I’m Stumped
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I’m Stumped

No One Is One Thing

I may have posted this before, but it was recently called to my attention after I posted it on Facebook a couple years back. I couldn’t find it on here so I thought I would post it here too.

I have long admired Thomas Jefferson. I have read his writings and writings about him. I have studied the same philosophers he studied and even studied law at the same place he did (just a few years apart). His intellect and ability to articulate the most important human ideas seem virtually unparalleled, at least in his time. Being back in Washington and Virginia and again seeing his monument, his incredible estate at Monticello, and reflecting on all he did to make America what it is, I am left considering how to think and feel about one of my “heroes.”

It seems irrefutable at this point that the human mind despises dissonance. As if humanity and its institutions and ideas were all fractions in a 4th grade math class, we are constantly seeking to simplify them to avoid considering that their complexities bring contradiction. So when we encounter a man or woman who has demonstrated love and cruelty, wisdom and ignorance, generosity and greed, etc, we cannot hold the two sides in balance and consider them both a part of the whole. Instead, we must place so much weight on one that it completely overwhelms the other. We must determine whether the man was good or bad. He cannot be simultaneously both…..except that he always is.

And so we approach our villains and heroes with an eye not toward reality, because reality is messy and in opposition with itself. Instead we seek to elevate the attributes that fit the narrative we wish to tell until the characteristics that tarnish our view are discarded as the trivial remainder to an equation that must be balanced to fit our perception.

Perhaps no human ever wrote with such compelling fervor in favor of the basic rights of all people than Thomas Jefferson. He managed to distill Locke and Hume and Plato and Cicero and centuries of human reason to masterful summaries designed to convince even those most resistant to change that we could build a society based on liberty and equality and democracy. Reading again his words in the Declaration of Independence gave me goosebumps and inspired me in thought and emotion even hundreds of years after they were written in a nation that has benefited over and over from the bedrock of Jefferson’s words. Jefferson’s thoughts, placed on paper ignited a revolution, a miraculous democratic experiment. They gave Lincoln what he needed to keep our country united and they gave MLK the road map to some of his greatest speeches and writings. Jefferson’s courage and genius are quite literally why we enjoy the freedom and opportunity we share in America. Not that he acted alone of course, but he can claim a greater share of influence than perhaps any other single person.

And….

Jefferson was an unapologetic racist who not only “owned” over 600 people but treated them in ways that make any decent person want to weep or vomit or both. When his neighbor freed his slaves and urged Jefferson to do the same, Jefferson declined knowing it would mean financial hardship. When his old friend Lafayette from France reminded Jefferson that he had fought to help Jefferson and his fellow Americans win their freedom from tyranny only to see them live as hypocrite slave owners, Jefferson shrugged it off as a problem for another day and a different generation. Though some of the story remains murky, it seems probable that Jefferson raped a slave woman that he favored, made her pregnant with his child and then used that as leverage to convince her to return from France (where she was free) to Virginia where she would remain his slave and be forced to mother 4 more of Jefferson’s children and watch them grow up slaves to her own master. This is but a fraction of the horrors visited upon Jefferson’s slaves at his hand.

This, of course, cannot be. Jefferson cannot be a great man who championed equality like few before him, inspired Lincoln and King and thousands more and a despicable tyrant and racist. Our hatred of paradox drives us to simplify this complex contradiction until one is “true” and the other is “false.” But our attempts to reconcile the dissonance only distort and mislead and harm.

I believe it is important that we hold the paradox and live in the tension. It is important not only to understanding our history which is both inspirational and terrible, but to accepting who we are in the world. We are this paradox. No one is one thing. No person is good or bad, but every person is both. This is, by no means, a justification of anyone’s terrible deeds by suggesting they are balanced by the good they do. That is not how the scales of justice balance. Nor is this meant to suggest some fatalistic view of morality that leaves no reason to strive to be better. However, the truth remains that no person is the simple caricature that we create in our mind to fit our own view of reality, but each of us are hopelessly complex and beautifully and horribly the personification of contradiction.

But if we must accept that all people are living in the tension of our best and worst nature woven together in a single life, then how can we judge our ancestors, our neighbors or ourselves? How can we determine who is good and who is bad and who should be revered and who should be reviled? Maybe, just maybe, it is this desire to judge people rather than their words and actions, that keeps us separated from truth.

Perhaps it is now worth considering whether feeding our need to judge is providing benefit beyond our own mental comfort and consider the toll it takes on truth.

I am a good man and I am not. Not sometimes one and then the other, but both together at the same time. So was Jefferson. So are the men and women currently fighting to make our world better. So let’s be reticent to deify our fellow humans and equally hesitant to require that truth be found in consistency, when it seems to be always hiding in contradiction. And let us aspire to be our best selves, finding inspiration in the good of others and caution in their failings.

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Joshua Stump

Joshua Stump

I am a Dad, a husband, a son, a brother, a follower of Jesus, a lawyer, a songwriter, and just generally someone with a lot of strong opinions about stuff.