Interfaith Now
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Interfaith Now

When Evil Hides Beneath Good

How do we measure greatness in a misshapen world?

Photo by Debasish Lenka on Unsplash

‘Myth is the foundation of life; it is the timeless pattern, the religious formula to which life shapes itself…Whereas in the life of mankind the mythical represents an early and primitive stage, in the life of an individual it represents a late and mature one.’ Thomas Mann

How do we measure greatness? It’s a question that has been boring its way into me since my godfather passed away on Sunday.

If he had waited until September, we would have known one another for 60 years. I suspect I knew him longer than any other living being.

Perhaps he was as contrary in death as he was in life for Richard was a perpetual antagonist, battling for justice on his local parish council, firing off angry missives to MPs, overturning the pompous.

Anyone with pretensions, delusions of grandeur, or grandiosity received short shrift; he was honest to the core.

There is no question he was an angry man, his rage fueled by personal demons after he was orphaned in India as a young boy. He only found out as an adult his mother had disappeared to Australia lured by romance, unhappily abandoning her two children.

As an old man, he travelled Down Under to find her grave, placed flowers on it and offered forgiveness.

The arc of his journey in this life was both lengthy and complicated, his trauma exacerbated by my own grandparents, a vicar and his wife, who fostered Richard and his sister Mary after they eventually came to England as teenagers.

And here things get decidedly murky: records indicating my grandfather had officiated at their father’s funeral in India although he had denied it; a disappeared inheritance; a half-sibling who turned up looking for them but was sent away; and Richard later locked up in military prison for allegedly stealing from my grandfather.

That story made it into The Daily Express with some connivance and made a predictable picture, which we could boil down to ‘The saint and the ungrateful thief’.

At a bare minimum, my ‘Christian’ family was guilty of keeping secrets they had no right to keep, at worst skullduggery, even criminality.

That’s not what the public saw of course; typically, they only saw a blinkered stereotype and an inversion of the truth all too commonplace.

Worse, I suspect many were outraged and even if they had been presented with a rebuttal, would not have believed it.

That’s how the world works, a pattern unchanged, where truth is too inconvenient, too upsetting for most people who cling to narratives put out by corrupt institutions, not least the mainstream media.

Our collective denial is a form of insanity, but we prefer to remain cozy than face startling facts that upturn our delusions about how things work.

It’s a pressing rule of thumb that the majority are almost always misled and mistaken, truth tellers persecuted, scapegoats found.

Uncle Richard, as I called him, was a classic scapegoat, something I understood more and more as I grew up: abandoned, betrayed at every turn yet always full of spirit, mischief and fun.

When he died at 86, many years after a quadruple heart bypass, a lengthy emphysema, the doctors said he had the constitution of a racehorse. A boxer at school, he remained a scrapper and it served him well.

Sadly, with most parties deceased, I will never know the full facts about the past, yet I was glad to be an ally to a much-maligned man who beneath his brusque and sometimes difficult manner was not just a good man but by my standards, even a great one.

For what the writer Peter Kingsley says of a long forgotten Greek philosopher was true of my godfather: ‘From what they tell us he was not much either, poor, obscure, without any apparent influence. The greatest people are often like that.’

My grandfather too had many fine qualities but was also a complex man, haunted by his own demons. He was adored by many, even viewed as a saint, an image carefully cultivated.

In the world of ego, greatness and image are natural bedfellows. Most people see no further than the images presented to them; generally, they won’t even look.

Jimmy Savile is perhaps the classic example of how easy it is to fool a gullible public, for noted institutions to elevate essentially evil men and women to positions of prestige and prominence.

In his case, we had the utterly ludicrous situation of a pedophile advising a royal marriage and being handed a television show supporting children — that’s how insane our refusal to hold image up to the light of scrutiny is.

Why do we do this? Because we confuse concepts and ideas with reality when they are anything but. Because we want to believe in fairy tales. Because the child in the heart of all still needs wish-fulfilment and fantasy ahead of reality.

The soul, on the other hand, is not interested in image but substance and measures our progress not by worldly achievement or status — all things that die with us — but by how far we move through the spiritual and emotional landscape unique to us.

The great soul is not just tackling personal issues however, but archetypal ones in order to heal the deeper wounds of family and society.

Here, we can gain great support by studying and understanding the mythic structures of mind and world, those thematic bones we all share — birth, death, loss, abandonment, betrayal.

These are the great themes of life depicted in cultures the world over, the sort of tragedies that both the Greeks and Shakespeare understood so well.

A destructive mythology was weaved around my godfather in order to uphold and protect the image of others. It’s a story that is happening all the time.

I can only say that I was fortunate to be able to see through the lies to the real man beneath.

Richard James was a great man.

Copyright Simon Heathcote

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Simon Heathcote

Simon Heathcote

Psychotherapist writing on the human journey for some; irreverently for others; and poetry for myself; former newspaper editor.