerned about the struggles of the farming community and how they could make things better, they chose to pontificate about election strategy.
Does this sound familiar? Is this what some of us have done in our own lives? Perhaps we’ve been so set on developing strategies to ‘communicate the gospel’ that we’ve shifted some of our focus off the message itself and onto the delivery of the message. Or perhaps we’re becoming so obsessed with facilitating ‘amazing worship’ that we’ve shifted some of our passion off the object of our worship and onto the expression of worship.
During Season 7, Leo, now the former Chief of Staff, is brought in to help advise on the President’s agenda for his last few months in office. While the team already have a message calendar, Leo sees that something is missing. He challenges the staff to drop the drop the ‘strategic’ and politically safe plan and instead dare to consider what the really important things are. What do they really want to do with their last few months in office? The safe, tested agenda is thrown out the window in favour of a more radical to-do list that better reflects their beliefs, values and passions.
Setting an agenda is great. And there is much to be said for making a plan and sticking to it. This kind of commitment is a rare commodity in today’s flip-flopping culture. But if we realise that our agenda has gone askew, are we willing to wipe clean the whiteboard (or click delete on the smart board) and take a moment to recapture the values that made us who we are in the first place? In the book of Revelation in the Bible there are a bunch of letters written to various churches to both encourage and challenge them. One is to the church in Ephesus. The letter starts by praising the church for some of the good things they’re doing. But then it goes on: ‘Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.’ (Rev 2:4-5).
Just as West Wing staffers could get sidetracked by strategy, so too can we be sidetracked by programs and methods. Will we repent, like the church in Ephesus was asked to do?
So there you have it – three of my examples of West Wing Wisdom. Yes, it’s fiction. Yes, it is gloriously idealistic. You can always detox with some Veep or Utopia. But in the meantime, dig out those banged-up ye olde DVDs and set out on a quick-witted virtual walk-and-talk with some dear old friends.