More and more, I’m living in shades of gray, but not the fictional sexy kind.
The real-life messy kind where your heart grows bigger and your mind grows cloudier yet clearer all at the same time. You see, I’m finding more and more that the rhetoric of complete certainty—the seductive prose of the absolute—can lure us like a piper’s flute, that path leads to a place I find uncomfortable. It feels restrictive and scratchy, like a cheap wool sweater.
Of course, I can’t dismiss the core beliefs that, like clay rising up from the wheel, have formed the shape and essence of who I am: I believe human beings are meant to rise above violence toward each other and our fellow creatures. I believe children are close to God and to care for them is holy work.
I believe our planet itself is filled with spirit, and that when we show stewardship for the earth we nourish our souls. I believe the whole point of being alive is to accept the inevitability of suffering while simultaneously choosing to be joyful.
These beliefs inspire me to live in a certain manner. They influence the way I approach my marriage, my children, my work. They influence how I spend my money and my vote.
What they don’t affect much is my ability to figure out anyone but myself.
Many years ago, I listened to an impassioned speech about leadership in general and about Martin Luther King, Jr., in particular. The speaker challenged us to think about how we can revere King as a civil rights leader even though it is widely acknowledged that he “failed as a husband and a father.”
King’s personal failings reportedly included illicit sex and violence. His missteps as a scholar included multiple instances of copping others’ work without attribution (the University of British Columbia’s policy on plagiarism apparently includes one of King’s papers as an example of plagiarism of the most blatant type).
But the speaker asked us to consider the fact that King’s failures on the one hand do not diminish his great service to civil liberty on the other. His broken promises as a man do not unravel his brilliance as a leader. And nor does the fact that we remember and honor him for his contributions on behalf of humankind undo the mistakes he made as a mere mortal.
We have heroes, and our heroes fall. But do they fall? Or were they on the ground all along?
Howard Gardner, professor of education at the Harvard School of Education and author of several bestselling books, writes in his recent volume, Extraordinary Minds (Basic Books, 1997):
“[T]he costs of embarking on a life marked for extraordinariness are considerable. . . . There are occasional extraordinary saints, as well as those rare achievers who maintain equilibrium in their lives. But the physics of extraordinariness pulls sharply in one direction. . . . The lives of extraordinary individuals are often rimmed with casualties, some psychological, some mortal. Indeed, most of the extraordinary individuals I’ve studied have turned out to be very difficult people–often tortured, often inflicting suffering on those close to them. It is not uncommon for such extraordinary individuals to be unhappy, to undergo breakdowns, to feel suicidal, and to become estranged from close associates, who in turn may feel that their lives have been ruined.”
Even Gandhi, the moral titan, does not prove an exception to this pattern. Gardner reports that Gandhi’s relations with his wife suffered constant tension and his relationship with his oldest son, Harilal, was “an unmitigated disaster.”
The warped personalities of the extraordinary, surmises Gardner, “grow out of their own, often tortured experiences.
The extreme pressures of ‘going it alone’ early in the career, combined with enormous demands on them once they have ‘made it,’ conspire to make many of them eligible as subjects for a pathological best-seller or film.”
Such a paradox is a difficult pill to swallow in a culture whose dominant fantasy peddlers toil endlessly to keep us believing in the dichotomy of good guys and bad guys, and carry on an allegiance to the myth that the good guys always win.
It’s kind of like the way we believe in good marriages and bad marriages, good parents and bad parents.
I used to believe in those, before I got married, had kids, got divorced, got remarried, had step kids, and learned a lot more about love, failure, beauty and grace.
And now, I’m more inclined to believe in good days and bad days and a lot of love, and leave it at that.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Bryonie Wise