There was an undercurrent to Ken Burns’ unvarnished telling of the life of Ernest Hemingway this week. We are each a tempest of advantage and flaws. How we play the cards life deals us determines our fate. Empathy for the struggles of others defines our legacy.
Hemingway was at his most powerful when exploring the human condition. The seduction of fame, coupled with genetic predispositions toward depression and alcoholism, contributed to his destruction.
Every self-aware “star” I’ve met is a lot like the rest of us, fascinated at the confluence of talent, tenacity and luck that combined to give them a moment in the spotlight. Yet each is acutely aware of Patton’s admonition that all glory is fleeting.
Skill and ignorance. Courage and doubt. Confidence and apprehension. Benevolence and cruelty. This is the storm that rages within. Both ends of every spectrum exist in each of us. Positive thinkers (and I’m one of them) like to preach that we have the power to choose which to manifest. This is true. But even the most thoughtful decisions do not guarantee smooth sailing.
Skill does not assure competence. Benevolence is often misinterpreted. Doubt can be our protector. Courage is sometimes confused with blind-devotion to the untenable.
The human mind is easily misdirected in the center of the storm. Fear drives us toward despots. Ego blinds us to the effects of perception. We seek simple solutions to complex problems. We can be convinced to sail into perilous waters by the sound and fury of ignorant confidence.
Many a painful experience has convinced me that every success formula, from the power disciplined action to the golden rule distills to a single reason for being. We are here to ease suffering. Wealth is granted to those who add value to the lives of others. Madison Avenue has clouded the definition of wealth to mean material accumulation. I know a lot of unhappy rich people. The true metric of wealth is how we invest it to benefit the greater good.
To paraphrase the Stockdale Paradox, we must face the brutal facts of our present situation without losing our moral compass. Intention doesn’t always give us pleasant results in the short term. Sometimes good intentions can lead to disaster.
But our lives are bodies of work, not one, two or a half dozen individual outcomes. An understanding that each one of us is dealing with a storm the rest of the world may know nothing about, and the desire to contribute to healing, understanding and redemption is a good first step in every encounter. Turn these concepts into habits and they can create a legacy.
Not everyone we meet will have the capacity for transformation. But every person can recognize humaneness. Kindness is a skill. And “How can I help?” may be the three most powerful words in the language.
Recognizing the inner conflict between our strengths and weaknesses is a beginning. A commitment to understanding and mitigating suffering is the aim.
There’s a surprising benefit to taking this “road less traveled.” The law of cause and effect always comes into play. Over the long run, we can navigate the storm and our return will at least equal our investment.