I've been checking in with my friends scattered around the country lately, reflecting on what each of them has taught me or brought me in friendship. I consider friendship the highest form of human relationship: the steadiest, the most reliable, the most harmonious. My daughter and I have reached the point, now that she is a young adult, where we are close friends in addition to everything else. That gives me a joy I never expected from life.
My old friend Bill Chrystal lives now in Virginia, but when I knew him best he was a Congregational preacher in Reno, Nevada. One of his parishioners was involved in a sad public scandal of the domestic sort. Bill wrote a sermon to help the community make sense of the lurid thing that was getting plenty of press. About two thirds of his way through the sermon, Bill uttered some of the most insightful words I have ever heard. "Which of us," he asked, "would wish to be judged by his worst day?"
Every human being (at least every one I have known) has done stupid things that have endangered all that they have dreamed of achieving in life. Everyone has weaknesses, vulnerabilities, susceptibilities, and temporary lapses that accompany periods of stress, fatigue, or depression. There are perhaps a few people who are immune to the human condition, but those who speak most righteously along these lines are usually not telling the full truth. A character in Shakespeare's play Henry VIII says it perfectly: "We are all men in our own natures frail, and capable of frailty."
It's easy and even fun to fixate on the most sensational stories of self-destruction that flash through a community, especially when prominent people do really dumb things. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell said, "No one gossips about other people's secret virtues." When otherwise good people get themselves into trouble, I always feel immediate waves of sympathy, partly because I recognize that nobody likes to endure the leer of public humiliation, partly because I always feel, "There but for the grace of God, go I." If there were a celestial TSA, with magnetometers stationed at every public doorway in Bismarck, that displayed the secrets and the discreditable information about everyone who walked through them, it would be quite a spectacle. Ask yourself this: what incident of your life, what dark spot in your soul, would you least like to see reported on the front page of the New York Times? Which of us would want to be judged by our worst day?
Sometimes in the evening I walk around a new subdivision up near my neighborhood with a book in hand, reading and taking in the fresh air. The houses are all attractive and unblemished, with gleaming new SUVs in the driveways, fronted by well-groomed yards, sometimes perfectly groomed yards. There are costly basketball hoops in about a quarter of the driveways. You never see an oil stain on the concrete or an old battered up Toyota or Impala. Everything is fastidious. The overall look is one of complacent prosperity. I find myself wondering, sometimes, as I wander aimlessly from block to block, what really goes on behind those splendid facades. What hidden dramas unfold behind closed doors? I know what we see, but I sometimes wonder what we don't see.
Maybe this is a precinct of harmony and domestic bliss, but I'm guessing that the usual struggles of human existence, the chaotic trials of close human relationships, the agony of parenthood, and the sheer angst of adolescence, unfold here as frequently as anywhere else. The seven deadly sins hover about our neighborhoods looking for a warm moist place to set up shop. The first two families that lived in a new house across the street from mine suddenly scattered in divorce. Until that time I had envied them as I observed their seemingly harmonious domestic rhythms.
When Thomas Jefferson's daughter Martha expressed severe embarrassment and a sense of horror after her cousin Nancy Randolph became involved in a tragic sex scandal (possibly involving infanticide), Jefferson wrote one of his most beautiful letters in response. Never distance yourself from a dear friend in her hour of greatest need, he said, no matter how terrible the offense and profound your sense of embarrassment. That's precisely the moment when our friends need us most. We lose nothing of our own standing in the community in being seen visibly offering our support. "I shall be made very happy," he wrote, "if you are the instrument not only of supporting the spirits of your afflicted friend under the weight bearing on them, but of preserving her in the peace and love of her friends." That quality in Jefferson—an exquisite gracefulness and generosity of spirit—is what makes him the most civilized of the Founding Fathers.
My rule as a humanities scholar is that "all bets are off below the belt." In other words, whatever we might think we know about others, or for that matter ourselves, breaks down over the issue of human sexual urges and expression. If some terrorist put truth serum in our water supply and everybody began to blather out the secret history of their libidos, we'd probably have a collective nervous breakdown. Some things are better left in the dark. Our romantic lives are sometimes messy. The world below the belt, indeed the world of the heart, is extremely intense, private, impossible to explain to others, and nobody's business but our own. George Washington, the wisest of our presidents, and a man of great personal restraint, understood this. In a letter to his high-spirited niece Nelly Custis, the grave president wrote, "The passions of your sex are easier raised than allayed. In the composition of the human frame there is a good deal of inflammable matter, however dormant it may life for a time."
In the face of another scandal, Jefferson wrote, "Every human being must be viewed according to what it is good for. For not one of us, no, not one, is perfect. And were we to love none who had imperfection, this world would be a desert for our love." When I think about history or about the people around me, I always try to apply the "whole man theory." We all have vanities, and foibles, and sins that trip us up and seem gigantic at the moment of their exposure, but when you step back and look at the complete life—the accumulated achievement, the whole set of principles and values, the whole character, the larger purpose of another person's existence—then what do you include? Martin Luther King was a shameless womanizer, but any fair examination of his whole life and achievement must conclude that he was a benefactor of the human project, one of the greatest human rights advocates in our history. Jefferson had slaves, and apparently had sexual congress with one of them, but on the whole we are all fortunate that such a man lived at so critical a moment in America's history.
We owe it to each other to be charitable. And understanding. And sympathetic. And forgiving. And humble in the face of our own weaknesses. And to mind our own business. When the scribes and the Pharisees thrust an adulteress in front of Jesus and reminded him that according to the Law she must be stoned to death, Jesus put it perfectly, in a timeless warning to the judgmental and the righteous. "He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone."