I often joke that I may have to spend some time in purgatory when I die before earning a place in heaven. I note that I can rock along for quite some time doing my best to be a good person, and then I do or say something not so nice that cancels out my kindnesses. Truth be told I’m about average when it comes to my humanity. Like the scores of people who came before me and those who inhabit this earth with me, I make mistakes. Such is the inevitability for most of us.
Now and again I see another soul who seems to have achieved a bit more perfection. Both of my grandmothers would fall into that category. They were generous, loving guileless women, but I have often thought that being isolated from most of the ugliness of the world as they were may have helped them not to back slide. Women today spend decades out in an often unforgiving world, and the temptation to fight back sometimes leads to anger and invective of the sort that my grandmas never felt compelled to invoke. I believe that I will ultimately be forgiven for my lapses because I also firmly feel that my God is all about redemption. I mean, isn’t that more or less what Jesus told the world as He died on the cross?
I have been reminded of the power of honest contrition by admissions of weakness by heroes of mine like Mother Teresa, Jimmy Carter, and John McCain. All three made it clear in their writings and orations that they sometimes failed to follow their own principles. They spoke of making faulty decisions that they later regretted. In other words they were as human as any of us, which I suspect was also the case of my grandmothers, not withstanding my idealized image of them. As humans we are filled with imperfections and contradictions. When all is said and done the question becomes how we have attempted to live the majority of our days, and whether or not we have been willing to admit our transgressions and attempted to change.
My mother and my teachers all taught me that to sin is human, but to ask forgiveness is divine. They also insisted that once I demonstrated true contrition it was important that I move forward rather than eternally looking backward at my failings. I was schooled in the idea that I should love all of my fellow men, and that my hatred should be aimed at behaviors that I found to be egregious, not people. That’s an admittedly difficult formula to follow, but it became a glorious model to use in my work as an educator. I was able to separate the flaws from the person, and deal with actions while still caring about the child.
We are currently in a cycle of judgmental excess, all around. We even take our self righteousness to the extreme of looking back in history and condemning entire civilizations and ways of thinking. We forget the lessons of social science that tell us that generalizations are rarely acceptable in assessing humans. We also forget how different the world was from ours even a hundred years ago.
I have been watching the Amazon Prime series Lore and have been taken by the ignorance and superstitions that were prevalent in the world of my ancestors. Scientific and medical knowledge was so antiquated. Philosophies were often based on superstitions. People were generally uneducated much like my two sweet grandmothers who were unable to read or write, much less understand scientific and sociological intricacies. I find it oddly ridiculous that in our modern era there are so many who would overlay our own knowledge and understanding on people who often lived in isolation with little or no education simply because they appear to have behaved badly in a past that was as human as the present.
I also have a problem with pointing fingers of judgement at historical figures who eventually attempted to atone for admitted transgressions and mistakes. It is so easy to insist that none of us would ever have been willing to follow bad leaders, but then we will never know if that is true or not. We cannot possibly put ourselves totally in the shoes of someone from another time and place. We would have to become them in every sense of the word, and of course that is impossible. Instead of looking backwards and admonishing the descendants of people who had nothing to do with the past it is up to us to look forward. We can do that by learning from history. Reading and studying with an open mind will teach us where to find the best thoughts and ideas. If we are to be fruitful in our quest for a more equitable society then we must spend more time constructing than tearing down, finding the good and building on that foundation.
I saw a group of students from Harvard who asked a professor what they might do right now to begin to foster positive change in our society. His answer stunned them a bit, but it was brilliant. He suggested that they take full advantage of their educational opportunity by becoming persons who have knowledge and the ability to think critically. He challenged them to acquire the tools that they will one day need to become great leaders, He spurned the idea that they spend their time protesting before they knew enough to come to reasoned decisions.
I often seem to go back to the folksy wisdom of my mother who was indeed a brilliant woman. In her times of clarity she understood human nature as well as any sociologist or psychologist. She often told me that people evolve over time, and that life is a journey through many seasons, all of which make us better people if we are willing to grasp the importance of each moment in time. She noted that youth was made for observing and learning. She spoke of knowing when and how to grasp the reigns of leadership and when to know when it is time to pass them down to the next generation. She felt that a wise person would understand that we are all hoping and dreaming and failing. Each of us is an imperfect being with the potential for greatness. Our journeys in that direction challenge us to be humble and compassionate and forgiving. She always believed that there is an overwhelming goodness to this earth that beats with one heart. If that is our focus we will find happiness and purpose, even as we falter.