Even now, having seen so much in life, after having many expectations confounded or foiled, I still yearn for certainty. I want a predictable world, so I can determine where and how to dedicate my energies. But, of course, the years have also tempered my need for certainty and I am equally drawn to life as it is.
Cancer, for example, has been a great teacher. Both Franny and I seem to have survived ours, but our ideas about mortality and old age have had to be revised. Child rearing has provided another classroom. I love how my children have turned out but I can no longer deny that other children, raised in ways I didn’t agree with—arrogant as that was—have turned out wonderfully, too. The political arena has also proved humbling. The socialism of my youth, for instance, has yielded to a preference for mixed economic systems, with public ownership and individual incentives intertwined.
At any moment, I might argue vociferously for the ‘right way’ to do things but then I step back and conclude that, first of all, there are probably many ways to succeed and, second, the way I choose will probably be influenced, moderated, changed by choices others make. Solitary and binary thinking, an emphasis on right and wrong, hasn’t gotten me very far in this complicated world of ours.
Once again, last Tuesday’s elections put me to a test. I had warned that these were the most consequential elections in a century. They would either check the powers of Trump and his Congressional enablers or they could set free neo-fascist forces with the potential to take down our democracy. The Democrats took the House and, with so many of my fellow Americans, I sighed in relief. But that night and the next morning I also struggled to understand the results and to find comfort in them. We won! Phew. We lost the Senate! Damn! But didn’t we expect that? Isn’t it enough to have regained some power? There was more relief than triumph in victory, and is sat alongside the sorrow and anger and fear that partial victory might not be enough.
A week later, though, I feel clearer, better. We may have won enough to protect our nation. We may have fired up a grassroots movement that will win big in 2020. People may be coming together. A new period of progressive politics may emerge in response to Trump, McConnell and the Freedom Caucus. A wave of common ground, a collective feeling joined to optimism, has emerged and may have gained enough momentum to continue. Even a temperamental absolutist like me can cheer.
But there is a deeply ingrained part of me that still yearns for moral certainty, for a less compromised ground to stand on. With that thought in mind, the very next day, Franny and I attended a lecture at the Harvard Law School entitled Identity, Faith, and Public Responsibility. The question was this: How do values inform your decisions, particularly in heated, complex public arenas. The lecturer was Jack Lew, formerly United States Secretary of the Treasury, White House Chief of Staff under President Obama and Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources under President Clinton. An accomplished man, to say the least.
Lew, a tall, thin, neatly dressed man, with a pleasant face and a surprisingly unassuming manner, talked at length about how religion—he’s an Orthodox Jew—informed and influenced his work. He quoted the Talmud, the Torah, and Pirkei Avot, a compilation of the ethical teachings passed down from Rabbi to Rabbi over the centuries, to demonstrate the values he brought to key decisions during the US-Iran nuclear deliberations and the Clinton public welfare reforms.
I was eager to learn how a clearly religious man could navigate the roiling world of national and international politics and still be true to a clear cut set of values. But, to be honest, I didn’t feel that I learned much during this part of the lecture. He frustrated me by continually backing off the direct application of values. In instance after instance, Lew said, in effect, “it’s complicated.” He recalled his disapproval of Clinton’s withdrawing funds from the safety net for new immigrants, but assuaged his conscience because the funds did support programs for working mothers.
Over and again, he compromised: losing a bit to gain a lot; or losing a lot to gain at least something. But—and this was his point—he never participated in decisions that centrally, and as a net result of considered analysis, contradicted his values; and he always struggled to bring decisions closer to them. In a way, Jack Lew seemed like exactly the kind of insider I’ve been skeptical about for my entire life. A good guy who compromises too much in order to maintain his position.
But the more I listened, the more I began to sense at least a partial answer to my wish to feel more comfortable with complexity. I was drawn to the openness and integrity with which he struggled with problems that challenged his values. Every time he was asked a provocative question, Lew hesitated, thought, then said something like this: Here is where I began—the bedrock of his values—and here is where I questioned myself and my ability to hold them tight. When decisions seemed particularly fraught, he questioned whether he should resign. In my job, he said, I had to represent the interests of my country but sometimes feared that my values and my country’s interest could diverge. Even at such a precipice, Lew struggled to bring decisions close enough so that he could live with, even affirm, them.
Lew seems to live comfortably with partial victories, which, after all, are the messy basis of democratic governance. Not in a lazy way — not without first testing how far he could move off his particular values — but with great, hard won, self-awareness. That awareness, along with his humility and his willingness to struggle, every time, to achieve the best under the circumstances—maybe that’s what I admire most in him.
At this point in my life, finding truth and comfort in complexity and ambiguity is the Holy Grail. I will never get to that zero place of Buddhism and postmodern philosophy. I will never think that ideas and values are just illusions, mere human creations. Policies and particular values remain at the bedrock of my spirit. There are some truths for me — like the importance of kindness; like those great political truths trumpeted in the Declaration of Independence that feel “self-evident.” But I know this: Those truths can be interpreted and pursued in many ways, and I need to loosen up and acknowledge those alternatives — and the people who argue for them.
I have vowed to practice the kind of humility I found in Lew: his capacity to hold his ideals clearly and to strive towards their realization even as he knows that they won’t be fully achieved in any pure sense, taking comfort in the effort and in the partial solutions.
After listening skeptically and, at first, rejecting Lew’s compromising ways, I may have discovered a model, a hero and a goal.