Instead of condemning, let’s try compassion

“You know why they ‘canceled’ Dr. Seuss? He cheated on his wife when she was dying of cancer!”

That outburst in the middle of my lecture made me pause in my explanation of why we won’t “cancel” authors in my high school literature class, but instead try to learn from their times and issues.

We’re next going to read Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew,” and I was making a case that people who cry “Sexist!” about Shakespeare don’t understand his time period or his circumstances. In many ways, Shakespeare was progressive in his approach and treatment of women at his time (which could have been a reflection of a strong female queen in England).

I was explaining that nearly all of literature is a reflection of the history around it, so if we understand the history, we consequently understand—and further appreciate—the literature.

But first we had to get past Dr. Seuss, and this is what I plan to present to tomorrow’s class, now that I’ve had time to do a little research.

First, his publisher hasn’t ‘canceled’ all of Dr. Seuss, just six books which some perceive have negative racial undertones. Again, understanding the history of the time when the books were written (one as early as the 1930s) would clarify what was happening in the illustrations. What a marvelous learning opportunity we could have here, instead of an “erasing of history” which I fear is occurring. And when we erase, we forget, then commit the same mistakes all over again.

Second, Theodore Geisel wasn’t ‘canceled’ because of his behavior in the late 1960s. Frankly, no one cares about that (and an entire argument could be made about if they should or shouldn’t).

So what about his affair, which, after the death of his wife, turned into his second marriage?
I don’t know—I’m not privy to those details, and it’s no one’s business, either.

But for argument’s sake, let’s consider: was he remorseful about his behavior?
Back in the 1960s, we didn’t have support groups for grieving men, cancer victims, etc. People were often just left on their own to figure out how to cope, which meant, they didn’t very well. I personally know of a few situations where men found comfort in the arms of another woman when their wives were suffering. (And those “other women” weren’t entirely innocent themselves, so let’s not solely blame men here.) As a society, we’ve learned how to help those who are grieving and suffering, and in the past 50 years a whole system of supports has been put in place to help, and rightly so. People who are grieving have many more options now.

But what about Seuss? Did he regret his behavior, then or later? Did he go through some kind of repentance process? I don’t know, nor do I need to know.

Because I choose to “Think the Best Story.”

Some years ago author Orson Scott Card wrote an essay suggesting that every time we feel to judge harshly and condemn someone, that we “Think the Best Story” about them instead.

For example, the person who cut you off on the freeway really isn’t the inconsiderate, arrogant jerk you assume they are.
Maybe they just received terrible news—they’ve lost a job, or someone has been in a serious accident and they’re rushing to the hospital, or they’ve been told their cancer has returned and is incurable.
Maybe instead of a being a horrible person they’re merely distracted by disaster, and accidentally cut you off.

(I once cut off someone because I had a child projectile vomiting in the seat behind me as I drove, and it’s pretty hard to concentrate in a situation like that. I sure would have appreciated some compassion right about then.)

“Thinking the Best Story” acknowledges that we don’t have the whole situation, and instead of condemning, we instead try compassion. I think in 99.9% of potentially “offensive” situations, if we understood the point of view of the perpetrator, we’d rush to help them, not cancel them.

I think of the example of Robert Downey, Jr. and his support of Johnny Depp. When others have canceled Depp because of reports of spouse abuse (which reports are dubious, depending upon the source), Downey has come to his aid. Why? Because years ago, “Iron Man” was in and out of prisons and rehab with a drug addiction for about five years. But he wasn’t canceled then, he was helped. And one of those who helped him revive his career was Johnny Depp. Now, Downey is returning the favor, helping a friend who has been knocked down because he’s filled with compassion, not condemnation.

None of us should be seen or remembered for only our worst moments. To reduce Dr. Seuss to only as “that guy who cheated on his dying wife and drew a few ‘bad’ pictures” is unfair and inaccurate, ignoring the decades of good and even great things he did, wiping them all out for one year of stupidity.
We’ve all had stupid moments that we pray others will forgive us for.
If you haven’t had moments of stupidity, you will. Oh, you will. (I’ve had quite a few that I’ve tried to forget.)

What if we remembered Saul in the New Testament only as “that guy who persecuted and put to death the followers of Jesus Christ”? That would ‘cancel’ all the greatness he accomplished when he turned his life completely around and became Christianity’s greatest advocate of the first century. The reverse was so total that even his name was changed to Paul, and he was ultimately tried and put to death for his valiancy. To focus narrowly on his earlier mistakes is to misjudge him completely.

Paul was a little bit more than just that “guy who persecuted Christians for a while.”

This “think the best story” attitude can be applied to just about everyone who is facing cancelation. Some historical and current public figures did commit mistakes. That’s called “being human.” Should they be defined by those mistakes, especially when looking at a full life in total of marvelous and excellent successes which quite often benefitted the entire country? Of course not.

Should your life be judged so narrowly? Of course not.

But to accuse Abraham Lincoln for not doing enough to help the Native Americans–after he freed the slaves and lost his life because of it–is disingenuous. And to cancel Mark Twain, again, for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, again, because of the use of the N word, ignores that historically the N word didn’t have the connotations it has now, and worse, negates the fact the Slave Jim and Huck are the only respectable characters in the entire book.

Perhaps it’s because Jim and Huck are purposely rebelling against the constraints of their society–and prove themselves to be the most humane and honest people in the South–is precisely why the book under the “cancel” curse once more. After all, it’s the rebels who push against the pressure of culture who are actually right.

There are others who are being canceled because some purposely misread and misjudge their opinions or beliefs. Some people fear any ideas which contradict their own, and feel the only recourse is to destroy that which challenges.

I wrote some years ago about misjudging and taking offense, and still my favorite quote from Aristotle is, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

I worry that we, as a society as a whole, do not believe that anymore.

Still, I’ve noticed something about myself when I choose compassion over condemnation: I’m a happier person. I feel more empathy, more concern, more love for others—even those I don’t agree with—when I assume “the BEST story” about them.

I choose to still like Dr. Seuss’s books, I still watch Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr. movies, and I still “think the best stories” about people because doing so makes me a better person. I still choose to have faith in everyone else, too.