Monday, April 09, 2012

Immoral Imagination

Over the first days of Passover -- a world unto itself, cocooned, cozy and magical -- I had a long and painful conversation with a family member about an esteemed relation, now long gone.

The theme was the great man who is a monster in private -- tyrannical, imperious, demanding, punitive, belittling, explosive and dangerous; the beloved public figure who is secretly an abusive spouse or father, the selfless, saintly community head,  respected educator or admired religious role model who morphs into a hideous creature far from the gaze of onlookers.

Invariably, the immediate family members of the great man are shamed into silence, wondering if there was something defective in them that brought out the monstrous behavior in the great man. Loyalists that they are, they keep their counsel until silence is no longer an option. The truth telling is often an arduous process. First it is whispered among the inner circle of victims, then tentatively told to trusted insiders on the periphery of that circle, then shared with a larger audience, with the speakers often experiencing a confusing blend of liberation and guilt in the process.

Sipping mugs of tea and nibbling on Passover chocolate cake at my dining room table this morning, we spoke in low voices. As my relative unpacked her offering, I bore witness to her story, receiving it as a gracious hostess would, taking it off her hands.

She spoke and I listened. The Urban Bungalow was still, with dogs and Little Babe asleep and the men gone to synagogue services and Middle Babe out for a walk. As the story took shape, my family tree changed shape as well, turning from something sheltering and leafy into a more sinister form like the ominous bare boughs depicted in horror films.

The stories carefully unwrapped and handed to me felt hot and weighty in my hands; stones that I wished to hurl at the long-dead great man. At several points my eyes filled with tears and I wanted the speaker to stop even as I wanted her to tell me more, adding the truly horrible details she was editing from her speech.

And then the speaker stopped abruptly and said it was not right to speak of the great man this way, that yes, everything did happen, but there was more, a vertical tail to this story, a comet hurling back in time, abuse upon abuse visited upon the perpetrator when he was a boy by a father dying too early and a mother ill equipped to raise two young children. There was also the background trauma of anti-Semitic pre-war Poland and childhood asthma and hunger and other handicaps...a story sad and layered and complex with many victims.

The speaker was neither recanting her tale nor was she diminishing the horror of her account. An older woman, she was teaching me a hard truth, which is that the truth is often hard to pin down, as it is  never simple.

Her story took place in another time and another place, in a galaxy well before "Harriet the Spy" and "I Am Woman Hear Me Roar."  During the time of the events she spoke about, men weren't yet from Mars, nor women from Venus. No one had heard of a battered wife or even child abuse. No one just said no. Active listening as a parental tool hadn't been invented. Children bullied by adults did not necessarily believe deep in their hearts that they would overcome some day.

Chances were good that the great man hadn't been told that charity began at home. Or if he had heard that maxim, it might never occur to him that it applied to his situation.

Still, I am comfortable terming this great man a hypocrite, even as I struggle to understand the big picture, the complicating factors, the backstory of the monster, his travails as a young, wounded man. And as I sat with my relative on a chilly 21st century April morning, I remembered that just the night before I found myself thinking about hypocrisy and morality and about someone I knew who spoke loftily about having moral imagination* when the truest application of it would be within his own home. This is, perhaps, the most difficult realm to practice moral imagination for behind closed doors there is no adoring public to applaud the great man for small but important acts of greatness: the kindness of emotional steadfastness, loyalty, friendship.

There is the manner in which all of us are hypocrites, trespassing on our stated principles and beliefs.  I know that I am capable of declaring myself dairy-free mere minutes before inhaling a Starbucks Vanilla Bean Frap or of leaving an empty shampoo bottle in the locker room shower immediately after chastising teenage girls for leaving their wet towels all over the floor. Of course, there are other things I am embarrassed to admit to, not as minor, hardly as forgivable.

There is the manner in which we need our small, relatively innocuous hypocrisies, some of which are touching, funny and deeply humanizing.

And then there is the flat-out immorality of the public purveyor of morality being monstrous to those he is charged with nurturing and protecting. There is the utter failure of moral imagination regarding those who require it most for charity begins at home.

Early this morning, I sat with a dear family member in the warm cocoon of time-out-of-time afforded by the festival of Passover. I absorbed the small hot stones of her story, felt tears spring to my eyes, felt rage gather in my fists, experienced compassion and love and sadness and regret. This morning I received her pain and insight -- a portion of my inheritance. And together -- speaker and listener, victim and witness -- we were one step closer to the Promised Land.


 *My truly great friend Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes and speaks most movingly about moral imagination. Check out any of his works.

1 comment:

Rachel Federman said...

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