“What I Was TRYING to Say to Al Gore When I Bumped Into Him…”
[Ed. Note. Hey folks – sorry my blog hasn’t been updated in a long time – it has been a CRAZY couple of months & my plate has been full. I’ll do better I swear!]
So I ran into Al Gore last week.
I was at work.
He is on our Board of Directors at Apple.
He was serenely strolling out of an elevator by himself.
I was headed to the next elevator.
I passed and then scurried back and told him he was my hero.
Then I realized how lame that must have sounded (for reasons I’ll describe below) so I tried to explain how it wasn’t lame. And then I added something to show my commitment to the environment. And I tried to say something that demonstrated my intelligence. And…
Well, you get the picture. Needless to say I’m sure neither of us was impressed.1
Luckily, I know Al Gore reads my blog2 so I figured I’d just explain to him what I was trying to say here in an attempt to save my respect for my own intellect. So Al – this is for you….
The root of this problem is that some friends and I had just been discussing whether we had heroes and then, subsequently, what the value of the concept of “heroes” was. The first name that jumps to my mind as soon as the word “hero” comes up is Al Gore. And the concept of “heroes” and our problematic relationship to it is something I’ve found interesting for years.
Thus it is:
- pretty amazing that I should run into my hero only two days later.
- completely understandable that my head was full of lots complicated thoughts about our relationship to “heroes.”
- that those thoughts came out as “Hi Al, you’re my hero. But I know you’re just a human. So that’s really cool. I’m President of the SF League of Conservation Voters. But I also work here at Apple. On iTunes.3” At least I didn’t giggle, say “okbye!” and dart away. Sigh.
My take on heroes coalesced in college around Martin Luther King Jr. and the debates about his holiday, and the revelations of his serious improprieties both marital and academic. I was struck by MLK as a person and what he was able to accomplish. I remember reading Taylor Branch’s excellent “Parting the Waters: America During The King Years” late at night my senior year at Duke and finding myself crying while reading “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” even though I had read it before with no such effect. I read some of King’s own writing (“Stride Towards Freedom” comes to mind) in which he discussed his own frailty and remember being struck by how scared and inadequate he felt when his family was threatened and how close he came to giving up.
I also became aware of his many infidelities to his wife and also, a few years later, of the charges of plagiarism that surfaced around his graduate work in seminary school. All this against a backdrop of angry denunciations of these charges by his supporters (though they seemed quite true) and continued resistance to an MLK National Holiday by his detractors and semi-closeted racists everywhere. What emerged was a profound sympathy and admiration for MLK that said to me “he was just a man with vast flaws like the rest of us – and look what he was able to accomplish. Look how much better the world is than the way he found it”.
The odd thing is that the defenders of King, by attempting to whitewash his imperfections do a disservice to his memory just as the deniers of his greatness do. The former, by sanctifying and lionizing him, remove him from us by making him into an unattainable ideal: When faced with such an ideal, many of us say “I’m too imperfect to be a saint, so I won’t even try.” But if one understands King’s failings and flaws, a more natural approach is “Wow, he is flawed just like I am, and yet look what he accomplished.” Thus, real heroes have warts and blemishes, and that makes them real people who’s greatness is within our grasp.
Since that epiphany, I’ve seen the same behavior time and time again and I realize that we often sanctify our heroes in a perverse way to keep our expectations of ourselves low. I recall seeing “The Last Temptation of Christ”, and for the first time in my life, saw Christ as a heroic figure who attempted to do real good in the world, as opposed to a mythical character in a story. Sadly, I was not surprised by the anger and vitriol of many Christians who were incensed by a movie that portrayed him as human and flawed. I wonder how many of them secretly and perhaps unbeknownst to themselves were made uncomfortable by the challenge a human-but-still-saintly Christ presented them.
All this gets back to Al. I understand that he is human. I know that he has made mistakes and probably has plenty of great failings. But to me that makes him more of a hero, not less. Thanks Al. You’re my hero!
.ps Actually it is the second time I’ve met Al Gore – I was at an environmental event with him when he was VP. But this time it seemed more personal.