“If someone isn’t what others want them to be, the others become angry. Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.” So wrote Paulo Coelho in his book The Alchemist. And he’s right – perhaps in this age more than any other, when anger can flash everywhere, even across borders, at the speed of light. It’s seems like the more we judge others the less we understand life, or history, or most dangerous of all, ourselves. Somehow, we become smaller, the better angels of our nature receding into the dark distance.
Yesterday’s post about Senator John McCain was prompted by just such a circumstance. The person I spoke to felt confident enough in his knowledge of the politician to show little sympathy now that McCain could be facing his final days. He had never met him, knew little of his life or accomplishments – only that he was a Republican senator and that was enough.
It is a sign and a spirit of the age that we are so poor at handling moral contradictions in others. The list of others’ faults grows exponentially, often overlooking the accomplishments and strengths of their lives. Most leaders have become fodder for our present angst: Kennedy, Churchill, both Trudeaus, Eleanor Roosevelt, any southern Civil War leader, Gloria Steinem, John A. McDonald, and, yes, John McCain – these and thousands more no longer survive our ethical scrutiny and kicked off into history’s trash heap.
In an age when one can be termed an “activist” just by posting a tweet, it becomes easy for us to lose our sense of grey and fulminate in the regions of black and white logic. Yet many of those critics, frequently ourselves, have lives that are just as full on contradictions as those we seek to pummel. We can no longer balance history, not because its prominent figures were so terrible, but because we have lost our ability to see others in context, as we ourselves would wish to be seen.
Our assessments of this world seem increasingly defined by the word “but.” Accomplishments that are listed become immediately put aside by that great disqualifier. “Yes, he was a good president, but …” “Yes, she ran a successful business, but …” “True, he was a great civil society leader, but …”. The negatives were understood in previous eras, but today they are enough to bar almost anyone. We have become so taken with our criticisms that one “but” is all it takes for us to overlook a life of personal, public or professional accomplishment or pain. As author Joyce Rachelle puts it: “One mistake is all they see.” In fact, in most cases it’s all they need.
Such a spirit makes civil society difficult to achieve, just as it renders politics virtually unworkable. If such things are important to us, we must, in most cases, learn to substitute andfor but. A healthy mind can handle both the meritable and the imperfect as things move ahead. We have to learn to see people as both things together and not just one or the other. This ability to keep two opposing realities in our minds at the same time is a mark of maturity not blindness. Kids see their world in black and white; adults are meant to see the greyness in life and work with it.
People – all people, including ourselves – are one thing andanother. John McCain was occasionally flawed as a politician, but on other occasions he was brilliant in the Senate chamber. And then there was that life of his – dedicated to public service, brave in public life beyond the normal, and, yes, there is that remarkable odyssey of those years in a Vietnamese prison, his unwillingness to abandon others, and his belief in honour that can never be cast aside when considering him.
And as John McCain struggles to get out his final thoughts about life, family, service to country, and his belief in hope, all it takes is another flawed individual with not even a small dose of such a life to leave him by the side of the road. Should we continue to entertain such an oversimplified perspective, such a tragic sense of judgment, then no one will be fit to lead and others will be too proud of their opinions to follow and collaborate. This is a complex world filled with complex people. We can never navigate it with a simplistic vision. As Tracy Lea LaRussa would say it: “Judge tenderly, if you must. There is usually a side you have not heard, a story you know nothing about, and a battle waged that you are not having to fight.”