The Internet Monk
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What I Learned From Harry Truman
(The Other One)
CultureWatch by Eric Rigney
A tip from someone who knows: never run out of gas on Mt. St. Helens.
It was May of 2000, and my former boss, his son, a fellow teacher, and I embarked upon the ultimate American road trip: 7200 miles west and back in 12 days on a shoestring budget. It was On The Road without the hallucinogenic assistance – six nights spent sleeping in a Lincoln, six in cheap hotels; eating meals from the trunk at rest stops; snacking on food from a huge Tupperware container between the backseat passengers; a near-arrest on the Oregon/California border.
And, of course, a couple of near-miss gas scares.
The first one happened on the first leg of the trip, an all-night jag to the Badlands of South Dakota, in the proverbial wee hours. My boss’s Lincoln had a neat little dashboard feature that let you know how many miles you had left in the gas tank before you had to hoof it, and at 2:30 am that first night, in the middle of nowhere, the display cheerfully read “0.” We were naturally very nervous, but we made it to a gas station in time. We felt like we had accomplished something grand, and we were soon on our way again -- but we were sweating it for a while there.
In reality, however, we didn’t really know what “sweating it” was.
We found out a few days later. We made it to the Badlands without further incident, then went on to Rushmore and Yellowstone, beautiful and beautiful. I was in heaven. I had been looking forward to this trip for months, and here I finally was! When we finally got to Mt. St. Helens in Washington, I was walking on a cloud. It was amazing to witness the awe-inspiring grandeur of that infamous volcanic mountain, which is still reforming itself after its cataclysmic belch over twenty years ago. I loved seeing how nature, God’s brilliant, Rube Goldberg-ish invention, goes about repairing and nurturing itself, independent of (and sometimes in spite of) us silly humans. Truly beautiful.
It was so beautiful, in fact, that we virtually ignored all other things, such as the Lincoln’s gas level. By the time we thought to look, it had become alarmingly low. Not that we considered it alarming at first. We just sort of casually decided that now would be a good time to head down the mountain.
The problem was that we simply underestimated how long it would take to do that. We drove and drove and drove, and the “Miles” dwindled and dwindled and dwindled. Before very long, we noted with ghoulish unease that the reading had become a big fat ZERO.
We drove at least 50 miles that way! And with each ensuing mile I became more convinced that we were going to have to walk for help. Now I’m not exactly the most out of shape person in the world, but neither am I just itching to walk for miles and miles with no clear idea of how much farther I have to go; so I took it upon myself to note the location of each house I saw, and then to note the number of miles that passed before there was another one. That way, if we had to walk, we would have some idea of how far.
I was deeply disturbed. Apparently, there are at least 10 miles between every house coming down that mighty mountain, and not many of those houses look both inhabited and hospitable (most look neither). My heart sank as I calculated the least amount of distance we would have to walk if the car stopped.
In spite of my growing certainty of doom, however, we made it. It helped that we had a smart driver in the pilot’s seat (he coasted I-don’t-know-how-many miles of that trip), but I can’t help thinking that divine providence had more to do with it. After what seemed like an eternity of near-breath-holding anxiety, we finally arrived at the bottom, where we gassed up at a surprisingly reasonably-priced gas station.
I have never been so happy to see a dinky little fillin’ station in my entire life. Although really, at that point we wouldn’t have cared if it was a falling-down lean-to selling watered-down petrol at double the going rate. We were giddy. To paraphrase my favorite modern novelist, the world has sharp teeth, and it can bite you with them any old time it pleases. We had come face to face with that truth and emerged victorious.
Of course, that’s what we thought in those heady moments of adrenaline-soaked euphoria, but in reality, we weren’t truly bitten by that old mountain. I have a feeling I’d be here today even if we had had to walk fifteen miles for help that day. Really, old St. Helens just sort of showed us her teeth and growled a little bit.
She has bitten before, though, and hard. We are, in fact, approaching the 22nd anniversary of her hardest bite in recent history: on May 18, 1980, a magnitude 5.1 earthquake triggered a gargantuan 150-mile-an-hour eruption, destroying or rearranging 230 square miles of land and killing almost 60 people.
Now that’s a bite.
Just ask Harry Truman. No, not that Truman -- Harry R. Truman, the curmudgeonly old widower who owned a lodge on Spirit Lake and refused to leave when told of his impending doom. Authorities knew weeks in advance that the volcano was set to blow, and they warned everyone (including Mr. Truman) to vacate the area.
But Harry Truman refused to leave. He said that he had lived in peace with that mountain his whole life, and she wouldn’t hurt him. And even if she did, he didn’t care. It was his home, and he wasn’t going to budge.
And he didn’t. And there he sat on May 18, when the inevitable happened: Truman, his lodge, his safe full of money, his pink Cadillac, his numerous cats, and his bourbon, were all buried under (or perhaps vaporized by) tons of lava and debris, never to be seen again.
Now that is a Mt. St. Helens story. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be willingly swallowed up by such a huge act of God. And I haven’t been able to get Mr. Truman out of my head since that trip. I am utterly fascinated with him. Who was this man? What possessed him to make such a monumental decision? Did he wish he could have changed his mind after it was too late? What made this man tick?
Of course, I will never truly have the answers to these questions, but the fact that I am nevertheless fascinated with Mr. Truman does not surprise me, and it will probably not surprise anyone who knows me -- I am fascinated by all kinds of minutiae and any number of seemingly insignificant things.
What does surprise me is that I also admire Harry R. Truman.
Sometimes this feels like a lonely thing to do. There is by no means a consensus that Mr. Truman should be admired. In spite of the factually errant Art Carney TV movie about him, there are a great number of people who think that Truman should not be admired at all -- he was not a loveable old curmudgeon, they argue, but a grumpy old crusty coot; not a rustic mountain survivor, but a miserly, selfish opportunist with a penchant for hard liquor; not a man of conviction, but a stubborn old fool who refused to listen to reason. There is more about him to decry, his detractors claim, than there is to admire.
And they may be right. Honestly, I never met the man, so I am not sure what his true motives were, nor what he was “really” like. Yet I stubbornly continue to admire him.
Why? That’s a good question. Admiration is a complex and mysterious thing. I, for one, admire a lot of people (a pretty high number, actually, especially for a cynic like me), and thinking about why I admire Harry R. Truman started me to wondering about why I admire anybody. What are the criteria for admiration?
I suppose I can’t truly speak for everyone (although that likely won’t stop me from trying), but I think my reasons for admiring for Mr. Truman will serve well to illustrate my reasons for admiring people in general.
1. I admire Harry R. Truman because he was enigmatic. I like a little mystery, and Harry R. Truman will remain truly mysterious forever. We will never really know if he refused to leave because he wanted to die on the mountain, or because he didn’t believe that it would come to that. We’ll never know if he was really a mean old coot or a rugged mountain man with a heart of gold. We’ll never know what went through his head as that lava poured down over him and his home.
And I like it like that. It’s okay to be a little mysterious, and I think a certain amount of mystery makes it easier to admire someone. We live in an information-glutted age of Biography and Behind the Music and The Barbara Walters Special and “My Uncle Slept With My Mother’s Hairdresser.” It seems everyone is just clamoring to have their complete story told to as big an audience as possible.
This sounds nice at first – I mean, if I’m going to admire someone, I need to know as much about them as possible, right? Wrong, I say. I think it’s hard to admire someone if you know their every thought and motive and action. I used to have a friend who got upset if anyone mentioned anything about the Queen of England’s toilet habits (I don’t remember how we learned this obscure fact, but once we did we tortured him with it endlessly). He preferred, he said, to assume that she did not even have to go to the restroom. He knew that that was a biological impossibility, but he preferred to go on thinking it anyway.
My friend may have been a bit wacky, true, but he had a point. How can you admire someone who’s every tick and lowly bodily function is revealed to you and forever embedded in your mind? Some amount of mystery is okay, and even healthy. If you don’t agree, just ask yourself why you prefer your spouse to close the bathroom door while he/she does his/her business.
Of course, bathroom business is an extreme example, but the point is sound: do we really have to know everything about a person, from sexual orientation to bagel preference, to admire them? I don’t think so. I admire people who aren’t afraid to keep some things to themselves, to make us wonder a little.
2. I admire Harry R. Truman for his simplicity. I know that some people will debate that he could not have been too simple, since his lodge was a million-dollar business, but I think his fiscal prosperity is proof that he was simple -- he chose to live in and operate a lodge on a mountain in the northwestern United States, even after he was financially able to have transplanted to another locale. If he was not a simple man, why not move to a more plush and exotic locale?
I think the answer is that he preferred the simple things. And I think simplicity is admirable. Aren’t we all striving for simplicity? How many of us have not wished to pare down our lives to something less complicated and busy? That’s why we have retreats and vacations, getaways that usually involve some type of “getting back to basics.” And usually, the more simple a person, the more down-to-earth and honest they are -- simplicity indicates lack of pretense. That’s why I admire monks – for them, simplicity is considered a virtue. And although I am not quite ready to be a Kurt Vonnegut-type Luddite, I think we too would do well to consider it so.
3. I admire Harry R. Truman because he stood for what he believed in, regardless of the odds against him and the negativity of those who disagreed with him. Sure, he was wrong, but the fact that he was wrong does not discourage me from admiring him. After all, he at least believed what he believed with conviction. And my guess is he went right on believing it until he turned and saw the lava pouring down on top of him.
Now I am not saying that believing something with conviction covers a multitude of sins, so to speak. When you’re wrong, you’re wrong, no matter how convinced you were that you were right (my condolences to postmodernists). But a man (or woman) of conviction is a rare thing anymore – just take a trip to your local high school (or -- dare I say? -- church), or listen to the latest political “apology,” or turn on your TV, or read the newspaper, if you don’t believe me. Conviction is endangered, and I think we need more of it, even if it means that people are passionately wrong sometimes.
Quite simply: I admire conviction. Honestly, I would rather be friends with a convinced atheist than a wishy-washy “Christian.” I admire people who find something they believe in and then believe it until they encounter absolutely convincing evidence to the contrary.
4. I admire Harry R. Truman because he was ornery. I love that word. It was one my great-grandmother used a lot (sometimes when describing my brother or me). Basically it means that Mr. Truman was hardheaded and stubborn, sometimes grouchily so. By all accounts (even those of the people who liked him), he did not tolerate fools kindly, and would often assume you were a fool until you proved otherwise. In fact, he once turned away Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas because he didn’t like the looks of him (the two eventually became good friends).
Admittedly, this particular trait is not always admirable – sometimes agreeability and cooperation are called for. But I admire appropriately ornery people, people who are not afraid to say and do unpopular things when they need to be done. Why do so many people feel this overwhelming need to be so darn agreeable all the time, and why do we program our children to automatically be so? We should teach them that there are some things worth fighting for, and that includes saying what you think and saying it loudly.
I realize I am in danger of advocating swinging the pendulum too far the other way, but for now I’m giving it a mighty swing: be ornery! Ignore the prevailing opinion, the latest polls, conventional wisdom, and the status quo! Tolerance (the new morality) is nice and commendable, I guess, when it doesn’t require you to sacrifice your principles. But I think we should do it the way Jesus did: love people (far more difficult than merely tolerating them) without exception -- but when you notice something seriously out of whack, don’t be afraid to say so. There are times when agreeability will be called for, and you will know those times, but until then, be ornery!
5. To me this is the biggie, maybe the whole reason I wrote this article: I admire Harry R. Truman because he was flawed. Yes, it’s true – Mr. Truman was less than perfect. He was known to drink too much and be hateful at times, and I would venture a guess that there were a lot of unpleasant things about him that we’ll never know about.
We can’t quite let Mr. Truman off the hook for his faults -- they were real, and they were faults. But honestly, do we need to let him off the hook in order to admire him? Do faults and flaws automatically discount someone from being admired?
I don’t think so. In fact, I prefer my human heroes to be a little flawed. I really don’t trust (or admire) anyone who appears to have no flaws or claims that they are fault-free. I am convinced that such a person is either lying or deluded, and they must be hiding something (or several somethings).
I really shouldn’t even have to say this, but the only person who ever lived a flawless life is Jesus Christ Himself. Period. And in spite of what some misguided religious people will tell you, no other human has ever lived flawlessly, and no one ever will. Therefore, we should be deeply suspicious of anyone who seems to be duplicating Jesus to flawless perfection. Sure, we should all be trying to duplicate Him, but none of us has arrived, and none of us will as long as we occupy these mortal shells. Most of us flaunt a dozen flaws before lunch each day!
Realizing that humans will act human is so important. I spent a good portion of my childhood believing that my heroes were flawless, and time and time again I was crushed when I found out they were human after all. Usually some sin or fault would become apparent in their lives, and my whole notion of their sanctity – a notion that was foolish from the outset -- would be thrown out of whack. I’m surprised I am not too cynical to admire anyone at this point.
I wish someone had ruined the suspense for me a little earlier by sitting me down and telling me that no one is flawless, and no one ever will be. It could have saved me a lot of pain.
But that’s not what we sit people down and tell them, is it? No, we usually go for the opposite: “If this person is to be admired, we must never see them mess up or make a mistake or sin. If they do, they are not worthy of our respect or admiration.”
How unrealistic! Perfection should not be the standard by which we accept or dismiss any human as a role model. If it is, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and heartache.
If you want to see this unrealistic standard at work, bring up Martin Luther King, Jr. and/or Mahatma Gandhi sometime and watch people switch into some strange attack mode. I can’t count the number of times I have mentioned my admiration for one of these men, only to be quickly informed of how flawed they were. “Did you know,” some person will tell me, “that Martin Luther King, Jr. smoked? Or that he cheated on his wife? And did you know that Gandhi had a voracious sexual appetite, and that he was not a Christian?” At this point the person will usually pause for effect and regard me with a raised eyebrow and a slight tilt of the head, as if I am being made privy to some heretofore unknown but particularly juicy piece of gossip.
I never know what to say to these people. It’s like they expect me to suddenly smack my head and go, “What?! They weren’t perfect?! Thanks for telling me! To blazes with the whole Civil Rights movement! And I wish India were back in Great Britain’s choke-hold! If only I’d known this sooner!”
The truth is, I already know these people are flawed, as we all are. The difference is, most of us sit around on our flawed butts and do nothing significant. I can’t see me faulting someone for using his flawed self to try to make the world a better place somehow. Finding out about a person’s particular flaws doesn’t thrill me, but neither does it tempt me to discount every positive thing they have done. If I did that, I’d have to discount everyone before and after Jesus Christ.
Of course someone will fear that I am advocating hypocrisy. Not so. Hypocrisy is saying you are one thing when you are really the opposite. It is the definition of irony. It is Jesse Jackson preaching sexual purity and siring an illegitimate child. It is Jim Bakker preaching against lying and stealing while deceiving and fleecing his flock. Even those people may be forgiven, obviously, but I think a stronger argument can be made for not admiring them -- they are the opposite of what they claim to be.
I think Thomas Merton addresses the issue of human flaws much better than I ever could. He was an admirable man who was constantly in touch with the fact that he was a flawed and sinful human being. “I have come to accept the fact that my life is almost totally paradoxical,” he writes in the introduction to A Thomas Merton Reader. “I have also had to learn gradually to get along without apologizing for the fact, even to myself.” That sums all of us up: we are paradoxical. We seldom do what we should, and even when we do, we do so imperfectly.
I don’t know
when I’ll make it back to Mt. St. Helens, although I hope to take my
wife and daughter there someday so they can experience its beauty too.
And when we go, we’ll be sure we have plenty of gas when we
decide to come down, and while we’re up there, we’ll be sure to read
the plaque commemorating one Harry R. Truman, a man who refused to give
up the home he loved in the face of insurmountable odds.
Truly admirable, I say.