In praise of hypocrites – or proud to be cracked.
A picture of my dog, Timmy, unrealistically seen as a saint.
The real one, with his partner in crime, Ben.
(I did actually want to put in a picture of a cracked and repaired vase – but couldn’t work out how to find a copyright-free image to share, so, not wanting to be a hypocrite, thought I’d share legal pictures of my dogs. Who are actually neither cracked nor hypocrites, and Thomas Merton the mystic would describe them as being saints because they are truly who they are!)
Anyway, those are the pictures – here are the words!
I think that we have an interesting problem today with the ideas in the media of what is good and what is true. It seems that people distrust, quite rightly, ‘whitened sepulchres’ – hypocrites, do-gooders. We are revolted and fascinated by stories of bad people doing things in secret whilst pretending to be good, and excited when newspapers reveal all. This is the truth, we say, and we buy the newspapers, we click on the links, as a thank you to those journalists and newspapers who are revealing the ‘real state’ of affairs to us. Our media are our primary, most trusted storytellers, and we believe them.
My 89 year old dad is very worried about the state of the world and religiously watches television programmes with the ending ‘…from hell’ (‘Plumbers from hell’, ‘builders from hell’ etc) and any documentary revealing what is REALLY going on in care homes, hospitals, schools. What is REALLY going on is always awful. There is never a hard-hitting documentary which reveals the shocking secret that nurses want to help sick people get better, or teachers go into education to teach. There are however, soft-hitting, feel- good programmes where the narrative is that someone is heroically good or unusually loving but living in a horrible house or very ill or needing help in some way, and in the end they and their family get their just rewards from a smiling presenter and a delighted audience.
I must admit, I nearly always cry at the programmes where heroically kind people get rewarded – whoever produces them knows how to press my buttons. These are feel-good programmes. But so, in a funny way are the ‘from hell’ programmes. They balance out each other in a strange secular universe shot through with religious language and imagery. My dad feels good – he feels empowered by both types – he likes watching the programmes about our secular saints but he likes knowing how to spot an evil plumber and loves how the presenter on the motorbike or with the secret cameras always unmasks them – he feels inspired by wonderful people and glad because he knows he is not like any of those people from hell. These programmes provide narrative structures which make my dad feel he knows, even in this modern world, how to judge between someone who is good and someone who is bad, and so he can still look after me, his daughter, and ring me up and warn me about them.
Perhaps I am the same. I RT and share on Facebook and twitter things other people like me have read and feel outraged about. I send far too many messages to my (long suffering) children on Facebook, alerting them to this or that politician or crisis or urging them to sign this or that petition. I share about my heroes and heroines. I know what is good and what is bad. I know whose side I am on.
I think I am right.
The thing is, it is not that easy.
Take hypocrisy, for example. Of course we don’t want to be governed by outrageous hypocrites, but I think we are a bit too quick to ‘expose’ people for being so, people who are really trying their best. We are all hypocrites to one extent or another – we are all trying to project or present a nicer image of ourselves than we really are all the time. As a writer I want the name Anne Booth to be associated with good things – with love, with kindness, with tolerance, with empathy, with humour. Does this mean that I am always loving or kind, or tolerant, or empathetic or humorous? Absolutely not. But am I a hypocrite for wanting to be so and failing? No. I’m just human. Is it right to aspire that my writing reflects these values? Yes. Should I be publicly shamed for when I am not as nice as I want to be? Please not!
If we demand that people in power are absolutely not hypocrites in any way and yet are told by our media every day that that is what they are and that they shouldn’t be – if we demand otherworldly perfection and believe the stories that it is attainable for some specially favoured people, we don’t get it. Instead, we get something very odd.
Our story-tellers in the media warn us, quite reasonably we believe, against anyone with skeletons in the cupboard, anyone who is trying too hard to make us think they are nice. That makes narrative sense. Our storytellers in the media tell us that the world is full of bad people pretending to be good, but that, at one and the same time, there are also celebrities, human demi-gods, and that we deserve such a one as a hero or heroine. Add to that the irresistible narrative twist that everyone has a secret they don’t want us to know, and we are hooked. We know it is dangerous to be naive, to be tricked. We need the media, we believe, because they alone can find out people’s secrets – they and they alone can reveal the truth, tell the true story – they have the secret cameras, the God-like ability to read hearts and minds. And then the generosity to share this with us.
Believing this story is dangerous. I fear that it means, bizarrely, that when someone comes out in the media we trust and is presented by our story-tellers as someone who isn’t a hypocrite and who doesn’t try to be nice or please everyone – when they, right from the beginning, openly, without shame, behave badly and incite racism or stir up hate and claim, ‘I say it how it is’ and when what they say is shockingly bad – people can’t quite believe it. We tend to trust our storytellers – that is a prerequisite for being able to relax and enjoy the story. To some extent we ‘suspend our disbelief’ in ‘non fiction’ as well as in poetry or drama or other forms of art. If someone is openly accepted and successful on the TV or on the papers or on the internet then they must be good. Bad things are always hidden, we see in all our narratives – and hypocrisy always has to be revealed by dauntless investigators. But we also know that everyone has a secret that the media can help us discover -everyone has a shadow side. ..So then the ‘shadow side’ of this openly bad person, their secret, the narrative twist, must actually be that they are really nice. What a relief! Like the abused person who believes that the person who hits them loves them ‘really’, it seems that our society has not been prepared narratively by the stories it has been told to cope with either basically good people having faults or, conversely, someone really being as racist or bullying as they seem.
I think the real story is that all humans have to accept a certain level of being cracked as part of our condition. We have to accept that these cracks are genuine weaknesses, blemishes, without hating ourselves for having them. Tricky. We are all, to some extent, incapable of doing the good things we want to do and prone to do the things we don’t want to do.(See, in the Christian tradition for example, St Paul, St Augustine etc etc) And that is O.K. We need to be more empathetic – to recognise the story that, given certain conditions, we too could be as grumpy or as selfish as the next person, and often are. I really like the way C.S. Lewis writes about this in ‘The Screwtape Letters’. In order to forgive each other, in order to accept our imperfection, we do have to accept that some things we do are really good but some things are really bad. We need to be more forgiving of ourselves and our neighbours because of our shared humanity. We have to somehow accept in the first place that we are not perfect and will never be so, and yet keep trying to do the right thing.
Because our shared humanity, imperfect as it is, is wonderful. The best story of all, is that, amazingly, miraculously, imperfect humanity is loved and is capable of love. Humans are love-able. I happen to believe that this is the essence of the Christian faith I profess, and I know that people from other faiths and those of none also believe this. I believe this is the true story. It means that imperfect people can somehow open themselves up to love and find something within and beyond themselves. Light gets through the openings, cracks remain but are filled with gold. Cracked people can do wonderful, un-cracked things, like rescue people at sea or welcome refugees or save rain forests or, less dramatically but equally heroically, just be kind to a grumpy neighbour or a demanding colleague or family member or friend. Everybody can love – there can be true actions of love equally in a playgroup and in an old people’s home as in a mountain rescue or a battle field.
Everywhere, everyone, of all abilities can try to be kind. It isn’t always very exciting, but the stories we need to hear are the true ones, like politicians from all parties staying up late day after day and nodding off because they are wading through tedious paperwork and legal forms in order to make our country a better place to live. There are so many loving things happening in this world, and we need to tell more stories about them to ourselves and our children – not impossible stories where the chosen few are put on temporary pedestals for narrative thrills – narrative fast food equivalents full of enticing but sentimental additives – but real stories of love by fallible people.
If we don’t tell different stories for ourselves and our children – if we don’t challenge the narrative that it is reasonable to demand inhuman squeaky clean perfection, an absolute lack of hypocrisy and faults from ourselves or those in power from any political party, we end up with something strange. We don’t end up with perfection, we end up with a population of anxious perfectionists, with people who cannot be themselves for fear of being exposed, who don’t try to do good for fear of being labelled hypocrites, or we end up with psychopaths, people without conscience, who have no qualms about power.
As Yeats said in ‘The Second Coming’ :
‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.’
At least, hypocrites know that there is something to hide. Let’s openly accept our innate hypocrisy and not fear being exposed by certain types of storytellers. Let’s not fearfully keep out of sight – let’s come out as hypocrites and get on with trying, imperfectly, to wisely and humbly discern and then champion the truth, to do good, to do our best,and to tell our stories of love.
For an example of how cracks can still be beautiful: