In college, I started out majoring in theater arts. Of all the courses I have ever taken, the one that has stuck with me most is dramatic literature.
The theme that attracted me in this course was tragedy. Plays like Shakespeare’s King Lear were powerful examples of tragedy; where the central figure is heroic and accomplished, but because of a small personal flaw, the hero’s life ends ingloriously. In Shakespeare’s tragedies, as the lives of the main characters closes out, they recognize their flaw, but alas, it is too late. The flaw has created irreparable harm to others as well as to themselves.
These flaws are universal to the human race. They reside within all of us. In King Lear’s case it was arrogance that comes with being imbued with power which results in ignoring meaningful input from those around him. Pride, jealousy, blind ambition, stubbornness, self-deception and procrastination are among other universal ones.
I wonder which one has betrayed me all these years?
Is it like Hamlet’s endless search for the perfect answer, ending in such maddening procrastination, it causes his and others’ deaths.
Or, is it more like Macbeth’s blind ambition for power?
What flaw is hidden from me but obvious to you as you observe me?
As our personal triumphs build, our vulnerabilities do not fade. As our outward confidence grows, our inward insecurities remain. Most of us fail to perceive them, thus failing to improve our personal character by improving our behavior. Eventually this contributes to our fall from grace.
So what’s my flaw?
Really? After all these decades, why do I need to know my flaw at this stage of my life? My jealousies have melted away. I am able to see the irony in life. Power and luxury are laid low by the redundancy in life. Material quickly fades. Couches feel just about the same no matter which ones you sit in. The engines of fast cars purr for only so long. I’ve made it through. I haven’t brought myself low. Neither have I brought others down.
Why do I need to know my hidden flaw? Is my flaw that big that I have ruined my life as well as others because of it?
I think not.
On the other hand, if my flaw has blinded me to the point I have injured others, that’s probably a reason to know what it is, especially if at a minimum I can apologize. I get that. That’s reasonable. I’ve had two, maybe three, people do that to me in my life. The problem with that, however, is I was unaware they had wronged me until they apologized. They unburdened themselves, but put a burden on me. Why, for instance, didn’t I recognized I was being had?
I think the only way that can work is when someone feels you have wronged them, and you finally recognize you wronged them, and you come forward and apologize, I think that has a beneficial effect.
But, even that can be carried to an extreme. If it leads to entrapment, you should probably think twice before you do it. You do not want to cause more problems than the apology warrants.
And if you do, be smart enough to apologize immediately after the act, when you have the benefit of clearer perspective.
Anyway, to Shakespeare, the common man wasn’t great enough to have a flaw important enough to hurt himself or others. Tragic characters had to be people of great substance – kings, queens, princes, princesses.
Whoa, I made it through. I have never been a king or prince. To Shakespeare my flaws aren’t consequential enough to warrant attention. That suits me just fine.
Modern playwrights, like Arthur Miller, thought differently. In Miller’s famous play, Death Of A Salesman, Miller makes the common guy tragic. Miller’s main character, Louie Loman, thought he and his sons were successful, even though Loman was fired as a traveling salesman, and his two sons similarly falling short,” he deceived himself into thinking that his life, as well as those of his sons, had been one of merit and respect.
With Loman, Miller’s treatment hits home. Self-deception is a particularly cruel reality that modern man has to face up to. So cruel that modern man hardly ever does. In the end, Loman commits suicide, not because he finally realizes his self-deception, but because he continues to believe it.
In America, our system of democracy, education, religious community, and capitalism facilitates the ascent of the common guy. Coupled with individual initiative the average person can reap rewards never witnessed in previous civilizations. However, when someone is unable to take full advantage of these opportunities, what else is left but to deceive yourself into believing you and yours have.
Hardly anyone of whom I am aware escapes this possibility. After listening to hundreds of people I’ve met over a lifetime describe themselves and their children, I have concluded that their stories are almost always exaggerated, including my own. There is no remedy for this deception. We all fall short of the mark, even in this remarkable time of history – a time when the common man could be king.
Are there those who are not victimized by self-deception? Yes, occasionally they come along. Seek them out, they are worthy of our loyalty.