That comment was odd. The person who wrote it mixed praise with criticism, a backhanded slap. Looking at it again, I still don’t get the point of it. I already responded to it with several thorough comments. But I wanted to emphasize a central point that brings it back to where my mind is at the moment.
I’ve been in a process of rethinking my life, both in terms of how I spend my time and how I view the world. I wonder about what useful role I can play or simply what is of genuine value to me. I don’t mind criticisms, as I’m perfectly capable of criticizing myself. And I can promise you that my self-criticisms will be far more scathing than anything offered by anyone else.
The funny thing is that this particular critic was attacking me based on my previous admissions about depression, as if that disqualified my opinion as having any validity. I’m fairly open about my personal problems and some people see this as a weakness, a chink in the armor. They don’t understand that I’ve never thought of honesty as a weakness; if anything, a strength. I don’t hide who I am.
I find it telling that this particular critic was writing under a pseudonym. It’s easy to attack others hidden behind a computer screen and anonymity. I’ve had trolls threaten me, even my family, telling me that they knew where I lived. My response was to tell them to come right on over and I’ll invite them in to chat over beer or coffee. That tends to make trolls go away, the threat of meeting in person.
We live in a dysfunctional society. To live in such a society is to be part of that dysfunction. Depression and other mental conditions might not be common in some other societies, but it is common in this one, effecting even the successful and the supposedly well-adjusted. There are many things that make me abnormal. Depression, however, is not one of them. If you’re looking for a reason to dismiss me, look elsewhere and be more thoughtful about it.
In my response to this particular critic, I pointed out that many of the most influential people throughout history were seen as problematic by the defenders of the status quo. They were called malcontents, rabblerousers, troublemakers, blasphemers, and worse. The personal character, lifestyle, etc were often targeted. These people were deemed a threat to society and treated accordingly, victimized in numerous ways: ridiculed, fired, fined, ostracized, banished, imprisoned, tortured, attacked by mobs, and sometimes killed.
This is true for religious prophets such as Jesus to political revolutionaries such as Thomas Paine. I might note that both of these men, when they attracted the attention of the powerful, lacked worldly success or even employment. Each of them spent time wandering homeless and ended their lives as poor bachelors with few loyal friends remaining. They were hated and despised, and for that very reason they also inspired. Yet upon their deaths, they were forgotten by society until later generations resurrected their deeds and brought them back into public memory.
There is another aspect to this. Consider either of these figures. If Jesus had remained a carpenter or found some other kind of respectable work, if he had been successful in his career and was a good citizen, if he had married and raised a family, would that have been a better use of his life? If Paine had continued his father’s trade as corsetmaker, if his first wife and child hadn’t died and his second marriage hadn’t ended, if he hadn’t lost his civil servant job for the sake of a petition to the government, if he hadn’t become a privateer that paid for his educating himself (mainly buying books to read), if he hadn’t known poverty and desperation before meeting Benjamin Franklin, would he have been a better person and the world a better place?
Let me focus on Paine. He lived a rough life. By the standards of his society, his life kept ending up in failure. He found himself in middle age with no prospects or hope, his only merits having been his intelligence and self-education. He had no way of proving his worth to others. Like Jesus, he had given up the trade he was taught when younger. And now he had nothing. When Franklin first saw him, he was probably dirty and smelly, likely with rotten teeth. He was a poor nobody. That didn’t stop Franklin, also of a working class background, from seeing the potential in Paine. Following Franklin’s advice, he headed to America where he was carried ashore sick and close to death.
It was precisely Paine’s rough life that gave him insight and perspective. He saw the world for what it was. And with his own understanding, he sensed other possibilities. But why should anyone have listened to him? He came to the American colonies, upon Franklin’s invitation. He found employment at a printing press where he began his serious writing career. All he knew to do was write what was in him to write. He had no college degree or anything else to demonstrate his opinion was any more meaningful than anyone else’s. If anything, his uncouth ways, bad attitude and drinking habits led people to dismiss him. Yet most of those who dismissed him are now forgotten to history.
Paine was not well-adjusted to the society he found himself in. He knew that as well as anyone else. But why should he shut up simply because some others found him disagreeable? He had the audacity to suggest that maybe the problem was in society and not to be blamed on the victims of society. In a perfect world, his life would have turned out better. Becoming a pamphleteer and then revolutionary wasn’t his first choice of professions nor his second, third and forth choice.
No one knows for certain what their life will become. And no one knows how they will be remembered later on or even if they will be remembered at all. We each have potential within us and most of that potential will remain hidden. We don’t know what we’re capable of, until the conditions bring out what before we didn’t realize existed within us. Everyone is trying the best that they can, in the situation they find themselves. There are probably millions of people in the world right now with talents equal to or greater than that of Thomas Paine, but few of them will ever get the opportunity to develop their potential even slightly. Paine was lucky to find someone like Benjamin Franklin who helped him out of a tough spot for, otherwise, Paine would likely have died forgotten like so many others.
We are products of our environments, the results of luck, good or bad. Life is crap shoot. None of us chooses how and where we were born and under what circumstances. We are all forced to take life as it comes. Our place and time either amplifies or mutes our possibilities, opens or closes doors, clears or blocks our path. An individual of average intelligence and ability might do great things because of her situation, as her particular set of potentials happen to be what was precisely needed in that context to take advantage of it or solve a problem. But an individual of immense intelligence and ability might do nothing at all, no matter how hard they try, if she happened to be born in unfortunate conditions such as having been a peasant in a feudal society or a housewife in early 20th century America.
Sometimes it is the failures of society, the least well-adjusted who have the most understanding. They are those who have struggled the most and have seen the underbelly of society. This often gives probing insight and unique perspective. This is because those low in society tend to give more thought to those above than the other way around. Privilege and comfort can lead to thoughtlessness and complacency, none of which is conducive to depth of understanding. It was the lowly position of the likes of Jesus and Paine that allowed them to so powerfully criticize the social order. The clearest vantage point is from the bottom.
Even so, none of us can escape the limitations of where we find ourselves, no matter how clearly we see those limitations. Jesus was an axial age prophet. He was one of many teachers, philosophers, and leaders who arose over a period of centuries. It was a point of transition and transformation. That is what those axial age prophets gave voice to. Still, for all their insight and vision, none of them could foresee the long term consequences of the new social world that was coming into being. And none of them could know what part they might or might not play beyond their own lifetime.
Consider Jesus again. Assuming he actually existed, he was just some guy wandering about and preaching, no different than thousands of others doing the same in the area, thousands of others claiming to speak for God, to be divine saviors, or even to be godmen. Even his name, Jesus, and appellation, Christ, were common at the time—and so he quite likely wasn’t even the only Jesus Christ in the first century. There was nothing that made him stand out from the crowd, not his telling parables nor his miracles/magic-tricks. Then he was crucified, no more special than a common criminal.
Upon his death, his prophecies didn’t come true and people almost two thousand years later are still waiting. There is no evidence that Jesus ever intended to start a religious movement, much less found a new religion. It wasn’t Jesus but later generations of Christians who built up his reputation. In his lifetime, he was almost entirely unknown, the Romans apparently not noticing his existence as he was never recorded in any official records and not written about even by the most famous Jewish historian of the time. The stories about him weren’t put down on paper until generations after his supposed death.
So, why do so many people care about and feel inspired by a poor homeless guy in the ancient world who liked to tell stories while hanging out with the trash of Roman society such as prostitutes, unemployed fishermen, the sickly, etc? According to both Jewish and Roman social norms, Jesus was an utter failure and a clear example of how not to live one’s life. As such, what did he accomplish that makes him so important? He did one thing and did it well, and the other axial age prophets did the same thing. What he was able to do was simply express a new vision and, by doing this, helped people understand the significance of the changes in society and worldview. No matter how simple, it was powerful. The axial age prophets helped transform all of civilization.
Those changes followed after the collapse of the late bronze age civilizations. There was a thousand years of social chaos and reordering before stability began to fully set in again. The axial age prophets heralded in the new age. But at any given moment in that transition, during any particular generation, the larger view would have been impossible to see, as we can with the benefit of historical and archaeological hindsight. Even today, we still don’t know the full consequences of those changes. Those like Paine were struggling with the new order continually evolving. From the end of bicameralism to the rise of modernity, individuality has been taking hold and taking different forms.
It makes one wonder how far that individualism can be pushed before finally breaking. The bicameral societies, some argue, were the victims of their own success. They developed into such immense and complicated civilizations that bicameralism could no longer operate and maintain social order. What if we are now coming to the point where we too will become the victims of our own success? Who are the prophets of our age standing outside the system? Will many people alive right now listen to them or will they only be taken seriously later on by future generations, after the changes have already occurred? Will the prophets of the present be dismissed and ignored as were the prophets of the past?
I would point out that most prophets likely never think of themselves as prophets. They are simply people living their lives. Finding themselves amidst greater events, they try to make sense of it all. And in doing so, they give voice to what so many others are feeling. The prophets of our age are at this very moment unknown, to be found as homeless beggars, low-level workers, college dropouts, and in so many other places. One is unlikely to come across them among the successful and well-adjusted. Some, God forbid!, might be suffering from depression. Oh the horror!
The prophets of the present probably wouldn’t even recognize themselves as such. Only a crazy person or religious nut would think of themselves as a prophet these days (or even during the era of Paine’s lifetime). Having spent their lives being told they are worthless, their main struggle could be in taking themselves seriously and in sensing their own potential. Most people who have something worthy to say never get the chance to be heard, amidst all the noise. The fact of the matter is none of us can ultimately judge the value of our own understandings. History, as always, will be the judge. All that we can do is speak our truth as best we can.
Anyway, a prophet in this sense isn’t necessarily an individual who says something unique and original, but someone who simply speaks what others are afraid to say or don’t know how to articulate. Playing this role of giving voice might be more an act of moral courage than of visionary genius. Speaking truth to power shouldn’t be underestimated, even when the powerful pretend they don’t hear.
I make no grand claims of myself. Nor do I expect to be praised for my efforts. All I seek to do is give voice to what matters most, to give voice to the otherwise voiceless. I do this for no other reason than I feel compelled to do so. It is what is in me to do. If some others see me as an opinionated fool or a self-righteous malcontent, then so be it. I’d like to think that what I express has meaning and value, but I can’t be my own judge. Either my words stand on their own merit or they don’t.
The truths that need to be spoken are greater than any of us. But each of us has hold of some small part. I wish others well in seeking their own truth and giving voice to it. This is no easy task, but worth the effort. Truth-speaking shouldn’t be taken lightly.