The world is on fire. Today alone we’ve added public-radio legend Garrison Keillor and Today show host Matt Lauer to the mushrooming list of famous men fired for sexual impropriety in and around the workplace. Influential journalists for The New York Times and NPR, too, have been shown the exits in the last week or so — one of them an editor I knew peripherally, and even kind of liked.
Meanwhile the most powerful man on earth seems as yet unscathed by similar charges, while other influential figures in both political parties seem to be determined to weather deeply sordid scandals of their own. As the Republican strategist Ana Navarro put it on Twitter earlier today:
It’s just the latest day in a political calendar that’s left a lot of us seething — and not just about America’s deep-rooted issues with power and sexuality. We loathe what the Secretary of Education is doing to our schools. We despise the way our Attorney General talks about immigrants and inner cities. We recoil from a picture of the Treasury Secretary and his wife posing with sheets of fresh new money, and we think of tumbrils and knitters and Marie Antoinette.
We’re angry, impatient, boiling over with frustration: What is wrong with people, we want to scream.
Damn if I know. But I do know that despite our deep-seated need to make icons for ourselves, to believe our celebs are role models and our politicians are paragons — I know that people are just that. They’re people, not saints. They are always going to fail us.
Not all failures are the same, of course. Cruelty, predatory behavior, exploitation, manipulation of the sort we’re hearing about in the tales of the Tobacks and the Weinsteins and the the Louis C.K.s — that stuff is hard to forgive. Kevin Spacey and Roy Moore allegedly transgressed norms of morality that exist to help allow our kids to mature at the own pace into emotionally healthy adults. And maybe Jeff Sessions and Betsy DeVos really are the monsters some would make of them — malevolent forces bent on destroying lives, rather than just people with differing views and agendas on crime and education.
But people are gonna people, and some of the people we admire, the people we expect to have our backs, are going to fail us.
I’m dwelling on this, and I’ve been dwelling on this up in my head for a week or so, because of the way Felonious Munk wrestles with that reality in Nothing to Lose (But Our Chains). His story is the story of a man failed by his family — a father who betrayed him before he was even born, a mother who wasn’t entirely up to being a solid parent.
But the big turn in the show, the thing that gives Nothing to Lose its heart and its heft, is Munk’s realization that his own failures are his own, however rooted they are in the ground his parents salted. That, and the charity he finds in himself after that epiphany. His decision to forgive his mom, in particular, to understand her as a person struggling just as hard as he’s had to, a human being making choices and sometimes making them badly, but still struggling to be a halfway decent individual in a world that doesn’t always make that easy.
Maybe it’s just the times. Maybe it’s my own poisonous relationship with my mother, who’s both lifted me up when I needed it most and disappointed me bitterly with her politics and her anger and her suspicions about people who aren’t like her.
But Munk and his show made me want to try harder not to to spend my days angry, impatient, boiling over with frustration. To want to scream a little less often, and to remember that What is wrong with people is that they’re just people, most of them. Not monsters. Humans, as prone to momentary stupidity and moral lapses as we are ourselves.
That’s not going to fix the world. Forgiving the fallible isn’t going to make sense of the truly wicked. But it’s got one real virtue: It makes it easier to live in a world where failures and wickedness both create a great deal of pain . Easier for me, with luck and a little focused effort, to make that world a little better every chance I get.