Sunday, June 28, 2009

Contemplating Governor Spitzer

I'm sure you have all been as consumed in the last few days as I have also been with the various stories and revelations, one more unexpected than the previous one, regarding Eliot Spitzer's downfall. I was never a huge fan of the governor or his politics, but I always did admire him as a man of principle who was dedicated, at the very least, to enforcing an iron-clad code of moral and ethical behavior among public officials. That much, I thought was obvious. Apparently not! (Or rather, apparently long as the officials in question were other people.) But the real questions that plague me as I consider the issue over and over in different ways aren't concerned so much with the specific stories of the governor's misdeeds that have come to light in the last week, nor do I find myself interested in learning even more than already revealed about the Spitzers' marriage. Surely, they are entitled, just as are we all, to work out their marital difficulties in private and without any comments from the peanut gallery! Whatever else happens, I hope that they come to terms with what has befallen them...and that find a future that suits them both in a dignified, reasonable way. At least that!

What interests me far more than what I have now learned about the price of call girls is the truth bequeathed to us by the great Greek dramatists and now yet again confirmed for all to contemplate: that, in the end, the downfall of individuals is almost always occasioned more by inner flaw than by outer circumstance, far more by their own actions than by the actions of others. What is it that could have prompted this kind of crazy, self-destructive behavior? A man who appears to have everything that everyone wants--an attractive spouse, a great job, personal wealth, the support and respect, not of thousands or even tens of thousands, but of millions of citizens--such a man throws it all away for a few hours of illicit pleasure undertaken with funds used in a way that the man himself apparently knew perfectly well would draw unwanted, but almost unavoidable, attention to himself and to his expenditures. The cheap shot, I think, is to say that, obviously, he wanted to be caught, wanted to escape from his life, from his marriage, from the crushing burdens of public life. According to this line of thinking, Governor Spitzer lacked the courage to walk away from the things he wished to abandon, so he found a way to force circumstance to force him to give it all up. I've heard that explanation, put that way or in a dozen alternate versions, over and over in the last few days. But it sounds to me at least unlikely...and also totally out of sync with the man's ambition and sense of his own dignity and self-worth.

What I think is far more likely is that the governor, being a human being and thus threatened by his very nature with the consequences of overweening hubris, simply imagined that he could never be caught, that he was outside the law, that he would simply will the world not to notice. Like many before him, he imagined himself invisible or, more exactly, able to will himself to be invisible, to be unrecognizable, to exist outside the regular strictures of normal life. His downfall was a result of his supposition, foolish only in the light of day but certain recognizable to us all, that he could somehow escape the consequences of his own actions merely by willing them out of existence. Which of us, speaking honestly, finds that line of reasoning totally unfamiliar? Not unlike, but precisely like, children who imagine they can make a vase unbroken by hiding its pieces behind the couch, we humans always risk succumbing to magical thinking like that. It's part of what we are and who we are, a basic element--and a flawed one, at that--on the palette of human emotions we bring to the management of our lives. The correct response, therefore, to the story of Eliot Spitzer's downfall is not contempt or condescension, but regret--for a man who had it all and who threw all, or most, of it away for...nothing at all--and a deep call to self-evaluation.

The character flaws that brought the governor down are not his alone, not some mysterious cancer that somehow affected his reasoning or his self-control. What he succumbed to, I believe, is something that is constantly threatening all of us: the allure of magical thinking as applied to the intersection of desire and restraint, to the mutually antagonistic drives we all feel simultaneously to adopt and to reject morality as the foundation upon which we build our lives, to the desire to live under God's law and free of God's law at the same time. We are riven, complicated creatures, we human beings, and blaming God for making us this way is not only pointless but just a bit cowardly. The challenge in human life, I believe, is not to sneer disdainfully at others, but to use the errors of others as spurs for inspecting the chambers of our own hearts...and for rededicating ourselves to the struggle to overcome the sirene call to reject the values of Scripture that churns and roils at the heart of the human condition--that force within which our ancestors labeled the yetzer hara, the evil inclination within us all--and which religion exists to help us combat every day of our lives and, ideally, to find profound and real satisfaction in overcoming. (March 14, 2008)

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