Gongol.com Archives: October 2021

Brian Gongol

October 20, 2021

News Lessons from the dead

The passing of former Secretary of State Colin Powell has set off the usual round of obituaries from mainstream sources that speak with almost equal weight of Powell's stature as a ground-breaking military officer and Cabinet secretary, and of Powell's role in the fray of politics. CNN wrote that "the damage was already done" to Powell's reputation by his UN address, and the New York Times noted "He left at the end of Mr. Bush's first term under the cloud of the ever-worsening war in Iraq". These efforts to report both the good and the bad are predictable from news outlets striving to be seen as objective. Somewhat less predictable was the scurrilous and ungracious response of one former President. ■ The philosopher Epictetus is credited with saying that a person should react to the death of an enemy "By setting himself to live the noblest life himself." Setting aside whether Secretary Powell was actually anyone's enemy (at least domestically), the advice is sound. ■ Not everyone is naturally gracious, and not every life is filled with an equal measure of good to be emulated. But when a person passes, unless one is doctrinally obligated to talk about "both sides" of the individual's life, it should be quite enough to make a choice between two things: Describing the lessons learned from the deceased, or saying nothing at all. ■ Are there exceptions? Perhaps. A handful of lives are so monstrous as to escape redemption, but too noteworthy to go without comment. But those lives are vanishingly few. ■ For the remainder, it ought to be enough either to acknowledge for the record what good others can take from the story of a life, or to remain quiet. All lives are complicated. Every personality evolves over time. Everyone battles demons, foibles, and shortcomings. A life cannot be lived without mistakes or regrets. But it cannot be worth anyone's time to dance on the grave of another, even if only in something as ephemeral as a tweet. ■ The urge to get in a word about "both sides" about a person's passing ought to yield to noting the lessons of a life -- not merely for social decorum, but because that's the only productive way to live what remains of anyone else's time on Earth. As Maimonides put it, "a man needs to associate with the just and be with the wise continually in order to learn [from] their actions, and to keep away from the wicked, who walk in darkness, so that he avoids learning from their actions." If a person passes and leaves behind some of that wisdom, the living ought to amplify and make use of it. If they pass and leave behind nothing of value, then what good comes of airing grudges or grievances? Letting a person die unremarked would seem to be the harsher verdict of history.

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