Let me be clear. I never claimed to be a paragon of virtue, or moral authority on life – civic or otherwise.I am far from perfect. I am too judgmental at times. I say things I regret. I am certain I have hurt people without even realizing it. Like everyone else, I fail at times, am blind to certain issues, and can be too sure of my beliefs.
In other words, I am perfectly imperfect.
As I look at the news each day, I am reminded of the commonality of human frailties and failings. The words, “feet of clay” often come to my mind. The term, “feet of clay”, it turns out, comes from the Book of Daniel, in the Bible.
Daniel interpreted a dream for the King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar. In the dream, Nebuchadnezzar saw a massive idol or statue made of a variety of metals. The head was golden, the breast and arms were silver, the thighs brass, the legs iron, and the feet made of iron and clay. In his dream, the statue was attacked, having a huge stone hurled at its base, reducing it to rubble and dust. He took it to be a sign that his kingdom was highly vulnerable, as was the statue.
Over the centuries, many have seen this story as a metaphor – a warning that we, like the statue, despite our strengths and good qualities, are also vulnerable, having our own hidden flaws and weaknesses. These weaknesses may be enough to tear down ideologies; to negate valuable progress.
It often comes as a huge surprise and disappointment to people when they find out that those they had once deeply respected, or admired from afar, have feet of clay.
I try to think of them as simply being human.
If we were honest with ourselves, most of us could not withstand the kind of harsh scrutiny and hyper-judgment we witness others being subjected to every day. Those among us who have tried to live good, responsible and caring lives might be judged for something we have done somewhere, sometime in our past.
As I observe what goes on in the virtual world of social media, I sometimes wonder how far its inherent level of scrutiny can go and what it is doing to us. I am all about transparency, being forthright and honest, however, the microscopic analysis of our public and private lives makes it difficult for generally upstanding souls to participate in public life.
Stepping up to change the world these days is a bit like running the gauntlet of public opinion. Can anyone survive public judgment so that they may contribute to something meaningful? Is perfection what we really are after? And whose canon of perfection are we even aspiring to? Do we honestly want one-dimensional leaders that never made a false step or have taken a risk? Some balance and reasonableness is needed in our criticisms of one another.
Humans are very interesting with respect to forming opinions of others. We can be so incredibly hard on one person, no matter how sincere and basically trustworthy they may be, yet ignore the obvious flaws of another simply because we want to believe in or follow them. Some human beings are blind when they want to be and even vicious to those who have lesser flaws than those of their chosen hero.
I know I have been too critical of others over my lifetime. I grew up in a family of critics who liked to analyze and critique things – from design, architecture, policies, television programs, fashion, etc. During most of those years, I was quite certain I was correct about most things. As I grew older, I had my own share of struggles, imperfect decisions, hesitations, and mistakes, which made me start to question myself.
I began to wonder whether the harsh critic in most of us hasn’t grown much too big. Psychologists often point out that the externally-focused critics are often as hard on themselves as on the world around them. If this is true, we face a dire dilemma of negativity, divisiveness and disrespect for one another, as well as for ourselves.
A very close friend of mine who has known me for a long time recently said, “You sure do have a lot of opinions on things, Lynne.” That statement made me pause in my tracks. At first, it struck me as sexist – like so much of what women hear over their lifetimes when they dare to speak up and have strong opinions. But as I thought about it more, his comment required further consideration.
So, I began asking people I know what they thought about expressing opinions and making judgments.
Lord knows, our society is awash in critics and judges in every facet of our lives. We judge products and restaurants, vote people “off the island” on reality TV shows, “like” or “don’t like” web posts, “tweet” negative reactions to an author, and on and on. We approach critique as though it were a birthright or entitlement.
As I have become more aware of it, I am also trying to change my own inclinations to judge too harshly. In the nebulous world of internet chat rooms and commentary, I see simple public opinion as having limited value. An anonymous comment or reactionary thought with no civic context or public accountability to ground it becomes simple chatter — entertaining perhaps, but with little consequence. It is when we have to face our neighbors, or an author, or politician in the public square, and to really listen, formulate complex solutions, and then consider how our decisions and actions impact others, that we do the work of heroes.
With so many platforms available for cowardly, anonymous critics, we seem to be fueling our worst inclinations as human beings.
In response to my query about whether we should spend so much of our time judging things and forming opinions, one friend said, “I don’t mind when people have beliefs, but it is when those turn into strong opinions that are harsh, too certain, and “in your face”, that I have trouble with it.”
My husband’s response to this was interesting in a different way. “We need people to gather information, to analyze it, consider several sides, to form opinions and then have the guts to put their views “out there”. Because otherwise, there would be no resistance to negative or evil forces like dictators, or others who are unjust or immoral.”
So, what do all our judgments and opinions matter to us as individuals and to society? Why do we judge things so much and often so harshly? Whose opinions matter? Can’t opinion spiral into self-righteousness? Wrong-headedness?
These are questions I personally struggle with, though I certainly don’t have the answers. What I do think is that we probably would be wise to form our opinions when we are ready and willing to receive responses (that conflict with our beliefs) with an open mind, and not to simply confirm our opinions with other like-minded people over and over. It is true that our differences can cause tension and anxiety. Most of us seek to minimize these effects whenever possible. This can, however, sometime lead us down a primrose path or encourage magical thinking.
The National Public Radio host, Krista Tippett, challenges us to “ask better questions by moving away from the false refuge of certitude.” Who couldn’t heed that advice? Who among us truly has no vulnerability or feet of clay?