Victoria Atkinson White: Toggling between abhorrence and appreciation

Christmas jingle bells

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Social entrepreneurs have to understand the world they want to change. To do this, they must abhor the ills of the status quo and appreciate the system that produces them, writes a managing director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

There are numerous variations of the song. The one most frequently bellowed in my house is, “Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg.”

It is maddening. Not only are my children (and their friends) butchering a delightful Christmas tune, but they are violating a cardinal rule in my house: No Advent or Christmas activities until we eat the Thanksgiving turkey!

Christmas creeps into stores earlier each year. In holiday commercials, families frolic in fake snow wearing the latest fashion trends and announcing unbelievable sales. And the pop-ups are unavoidable on every smart device.

As a minister with strong liturgical leanings, I love the way that the seasons of the church year are made visible in worship. For my soul, the stripping of the altar is powerful. The red and yellow of Pentecost is exciting. And the purple of Advent announces another God-given fresh start at being the hands and feet of Christ in the world.

I need the Advent season. I need the Christmas season. I need them all, in the order I have known all my life. They offer a rhythm my soul knows as well as the beating of my heart.

Right now, the Advent purple represents a new year as well as the current year coming to a close, the purple bruises left behind from the places where I fell short. I want to hold tight to Advent and wait for Christmas in my own space, even if I cannot keep it out of the stores and off the television. So I demand, “Not until we eat the Thanksgiving turkey!” both to separate the secular and liturgical holiday seasons and to help my children appreciate the significance of holy seasons as I do, even if it means using a stuffed turkey as a marker in time.

It does not work.

In fact, the more I rage against their singing, the more they sing. Sometimes they even create new verses. I never knew how much Batman and Robin could do with jingle bells.

A phenomenon Roger Martin and Sally Osberg explain in their new book, “Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works,” helps me understand my righteous irritation. Social entrepreneurs must navigate a number of tensions as they try to understand the world they wish to change. At the top of the list is abhorrence vs. appreciation.

When trying to change the status quo, social entrepreneurs have to toggle between abhorring the existing ills and appreciating the system that produces those ills. Martin and Osberg warn that the toggle between abhorrence and appreciation is a delicate one. Tilting too far to one extreme for too long makes it difficult to engage the system deeply enough to be able to evoke change.

Perhaps this is why my admonitions to stop singing do not work. Regardless of how much I abhor Batman’s smelling and Robin’s egg laying, my visceral reaction only encourages my children’s ushering in of Advent and Christmas before I am ready.

But if I step back and try to appreciate why “Jingle Bells” is creeping into my world before its time, I see something different.

It is not just “Jingle Bells.” It is “Joy to the World,” “Away in a Manger,” “We Three Kings” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” My children are practicing for the annual Christmas program at church. Every Sunday they sing these songs over and over.

And it is cold. This summer, our family moved to the Virginia mountains, where it gets colder earlier in the year than the children are accustomed to. They associate cold and winter with Advent and Christmas. Their shivering bodies are telling them it is time for “Jingle Bells.”

Their system is telling them it is time to change the seasons.

Appreciating the system in which my children are immersed offers a contrasting perspective to simply abhorring the Christmas consumerism that is crash-landing in my world before Thanksgiving. Appreciating the world in which my children are living gives me insight into the way to change their behavior.

Toggling between abhorrence and appreciation, Martin and Osberg believe, begins with meaningful understanding. This understanding of the system invites leaders into opportunities to renegotiate the status quo that is producing the ills they so abhor.

What are the social injustices your institution seeks to change? What is the wicked problem your institution finds abhorrent in the community you serve? And more importantly, what are you doing about it? Where is your energy focused? When you speak about the issue, is it out of abhorrence for what is wrong? Or is it with an appreciation for the system from which the issue arises and a hope that change is possible?

Abhorrence comes from the heart. It is a visceral reaction to an injustice. But it is also just that -- a reaction. Appreciation is an active cultivation through knowledge and experience. Appreciation is found in the heart of the people you are called to serve. Both are necessary for Christian institutions to further their mission. Thriving communities are the ones successfully toggling between the two to change the status quo.

Isn’t God’s renegotiation of the status quo what Advent and Christmas are about? And Batman and Robin aside, if my children are, in their own way, embracing the in-breaking of Emmanuel into a system, a world greatly in need of a change in the status quo, do I really have a reason to rage?

Bells jingling and children singing to welcome the ultimate change in the system is something I want to appreciate all year long.