Now the sneaking serpent walks
In mild humility,
And the just man rages in the wilds
Where lions roam.
LATELY I’VE BEEN HAUNTED that I’ll have a tombstone that reads, “he was a nice chap; you know, a good sort.” I probably will never have a tombstone because I’ve decided to donate my organs–I’m even thinking of composting the rest. But if I do have some kind of memorial–say a bench in the park–I do not want the epitaph to have anything to do with niceness. I was nice for a long time and ended up worshiping the opinions of other people.
Niceness is the enemy of greatness
The more I look at lives that transcend the cul-de-sacs of our imagination–world changing lives–I have become aware of three characteristics: obedience (!), integrity, and a kind of deliberate recklessness.
I’d like to have three cups of tea with Desmond Tutu. He is probably kind. This has nothing to do with niceness. His life is marked by obedience to his Hoy Orders; people who transcend “niceness” are obedient to a higher calling.
This is counterintuitive: we associate obedience with weakness. I couldn’t agree less: “The hottest places in hell,” writes Dante, “are reserved for those who neither loved nor rebelled against God.” In other words, perhaps, they are nice chaps–the good sort–always careful, cautious and innocuous. They never worry about making people angry, and aim to please people, before all else.
This isn’t a call to “get religion”; it’s a reminder that as humans we are primally given to worship. When we choose a higher calling we are more likely to change the world.
Character marks an adult. We know people with character from a mile a way. Wrinkles from grinning and gritting are marks of greatness, and should never be botox’d off.
People of strong character do not define their lives by things; they define the nature of things by their lives. People with character both suffer and succeed peacefully; they are unmoved by the modulations of popular opinion.
Again, in reference to Tutu, we tend to think of him as a kind of saintly, sweet older man. That said, he has openly worked against apartheid, tuberculosis, homophobia, xenophobia, and all matter of oppression. According to the mores of South Africa in the 1990s, this wasn’t “nice”; he was perfectly dangerous.
When we are young, many of us are told to “be careful,” “watch out,” “don’t touch,” “that’s hot.” “Do not touch, do not taste, do not drink”–this is the stuff of bad religion–theistic and atheistic. (A trip through the magazine aisle at Whole Foods reminds me that believers don’t have the market cornered on bad religion). This makes mice of men; ego foragers in the graylight of the dusky mind.
Sometimes I feel the optimist’s creed is nihilism with a sundress.
World changers like Tutu have kind of re-learned recklessness. “Relearned,” because it inborn. A child is born in a state of nearly constant abandon and learning and growth. Sylvia Plath didn’t write poetry because it was pretty, or cute. Plath wrote poetry to assault and obliterate and speak true (“Daddy I have to kill you”).
With Tutu, I’d say that “we’ll be surprised by the people we see in heaven.”
“God,” he continues “has a soft spot for sinners.”
Quote by W Blake
Photo by Nessa