Sunday, November 12, 2017

Assessing A Life Lived

How are we to properly assess one person’s life lived? What criteria should we apply? What standards are relevant to our decision? What examination should guide our decisions?

In the year 2017, this has become more than a philosophical question. Rather, it has become virtually a daily challenge for us as news headlines routinely present a series of individuals for our judgment. Most notably has been a divisive debate over our statues and memorabilia to Confederate leaders in the American Civil War, and the tsunami of accusations of sexual assault against entertainers and other public officials.

For some, the discussion is easy. Guilt or innocence is black and white in absolute terms. There are good people and there are bad people. For others, the assessment is not so easy, oftentimes presenting such questions is a gray hue. Why do otherwise good people do bad things? Why do otherwise bad people do good things? Depending on one’s perspective and circumstances, was Robin Hood a mere thief stealing from the rich, or a savior of the suffering poor?

From a religious perspective, the question is never easy. The Christian asks us to love our neighbor without exception, and to judge not lest we be judged. The Buddhist asks us to love the person while also resisting his/her “unhealthy” actions. The Jew tells us not to take vengeance or bear a grudge against our neighbor. The Moslem asks us to repel evil deeds by responding with good deeds. If we aspire to be a person of faith, our scripture teachings will not give us much comfort in the land of black and white. So what compass do we follow out of this wilderness?

First and foremost, we ought to remind ourselves that the people we are tempted to judge are just that – people. Fallible, inconsistent, and often incomprehensible human beings. Humans are fully capable of operating on both sides of judgement, even as one side may dominate over the other. We are capable of doing good work and supporting other humans, even as we have our secrets and regrets for past actions that we guard from public display. Our history cannot be relived; our desired apologies are likely too late; our values, thinking and beliefs likely change in each of our successive decades. Right and wrong are rarely absolute, but are most often circumstantial. Because of their contradictions, assessing our contemporaries is hard enough. How to assess our ancestors can feel virtually impossible.

Today, we are witnessing a seeming never-ending flow of women coming forward to take on the powerful over acts of abuse they have experienced. And this time they are being heard. In many instances, these acts go back years, even decades, held in secret by a convergence of cultural apathy, the power of money and influence, the feeling of being all alone and humiliated, the “blame the victim” retaliation, and the sense of powerlessness. But when Gretchen Carlson went public with her story of abuse from Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, and she won, it opened the gates to a flood of shared stories involving other perpetrators and their victims. Each woman who has come forth has created a domino effect of encouragement, and a safety net for others who have finally been able to think: “Maybe now they will believe me, and maybe I can help to stop this in the future.”

And so the once-mighty are falling. Weinstein, Spacey, Cosby, Lewis CK, Roy Moore; the list grows. Yet one cannot summarily dismiss the reality of the brilliant movies and acting careers enabled by Weinstein; the acting accomplishments of Spacey; the racial barriers broken by Cosby. Those accomplishments are as real as their indecencies. The juxtaposition of acclaimed artistry adjacent to the endless abuse of power are not easily assimilated in our collective minds. Yet both are all too real.

The same difficult conflict exists with our historical figures and personal ancestors, complicated by the passage of time, changes of circumstances, and altered social norms and scientific opinion. We admire John Kennedy and his Peace Corps alongside images of Jackie, Caroline and John-John, while acknowledging his White House womanizing. We admire the high oratory of Abraham Lincoln who ended slavery while preserving the Union, even as we acknowledge his opposition to “mixing the races” and his suspension of civil liberties during the Civil War. We admire the brilliance of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence that proclaimed “all men are created equal,” even as he concurrently condoned limiting such equality. We canonize George Washington for winning the Revolution and turning the ideal of our unique Constitution into a working government, even as his slaves maintained his plantation at Mount Vernon. Southerners revere Robert E, Lee and assorted leaders of the Confederacy as well as the everyday grunt soldier for their wartime skills and their “noble sacrifice for the Cause,” even as we must finally acknowledge that they were insurrectionists attempting to break up the American Union, and their Cause of slavery was anything but noble – an abomination, in fact – and their Cause was defeated.

Monuments have been built, schools and buildings and institutions have been named, and quotations have been repeated for such contemporary and historical persons. Each had worthy output of note; each had output or conduct that is seen as unacceptable in today’s norms. So what monuments do we build? Which do we tear down or un-name?

We ought do well to anoint our heroes cautiously. The Abrahamic religious traditions talk about a full accounting of our life before God. If each life – including our own – has its share of “good and evil,” then both sides of that ledger will have entries. When we are required to assess the quality of any individual life lived, we need to avoid easy absolute judgements – a person is all good or all bad – and rather make the harder effort for a “net” assessment. Did the “good” (his/her contributions to the betterment of society) outweigh the “bad” (detrimental actions toward society)? And in the cases of historical figures, good and bad must necessarily also be measured against the cultural norms of the times – just as our honorable actions today must not be wholly assessed against the different societal norms of 100 years from now.

So I will watch a Weinstein movie and appreciate its brilliance, even as I support his expulsion from his Weinstein Corporation and the Motion Picture Academy. I will support the Jefferson Memorial, even as I acknowledge his slave-holding and affair with Sally Hemmings. Roy Moore has given a lifetime of public service, but he does not deserve a U.S. Senate seat due to a lifetime of ill-will towards others. I will support a statue of a Confederate soldier honoring a commitment to bravery and allegiance to community, but move that statue to a Confederate cemetery. Similarly, the Confederate Battle Flag and other War artifacts should be kept but moved into appropriate museums. They are historical memorabilia which have no place on public government grounds that serve all citizens. I would leave the statue of General Robert E. Lee at Washington & Lee University honoring his military leadership, university presidency, and model behavior for post-war reconciliation. Yet any statues of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the Ku Klux Klan, should be obliterated due to his continued fight against such reconciliation. Un-name that which is no longer appropriate, but perhaps find another commemoration where appropriate. Service to the Confederacy should not be an automatic disqualifier for commemoration – what else did that person do in life? Extend compassion to the person; deter, condemn, and punish when necessary his/her unhealthy actions. For it is through compassion that we open that most difficult door to healing and forgiveness.

In the end, these are case-by-case decisions, not global knee-jerk ones. They should be made predicated on the harder work of taking a balanced view of a life’s contribution, without Monday-morning quarterbacking the times and circumstances. However, what is important in all cases is that we tell the FULL and complete story of these lives, not just selected versions. Stories of how good can be done in spite of our human shortcomings, and how bad can be done in spite of our propensity for good. How we choose to live, and how we resolve our human contradictions, is the real story of our lives. I am comfortable in these contradictions, because they are my own very human contradictions.

©   2017   Randy Bell     


Anonymous said...

Who knew it could all get so complicated? Thanks....

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Randy. I love your work.