It is beyond difficult to be a paragon of virtue, one free of sin and avarice, a human being to be admired and emulated, a soul who rises far above the rest of poor mortals who can only watch in awe and wonder.
Or so I imagine it must be, for (as my friends will readily attest) that description does not fit me.
There are many who have been thus esteemed, however. A partial list from my own lifetime might include Leyhma Gbowee, Mahatmas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Shimon Peres, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, Lech Walesa, and Malala Yousafzai. All but one of these worthies were awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their character and accomplishments.
There are others who could be added, as well—people who, for reasons varying by nationality, culture, religion, or political necessity, had bestowed upon them (even if only for a time) an aura of goodness and purity to which we might all have aspired. They include Churchill (but not Chamberlain), Chang Kai-Shek (but not Mao Zedong), Ben-Gurion (but not Netanyahu), de Gaulle (but not Pétain), Graham (but not Bakker), Kennedy (but not Nixon), and Mulroney (but not Turner).
In truth, however, were all those so proclaimed really paragons of righteousness? Or were they mere mortals like the rest of us—caught up in events largely beyond their control—but whose endeavours as they grappled with those events were in sync with our western-world point of view?
A close reading today of the historical record of those who have passed away, and of the contemporaneous reporting about those still with us, tells us that, in fact, all these heroes and heroines fall short of the near-mythical status granted them.
The key to understanding history is knowing it was written by the victors. But it is pretty much accepted that not everyone who reads that official history will agree with it. We tend, as human beings, to see truth in accounts that reflect our pre-conceived opinions, and to disagree with reports that run counter to those.
One’s assessment of such historical figures as Columbus, Napoleon, Bismarck, Rhodes, Cochise, Lenin, Roosevelt, Castro, or Thatcher clearly depends upon one’s viewpoint with respect to their accomplishments. Who among them was good? Who was bad?
The history of our times that will one day be written will depend to a large extent upon contemporary reporting—by the press, the broadcast media, the social media, and the special interest groups—of the events now occurring in the world around us. And many of the people who will read that history will have no first-hand knowledge of where the truth really lies—if there even is one truth.
As a boy, I became an avid reader of the two daily newspapers that came into our home, especially the comics, the sports, and the weather forecasts. Then, marking the example of my parents, I soon branched out into current events, and became able to identify the important people of the day, those gracing the pages I devoured. I thought they were above us, those newsmakers, guiding the fate of the world on our behalf. And I believed what I read about them.
Only later did I come to learn that many of my friends’ homes subscribed to other papers, and that their editorial biases were different from those we favoured. I was shocked, truly, to realize that not everyone revered the same newsmakers I did—that, in fact, some people actually reviled them. In an attempt to reconcile the discrepancies, I began to explore those other perspectives with a view to discerning what was true and what was misinformation. With the advent of television newscasts, the sheer volume soon made that impossible.
But I did discover one thing, at least. No one—not the most famous person found in the newspaper, nor the lowly paperboy delivering it (my status at the time)—was an unblemished paragon of purity. All of us, no matter our station in life, had warts, even if those were not always readily seen.
My mother used to encourage us to look for good in everyone—on the theory, I suppose, that if we didn’t at least look, we’d never find it. She would remind us of the biblical admonition to mind the mote in our own eyes (I didn’t know for a long time what a mote was, but I dutifully tried to oblige), and the other about not casting stones, literally or figuratively, given our own shortcomings. Good advice, if not always easy to follow.
So here I am, at the age of three-score-and-fifteen now, no longer believing there are any paragons of virtue in the world, but desperately wanting to believe there could be. Here I am, not knowing what the real truth is, but desperately hoping there is one, still believing it will set us free.
As Abhijit Naskar has written, “It is a tragedy of modern life that the light of truth scares the society much more than the darkness of ignorance.”
So here I am, still reading, still listening, still exploring—still trying to figure it all out before my own time runs out.