Today is the shared birthday of two of my heroes, President Thomas Jefferson and playwright Samuel Beckett. What besides birthdays do Beckett and Jefferson have in common? Both are geniuses who’ve made immeasurably significant contributions to our human evolution and collective consciousness. And yet both seem to have had disturbing flaws (as do, I suppose, the most exquisite of diamonds). Despite my good intentions, I feel that these giants among men are too complex for me to do justice in a single blog, especially considering my current semi-conscious and distracted state. But here are a few thoughts.
As far as Beckett (please click here to read his Wikipedia biography), I’d like to excerpt some of his work – but I think you really need to read one of his plays in its entirety to really feel him. And his work often takes more than one reading, much reflection, and more than one angle of interpretation. I suggest you begin with his Waiting for Godot. Your first reaction might be to wonder what the hell the point of it is. I find it helpful to think of the play’s Godot as “God.” And after you mulled it over from that perspective for awhile, you might want to throw out the God interpretation and try others. The play may seem simple and superficial on the surface. But nothing could be further from the truth. And the same could be said of much of Beckett’s work, as well as of the man himself.
[Irish Samuel Beckett stamp from 1994]
As for Thomas Jefferson, no one could reasonably call him simple or superficial either. We’re talking about the author of the Declaration of Independence – and he could easily be called one of the greatest minds in history. These words from Wikipedia serve well as an introduction: “Jefferson achieved distinction as, among other things, a horticulturist, statesman, architect, archaeologist, paleontologist, author, inventor and founder of the University of Virginia. When President John F. Kennedy welcomed forty-nine Nobel Prize winners to the White House in 1962 he said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House — with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” (Please click here to read that article in its entirety.) The brilliant Jefferson was an eloquent and impassioned spokesman for liberty.
Yet Jefferson was also a slave owner. And this fact troubled me enough to inspire the following crappy poem (pardon the pun) I wrote while sitting on a cold, stainless steel toilet bowl in prison, contemplating liberty.
“Jefferson” [13 July 1997]
Turn the toilet page
Read as I rid,
How you fucked
Tall Sally Hemings
Kept her children slaves
Founded the University of Virginia
Freed them after your death,
Wipe my ass
He freed them – which was quite uncommon at the time, and commendable. But he’d also kept them. This fact says to me a lot about so-called “great” people. It is a reminder that while we recognize the greatness in folks – and honor their excellent achievements and contributions to our world – we must never idolize any man (or woman). To do so is a disservice to truth, to history, and even (I believe) to the men and women we intend to honor.
Samuel Beckett wasn’t perfect either – and I’m sure you can find his flaws if you try. I think greatness and weakness coexist, to varying degrees, in every human being – whether Beckett, Jefferson, me, you, one of our family members, Lincoln, Nixon, Jolie, Pitt, Spears, Shaw, Shakespeare, Socrates, Lao Tzu, Jesus, Buddha, Guevara, Rasputin, Kennedy, Obama, Clinton, McCain, Sartre, Nietzsche, Polanski, Scorsese, letter carrier, nurse, garbage collector, police officer, prison inmate, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief…. You get the idea.
No one’s perfect – and some folks seem far less perfect than others. But we’re all human beings. We’re all in this together. And love and peace make a whole heck of a lot more sense, for a whole heck of a lot more reasons, than hate and war. That’s why the Dalai Lama, despite the horrible persecution of his Tibetan people, reiterated on 13 April 2008 in Seattle the importance of maintaining a “genuine sense of compassion toward your enemy.” Compassion trumps condemnation, it would seem. And that’s a hard lesson to learn – especially if you’re the exiled monk whose people and culture are being so horribly oppressed, or if you’re the African-American who was kept as a slave in Jefferson’s Virginia, or if you’re the fellow who has spent 11 or 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
We can always do better, even if we remain imperfect. There is always room for us to condemn less and commend more. There is always room for increased compassion toward our fellow beings. May we strive to be more human, to do a better job of recognizing the humanity of others, and to make these timeless words of Thomas Jefferson more real in our lives and our world:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”