Wednesday, February 27, 2008

My Holy Quartet

If I were to pick my idols, the famous people I look up to, I'd probably have to say Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Scott Weiland, and Daniel. The first two are nearly stereotypical choices for people who are intelligent and like to revel in their intellectual sides, or at least those who aren't more interested in the Wall Street side of life. The third is the wild card choice and the fourth requires an explanation to make sense. And really, it's not so much the actual person in any of these that inspires me but the meaning I've attached to them as symbols.

Einstein, to me, was much more than just a brilliant scientist, although that is part of why I admire him. I also love the fact that he was able to fall into a very mathematical worldview without losing his human side. He was silly (ever seen that poster of him sticking his tongue out?), valued creativity, and worried about the ethical aspects of the science instead of just the science for science's sake. The wild-haired one represents the pairing of the serious and the silly, the rule bound with creativity. He was very Zen like that, you know. He embodies a contrast to the mindset of many smart people who are so logical and literal to the point that they cluck their tongues and shake their heads at any toying with language or playfulness of thought and create a schism between the creatives and the math-and-science types. There's a reason that Einstein is a favorite of both groups. He didn't turn language and thought into math where rules always apply, and using words or ideas in a unorthodox manner always equals wrong. In fact, I think the reason he was so able to come up with much of his groundbreaking theory was precisely because he was willing and able to mesh his creative and logical sides to see things in a new way and set science down a new path. Free spirits, like Jesus, are f'ing metal. Totally.

There are some criticisms of Gandhi (mostly of his desire for a unified India instead of the three states it broke into and his belief he could speak for the lower caste Indians despite his high-caste status), but when I think of Gandhi the symbol, I think of his self-sacrifice for the sake of others. He didn't have my armchair activist streak. He charged gung-ho into the fray in order to make the changes he felt necessary. What's more is that instead of taking up arms and taking his nation's freedom through violence, he led a populist protest that preferred peaceful protest and civil disobedience to blood and death. He inspired many civil rights activists who would follow in later decades and probably saved countless lives through his example and his own personal leadership. He symbolized the epitome of virtue as I define it. His ideas may not have always been perfect, but the fact that his efforts were intended to create a better world for himself and those around him regardless of what harm or inconvenience it caused him personally makes him far better and far more valuable to our species than all but a very small group of hominids to have ever walked this earth. I'll overlook moral lapses that didn't involve harm or much harm to others if the sum total of your actions is more of a benefit than a hindrance to those around you. With Gandhi, the math isn't even needed to judge his worthiness.

Scott Weiland seems a little odd compared to my philosophical peacenik choices above. He was just a rock star with a heroin problem and he probably did more harm to his loved ones and likely did little to make the world a better place (unless you place a higher value on music than even I do), but he symbolizes something that I've lacked in my life. While he's made plenty of mistakes in his life, he symbolizes a bravery, willingness to screw up, and vividness of life that I've always shied from. My life has always been safe and sheltered, not so much by overprotective parents, but from my own inner mother. I avoid risk; I tend to stand back from things that cause me fear. I don't even enjoy the virtual risk of riding rollercoasters and have never found horror movies entertaining. Because of this, my life has been bland, lacking much of the seasoning I crave. I don't want to follow Weiland down his path of addiction and self-destruction, even if his path may have ended up back on a cleaner stretch of road, but I do want to let myself become more willing to take a chance on something where I just might fail instead of taking the path of least resistance like the water draining from my garden after a storm.

Daniel, as an individual, doesn't even really qualify as famous, but as a member of the group he's most identified with, he is. I met Daniel once and I never even got his last name. I was at a beer tasting at Twain's in Decatur and Daniel was working there at the time. I noticed he had an African accent and that his features suggested an east African origin. I asked him where he was from and he said Sudan. He was of the right age (about my age or slightly older) and so I took a chance of being wrong and asked if he was one of the Lost Boys. He seemed shocked that someone had even heard of the Lost Boys and acknowledged that he was indeed one of the young boys who wandered from their villages to Ethiopia and later Kenya looking for safety and shelter while fighting for their lives from lions, hyenas, and starvation. When they finally arrived at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, over half of them had died, and honestly, life for the thousands who remained improved, but not to a level any of us would find acceptable. I've read about these boys (and some girls) and watched several documentaries on what they went through in Sudan and America for the few who were chosen to be repatriated in the US and I've always been impressed with their focus on education and making a success of themselves without shying away from hard work despite the horrible life that was handed to them for most of their lives by forces outside of their control. What's even more impressive to me is that they refuse to give up on those who they were with during their wanderings. Instead of coming to the US and forgetting those they depended on during their travels for support and companionship, they send back large portions of their income to surviving family members and Lost Boys remaining in the refugee camps. The fact that many of them are still willing to self-sacrifice to help others instead of just taking advantage of the opportunity for success they've been handed is inspiring and shaming at the same time. They come here, often working multiple jobs to pay their way through college and still be able to pay the bills and send money back home when no one would blame them for taking the easy way out after spending their childhoods walking through a desert and only avoiding starvation by a sliver and the help of their fellow boys. This is especially impressive in this society of individualism, materialism, and pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.

Daniel was a college student in Atlanta and was working as a bus boy when I met him. I don't actually know how many of these attributes he embodied in real life. After all, maybe he was keeping the money for himself. Maybe he had no family to support back in Sudan or the refugee camps in surrounding countries. Maybe he beat up stray puppies in the back alleys on his way home from work or class, but he's the only Lost Boy I've met in person, and so he's my personal connection to this group that to me symbolizes perseverance, forgiveness (after all, moving on with your life after your family and friends were killed in war requires some level of forgiveness and letting go), generosity, and willingness to work for what you have. Check out my article about Beer Ayuel or watch God Grew Tired of Us if you want more examples of what I'm talking about.

My choices here probably say as much or more about me than they do about the actual people I idolize. I'll let you figure out just what the ultimate statement actually is.


sid said...

My idol is Nelson Mandela. The guy spent 27 years in prison fighting for my rights and when he was eventually released he wasn't bitter or vengeful. He treated his captors with respect.

Mickey said...

I like your choice of someone like Wieland, not because of anything he did or does but for what he represents to you. Obviously it's a ridiculous choice on the surface, but I like your justification. The other choices are good too, of course, and it's cool that you have someone that you've actually met to keep in mind as an example of human possibility.

Jacob said...

Actually Gandhi got his start as a civil activist in South Africa. Interesting, huh?

I really respect Nelson Mandela. He just didn't make my list because he embodied the same things as Mahatma Gandhi, but I don't have a cultural or personal connection to him and the fact that Gandhi kind of blazed the ideological trail that Mandela followed and even went so far as to nearly starve himself to death for his cause leads him to trump all in this case. It's also the reason I didn't use Martin Luther King, Jr., here even though I do have a cultural connection to him (given that he's from my home state and his leadership lead to huge positive changes in my home region and country). He just didn't go as far for his cause as Gandhi.

I do respect Mandela a lot for what happened after his cause won out. Instead of persecuting the persecutors like what happened in Zimbabwe and a handful of other former minority-ruled countries, he lead a government that focused on apologies and forgiveness instead of retribution. And despite lingering extreme problems with violent crime and poverty, I think that's why South Africa has remained stable and peaceful and one of the most successful countries in Africa because of this. It's the dopelganger of Zimbabwe which seems to have focused on retribution at the expense of their economic stability. You can't throw out all of your experienced, successful farmers, and all at once replace them with new owners who often have never farmed before and expect to retain your status as the bread basket of Africa. If they'd followed a similar process as South African under Mandela and his successors, you'd see successful black owned farms now and the gradual transition would have prevented much of the economic crash you have there now.

Julie said...

Interesting insight into the enigma that is Jacob.

I applaud your choice of a one named person that is not a pop star.

I do, however, take issue with the Weiland thing. You've mentioned previously that you are jealous of people with drug addictions. I think you respect him for having had one as much as you respect the things in life he's done since he overcame it.

Jacob said...

Ah, but you're wrong, Julie. I have no respect for what he has done since then. You forget that the worst thing an addict musician can do is to clean up. They NEVER come back as good as they were when they're clean. Drug problems just bring too much inspiration with the damage to the body, mind, and personal relationships to justify any good musician, artist, or writer ever cleaning up. They should take one for the world and burn out on top instead of sticking around sober and changing their lyrics for God like Charlie Daniels did. Stupid Billy Graham.