Last week Gil Brandt died. He was the Hall of Fame Vice President of the Dallas Cowboys before moving to television and radio. His New York Times obituary devoted an entire paragraph to an insensitive comment he made upon hearing about the tragic death of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Dwayne Haskins. Every careless word is now remembered. Be careful: digital memory is eternal.
That same week I told our teenage daughter about an upcoming trip to the east coast where we might stop in Monticello, Virginia.
She said, “So Thomas Jefferson, not good, right?”
Apparently Sally Hemings and Hamilton have tanked the third president’s approval ratings.
The critique is fair. People do and say some pretty awful things that deserve to be recorded and remembered. Yes, Thomas Jefferson was a slave-owning, sexually-abusive patriarch who privileged white, land-owning men. And yes, too many history books neglected the more tawdry features of our Founding Fathers. In order to prop up the subject, we ignored the objectified. History gave way to hagiography.
Yet there can be an ugly consequence to historical cynicism. We stop seeing people’s humanity and remember only caricatures of their unfortunate moments.
I love the scene in Ocean’s 11 where Danny Ocean (George Clooney) tries to smalltalk art with his curator ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts) by differentiating Edouard Manet and Claude Monet “Now which one married his mistress? Then Manet had syphilis?”
Tess replies, “They also painted occasionally.”
That sort of worst-moment trivia prevails not just in art (they didn’t even mention Van Gogh and the ear?), but in politics (did Taft really get stuck in his bathtub?), sports (does Kyrie really think the earth is flat?), and entertainment (so Jimmy Fallon did what?). We isolate a few bizarre episodes in a life and memorialize it in absurdum. This is not to say we need to dismiss the worst by heaping unnecessary praise (Hitler was charismatic, you know). But we might ask what we are trying to do when we remember the lives of others. Sometimes our agenda can be pretty self-serving.
We should be more generous; because a person’s worst moment doesn’t have to be their defining one. Jesus says, “with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt. 7:2).
Telling people’s stories with an emphasis on their worst features might say more about us than it does about them. It could show that we are insecure, trivial, and petty. The only way to lift ourselves up is by pulling others down. But our rise does not come through someone else’s fall.
This isn’t just a promise; it’s a reality. When we remember people at their worst we create a toxic culture of memory. The good is taken for granted; the bad is embellished. Forget about ignoring the faults in our heroes, we stop having heroes at all. This might also explain our alarming rates of loneliness and anxiety.
Not everyone needs to be a hero. But it doesn’t hurt to have stories of heroism that are untainted by the cynical mob. The Book of James only mentions four Old Testament characters: Abraham, Rahab, Job, and Elijah. Four imperfect people. Only Job comes off in the Old Testament as close to blameless. James isn’t deterred. He uses them all as illustrations of faithfulness. The truth is that we will probably come into contact with very few heroes in our lifetime; that’s what makes them heroes. But we also won’t meet many Hitlers, either. So maybe we don’t need to be seeking the speck in the eye.
Since the digital memory never forgets, it’s impossible to live in a world where we forget the worst in others. But that doesn’t mean we cannot use that same capacity to remember the best.
They also painted occasionally.