In real life, nothing is as it seems to be and nothing is like it is. Life is governed by constant contradictions about which we as actors do not always know, and when we are made aware of them, we are often in denial. At times, we accuse those who point to our shortcomings and brand them instigators and troublemakers.
In human civilisation prophetic voices in society are always labeled as bad guys until their truth is made manifest long after they have come and gone. One of the premiere scientists in history, the Italian astronomer and physicist, Galileo Galilei pointed out for the first time in 1633 that it is the earth that moves around the sun, and not the sun around the earth, as most us still think.
This infuriated the church and its scientists who hated, vilified, condemned and prosecuted him. He was considered an outcast even by scientists who found umbrage under the cloak of the church. It took the church 259 years to come to admit its wrongness and apologize to this fallen scientist without whose pioneering knowledge we would not agree on time zones today.
The meaning of life does not lie in the obvious. To see the left for the right in the mirror is a contradiction, because it is not the real left. The history of human civilisation is full of contradictions, some of the major ones that led to real progress and change in religion, culture, science and politics. Imagine the contradictions that accompanied the missionary work that changed the world.
For instance, when the missionaries arrived in Afrika to save Afrikans from themselves through proselytisation and evangelism, the spreaders of the faith would justify their superior lifestyle by telling the story of Lazarus who was poor and a marginalized. The narrative depicted Lazarus as a good man who would watch those who had plentiful food enjoy their fatted meals.
The well eaters would push onto him the left overs of their meals. The moral of the story was that the more you suffered on earth, the higher your rewards in heaven would be. The Afrikans soon realized that the people preaching the importance of suffering were themselves not prepared to suffer. That contradiction threw their logic out completely, because their stories and their behavior were not consistent.
Consider these historical figures whose lives were filled with mega contradictions that when the truth came to light after their deaths. The great Chinese revolutionary communist leader Mao Zedong, affectionately known as Chairman Mao, championed the Chinese Revolution from 1949 till his death in 1976.
During his reign, he campaigned against all western cultural things such as music and clothes. The story goes that after a long day of fiery revolutionary anti-western speeches, Mao would retire to his bunkers only to be entertained by multiple scantily-dressed teenage girls who read sex manuals to him and massaged his tired body to relaxing classical western music while he was smoking British cigarettes brand 555.
Mao’s personal physician for 22 years, Dr Li Zhisui published a book in 1994 and revealed these details and showed that Chairman Mao was addicted to ballroom dancing (which he outlawed) with several young daughters of poor workers and that the great leader died of STD related complications he contacted during his private, yet fancy free life of debauchery and ideological contradictions. Still he was the unchallenged leader of such that to this day he is the centre of Communist China.
The Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu who ruled Romania from 1965 to 1989 when he was arrested and killed by the same ubiquitous Securitate that protected him through the years when he was their benefactor.
Revelations after his death showed that this communist leader used to hoard western food for his family and animals while preaching simplicity for his people. The last East German Communist strongman Herr Erich Honecker lived in style while he was advocating and enforcing anti-materialism to his people.
History is strewn with evidence that shows how past oppressions have often been reproduced by those who fight against oppression but turned coats once they tasted the sweetness of power.
Paulo Freire would warn in his book ‘The Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ that former oppressed people invariably end up oppressing more than their oppressors because they would have learned from their oppressors how to oppress! They would have learned the art of freedom from oppression, not freedom to give freedom to others.
History also shows that poor people in power are not the best custodians of a nation’s resources as a poor person remains preoccupied with feelings of insecurity and memory of poverty. Former poor people who have the keys to the riches of the nation are tempted to take what is not theirs to make sure that they will never go back to poverty. It is like leaving rats to watch the cheese and hope that they will have a moral view over the cheese.
Life also teaches us that when people show drastic change in their behaviour once they are in power cannot be reliable leaders. A person does not become magnanimous once they have three meals a day and have all manners of security. A leader’s good and altruistic conduct must be consistent with the person’s character when he/she held the view of life as part of his/her character when it was not fashionable and/or for public relations.
Power only allows the best or the worst to come out – it seldom creates values and ethics that were not there in the first place. Leaders who try to lead by reading other leaders’ autobiographies and compare themselves everyday with them can only limp from one contradiction to the other, because their values are not internal, but textbook based.
Good leaders are those who are able to return to their childhood dreams and interrogate and apply such dreams in the context of the day.
We also learned that people who are too surprised and too impressed by how good they look in the mirror are dangerous leaders, because they cannot tell the left from the right and are likely to use the weaker left hand thinking it is their strong right hand. Thus the result cannot be the same, unless the person is ambidextrous, which is very rare.
Too many life stories of people show us that power is also ambiguous and double-edged. Power is bittersweet in that it is capable of achieving results that would not be possible without it, most of the time, until the game is up. Then one would wish that one did not have it in the first place.
In the movie ‘No Way Out’ (1987) actor Gene Hackman says to the other actor Kevin Costner: ‘You have no idea what people in power can do’. And they do that for as long as that power lasts. Power, or the softer version of power, success, can make the ugliest man most handsome… until they lose the game again.
Power and success can even make age disappear. Life is about harmonising the processes of birth, aging and death, as these stages of living are essential and intrinsically linked to one another. The old people need to realise the importance of letting go and passing on the baton without fear of becoming irrelevant.
For the youth with its understandable impatience and marvelous militancy, it is important to know that all people, including those they think should give way, were young at one point. We all need to realise that the process of aging begins at conception and is irreversible. Those who are between 25 and 30 years old today will be in their forties in 2030, thus part of the old-fashioned folks.
Life contradictions also show the better side of our humanity. The hero to so many of us, Dr Martin Luther King Jr., was himself a bundle of contradictions and had his dark sides. His best friend, Ralph Abernethy, published a book (And the Walls Came Tumbling Down) in 1989 revealing that King had a violent confrontation with one of the three women he had intimate encounters with the night before he was assassinated.
Many of us would have wished not to know details about King’s struggles with life and virtues – so as to keep him steady on the pedestal. The point is that if he were not human with the weaknesses we now know, he would not be exceptional and extraordinary in his service to humanity.
Like Nelson Mandela once said: What matters is not the number of times we fall, but it is the number of times we manage to get up again and move forward, that matters.
Life is about managing our own contradictions. Our own paradoxes and polarities – that we can bring the bad into some harmony with the worst, because we possess both. Those of us who have more education than others must never think we are special or cut from a special cloth. We are just lucky and must behave with humility.
Our own experience teaches us that educated people are not always the best leaders, and are in fact often worse than those without certificates on their walls. Leadership is with the heart guided by the mind, not a mind frightened by the heart. If you wish to know about the danger of educated leaders in power, ask Zimbabweans for more details.
In the final analysis, life is dialectical and dynamic. Every action leads to a reaction and what goes up will come down; what goes around comes around. Today’s success and triumphalism could very well be tomorrow’s biggest regret, yet today we do not know this, just as the left arm in the mirror does not know that it is not the right arm.
We all have the good and the bad in us. It is about managing our demons, all of us. It is, yes, about managing the monkeys on our shoulders and the evil they scratch out of us. The right hand must help the left, and vice versa, even though they do not look the same, in the mirror.
Maybe it is true that one day we will regret not so much the things we have done, but we shall regret what we did not do while we could – for the common good.