I re-read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun recently, and one of the themes has stayed with me. There’s a young, female character who is so pure and innately virtuous for most of the book, she has no capacity for feeling compassion for the failure of others. Believing that all should be as virtuous as she is – by the standards of the day – she can’t relate to the short comings of others, cannot empathise, and is of little help as a consequence.
The more I think about this, the more I realise how easily done it is. Those places we have not been, can so readily look like weakness, shortcoming, lack of proper effort… Mental health is a case in point. From the outside, depression can look like an ailment of not getting your act together, a failure to try, an excess of self pity, a lack of work ethic. From the inside it’s all very different, but for people who haven’t been there, it can be hard to understand.
Many of the same things can be said of poverty. The sense that if only poor people made a bit more effort, they wouldn’t have all these problems. When you’ve grown up in an educated, well off enough and aspirational family, the impact, both practical and psychological, of living in total poverty is hard to understand. We are collectively slow to recognise the existence of things we don’t really understand, and quick to judge. Crime is another one, we blame it on lack of moral character, greed, laziness, an unpleasant nature, and don’t look hard enough at the diets, mental health and education levels of so many people who end up on the wrong side of the law.
The person who has never messed up, never acted in desperation, never succumbed to temptation, probably doesn’t exist, and if they did, they’d be vile. However, it’s all too easy to refuse to acknowledge our own failings, holding a sense of importance, perfection and justification that leaves no room for compassion – either for ourselves, or others. It’s always easier to see other people’s shortcomings, to turn the blame outwards and not to recognise what we do ourselves.
There’s incredible emotional power in failure. It’s a great teacher of how to get things right, a great test of determination and dedication. If we face our own mistakes, shortcomings and stupid moments, it’s easier to be more accepting of the ways in which other people do those too. We’re all human, we all mess up. The person who can admit it, can move on. The person who has to hold an image of perfection in their own eyes, cannot progress. Worse yet is the person who needs everyone else to believe they are faultless and excellent in all things and who will reshape the world to meet their need, at least in their own imaginations.
Falling down and getting up again are part of the journey. If we ask each other to be perfect, we are asking each other not to be human. That seems true in so many workplaces right now, and it’s not workable. We fall, we fail, we make the wrong call. Acceptance of that enables experimentation, real progress, and scope to haul each other up again when needed.
In the meantime, Gods save us from the shining ones who imagine that they are superior and incapable of error, and who crush mere mortals under their boots for imagined shortcomings, much less real ones. As Oscar said, we are all lying in the gutter. Some of us are looking at the stars, I’d like to add that some of us have eyes shut and fingers in ears, la la la I am not in this gutter at all. You miss the stars that way, and the gutter, and everyone else.