Telegraph Avenue: A Novel by Michael Chabon (New York: Harper, 2012. 480 pp)

One of the most celebrated writers of his generation according to The Virginia Quarterly ReviewMichael Chabon was born in Washington D.C. He earned his B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh and his M.F.A from the University of California, Irvine. Chabon published his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, from his master’s thesis at the age of 25. His third novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, won the 2001 Pulitzer PrizeThe Yiddish Policemen’s Union won Chabon the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award. He is married to poet Lollie Groth.

Escaping to the Mountainside

“After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples” (John 6:1-3 ESV).

While I don’t intend to draw any universal theological conclusions from these verses, I find Jesus’ insistence on maintaining space and solitude amongst a busy schedule of teaching and healing to be fascinating. Here, God Incarnate reveals his human side and the importance of recharging his batteries. Jesus chooses at this time to avoid the crowds—the very people for which he has devoted his mission. At what point do we, as leaders, need to follow Jesus’ lead and step back from our important duties?

The latest release, Telegraph Avenue, from Pulitzer-winning author, Michael Chabon, thematically cuts to the heart of this question.

A Small Business Owner Drowning in the Complexity of Life

Set in Oakland, Telegraph Avenue is a heartfelt story surrounding the life of Archy Stallings, a small business owner and expecting father.

Archy’s business, a small record store called Brokeland Records founded in partnership with his best friend, Nat Jaffe, is failing. People aren’t buying music anymore—let alone vinyl, the store’s specialty. To make matters worse, a music mega-store is slated to open a couple of blocks away, a development certain to remove what little hope Archy has left for business success.

Aside from his dwindling business prospects, Archy’s home life fares no better. He is woefully underprepared for the conclusion of his wife’s pregnancy; he carries zero patience for his incorrigible, formerly famous movie-star father; he has no strategy for the 14 year old son of a former girlfriend who has arrived at his doorstep.

Archy’s life is complicated. It seems as if his futile attempts to balance his home and professional leave everyone worse off.

When Life Requires Recalibration

The more I read about Chabon’s complicated protagonist, the more Jesus’ temporary escape into the mountains came to mind. Archy needs time to recharge, to make things right with his family, and to prepare for the new life he and his wife will bring into the world. But his dream to lead a profitable small business gets in the way.

As leaders, we should have the wisdom and humility to recognize when it’s time to step aside and rejuvenate. Your life’s work should never ruin both your life and the lives of those around you.

Personally, I recall the time I needed to step down from leading worship. While the circumstances around this decision were painful, it allowed me to recalibrate my vocation and it helped me grow in my faith and my relationship with my wife.

Michael Chabon’s protagonist in Telegraph Avenue raises deep questions about what we value and how we can balance complicated lives. When the pressure mounts at work and at home, don’t forget to unplug once and awhile. In doing so, you might come to understand the importance of stepping down from your position to recalibrate and help others. Or, you might find the strength to return to your work with the vigor and balance it requires.

How to tell when it is time to step down:

Are you facing diminishing returns? No matter the hours you devote to the cause, your organization seems to sputter.

Are you in a morally questionable situation? Staying put in your position requires you to compromise your ethics.

Are you physically unable to perform your tasks to your highest potential? No matter the passion you have for your work, burn out is real. Whether it’s the rhythm of the Sabbath or a long-term sabbatical, don’t forget to charge your batteries.



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