Rising Apes and Fallen Angels

In my weaker moments, I always found it somewhat comforting to know that nobody is perfect. Even historical figures that are often conflated with human perfection had serious flaws. Isaac Newton is considered by many to be the most brilliant person in history, but was aloof, suffered from nervous breakdowns, and as a teenager may have threatened to kill his mother and step-father. Gandhi wrote frequently about his own imperfections and struggles with selfish desires. Einstein deserted his wife and two children for another woman (his cousin). Mother Teresa wrote about her own doubts and struggles with faith. Jesus had his fit of rage in the temple.

If such estimable people faced these struggles, what chance do the rest of us have to be perfect? Is there even such a thing as human perfection anyway? What would that entail? Infinite knowledge or compassion? Immortality? The bad news is that perfection is unattainable. The good news is that we never stop learning. I’d like to think that’s the optimistic approach. As the author Terry Pratchett once said, “I’d rather be a rising ape than a fallen angel.” The problem is that as rising apes we carry a lot of baggage from our heritage as primates, mammals, animals, etc. We carry the baggage of our cultures as well. To quote David Brooks of the NY Times: “We’re all born late. We’re born into history that is well under way. We’re born into cultures, nations and languages that we didn’t choose. On top of that, we’re born with certain brain chemicals and genetic predispositions that we can’t control… Often, we react in ways we regret even while we’re doing them” (Nov 9, 2009).

It is an indisputable fact that we are all imperfect. We know this. Yet, it seems that society is so quick to tear people down for the imperfections they share with us, rather than extend to them compassion. I believe that while people are often selfish and do just plain stupid things, that intentional maliciousness is fairly rare. Nobody is born with a complete instruction manual of life. We all struggle through it, learning from our elders, peers, and history, while relying on our instincts and rationalism to make sense of the world. Even so, all of this is still finite information, and we make mistakes along the way.

Once chastened, we would do well to hold onto that humility before judging others so quickly, knowing that we all share the the same frailties. One of my favorite stories on this comes from the book “Angela’s Ashes.” The author, Frank McCourt, wrote about the advice his Uncle Pa (great name) gave him as a child if he should ever feel inferior to someone else:

“(Uncle Pa) says the funniest thing in the world is that we all have arses that have to be wiped and no man escapes that. The minute a politician or a Pope starts his blather Uncle Pa thinks of him wiping his arse. Hitler and Roosevelt and Churchill all wipe their arses. De Valera, too.”

Yes, as it turns out, ass wiping is the great equalizer of humanity. But even this is part of our evolutionary baggage as well, given our taxonomic status as heterotrophs and the placement of the alimentary canal.

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