Let Them Eat Questions

The first time my mother-in-law told me she didn't know a thing about marriage or parenting, I thought she was just hiding her strong opinions behind a cloak of modesty. When she explained that the older she grew, the less she knew, I was pretty sure she was just a) being self-deprecating, or b) subtly suggesting that perhaps I could stand to reconsider how much I thought I knew.

That was a decade ago; much has changed since then. I know my mother-in-law a lot better, for one thing. I know her well enough to be convinced she meant exactly what she said those years ago, and much to my dismay, I think she might be right.

More and more, I'm discovering that while the rhetoric of complete certainty--the seductive prose of the absolute--can lure me as powerfully as a piper's flute, that path leads to a place I find uncomfortable. It feels restrictive and scratchy like a passageway through lovely but too-close thorn bushes.

Surely I don't intend to dismiss some of the beliefs that, like clay rising up from the wheel, have been shaped and smoothed over years of life experience, and have formed the 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. Take, for example, Bill Clinton.

Yes, he's on trial now, and a bunch of you think he's a scumbag liar who deserves whatever he gets. Even more of you think that while he's got some mighty serious flaws as a husband and a man, the impeachment trial and all that's preceded it has been a sorry waste of time and money. Whatever you think, the pundits agree that Clinton is unlikely to be convicted, and will therefore finish out his last term. But only time will tell if Clinton is remembered as a great leader or a lout.

Leader or lout? How hard is that? Harder than it used to be, for me, anyway. I was relieved last Sunday at church to find I was not alone in my gray abyss. Our pastor preached about leadership, in general, and about Martin Luther King, Jr., in particular. She challenged us as a (small, diverse, liberal, reconciling United Methodist) congregation 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 our pastor 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 civil rights 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."

Leader and lout?

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 became a wife and a mother. Now, I'm not as clear. I'm more inclined to believe in good days and bad days, and leave it at that.

Not that I think there are no guidelines. Hitting, for example, is a no-brainer: don't do it. It's easy to condemn an action, especially out of context. Harder to judge the human being who engages in that action in real life. Take war. I'm against it. Until I think about Hitler and the Holocaust, and the men who fought in World War II to stop it (yes, I endured the torture of Saving Private Ryan). And suddenly, I'm not so sure.

I bring this all up because I face a complicated dilemma: just as I find myself feasting on questions, my children are starved for answers. Sophie, especially, at the concrete age of eight and a half, wants me to spell it all out once and for all. "Mama," she asks, "you're a Democrat, right?"

"Yes, you could say I'm a Democrat."

"Me, too." She pauses. "Are you a Christian?"

Well, let's see, we've been attending a Christian church a couple of blocks from our house, and we like it a lot. The kids have been happily flourishing in its Sunday School program. Yet, am I a Christian?

"I wouldn't say I'm not a Christian," I venture, in what I know is an unsatisfying answer. "Maybe I'm more of a Unitarian--you know I like the teachings of Buddha, too, and surely Gandhi must have been a saint. But I am a follower of Christ," I say.

She thinks on this, and I resist the urge to go on. I know I have left her empty handed. "Well," she finally says, "I'm a Christian--and a Royalist."

"A Royalist?" I ask. "When did you become a Royalist?"

"Are you a Royalist?" she wants to know.

"No, I am not. Of that one, I'm sure," I say, happy to give a straight answer. But sad that it's not the one she was hoping for.

"Well, Kit is a Royalist," Sophie offers, more hesitant now.

"Kit? Oh, Kit, from your book," I say. Sophie is reading some historical fiction about the very early years in the American Colonies. Of course she identifies with the heroine's political sensibilities. I explain that the book she is reading is set well in advance of the Revolutionary War, and that perhaps if I had lived at that time, I would have been a Royalist, too.

"Really?" she asks. "You think you might have?"

"Maybe. I mean, revolutions are scary--you know how I feel about war. I bet Kit didn't want to see people hurt."

"I bet she didn't."

Let Sophie have her heroine. Let her have her answers, while they last.

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