Moral Ambiguity and Rule #11

Moral Ambiguity and Rule #11



“Rule #11: I know that these rules will inevitably result in contradictions, conflicts, hypocrisy, and stress rashes.”
Sherman Alexie


Yesterday Sherman Alexie wrote a marvelous response to a controversy about one of the poems he chose for Best American Poetry 2015–a poem ostensibly written by a Chinese poet, who turned out to be a white guy from Indiana.

Most of the people I meet in my daily round don’t read poetry, don’t know who Sherman Alexie is, and will never hear of this controversy. Usually this is a bit of a bummer, but the silver lining is I never have to prepare some new twist of insight, tart as a curl of lemon peel, in case the topic comes up at a cocktail party. There won’t be a party and it won’t come up. So I am free always to respond in my own thoughts only–just as the human being I am….

Alexie’s essay sparks my gratitude in all kinds of ways. I’m grateful for

  • his humor.
  • his candid revelation of the ten rules he invented to tackle this subjective task: naming the best American poems of the year.
  • his candid account of why he didn’t take out the poem in question, even when the author’s fraudulent identity was revealed.
  • his candid everything.

And finally, I am grateful

  • not to be famous.

Probably most of us who wrestle toward integrity are always mulling over some subtle difficult choice or another, trying to discern the course of action that will hew closest to an Ideal Good, a Good which can be so slippery and hew-resistant. (That’s right, I said hew-resistant. I can say it because I’m not famous.) And probably we all do the best we can, in light of Rule #11 (see above). Rule #11 is pretty much the story of trying to live with integrity. 

The privacy of not being famous allows that story to play out in such gentle shadow. Whose hide, really, can weather a hundred applications of sunlight’s disinfectant? Good grief. All the more reason that I’m so grateful for Alexie’s openness, which I think is more than just self-defense.

But I’m also so grateful that no one is pointing floodlights at one of the 10,000 moments I’ve weighed a dozen competing factors and still never figured out exactly what a moral victory would look like. 

As it happens (because my life is peppered with coincidences), just this morning I was just thinking about moral ambiguities, because of this fascinating podcast called “Enough Earth for my Mule” from the writer/pastor Rob Bell. (Further coincidence: Alexie mentions “stress rashes”; Bell mentions leprosy! Stepping it up with the dermatological ick!)

What can we do when the simultaneous application of all our ideals and values, our Rules #1-10 (or more), is enough to make us break out in skin afflictions of one kind or another?

I suppose we fall back on some form of Rule #11.

In the best of times, perhaps we apply Rule #11 with underpinnings of grace instead of fear.

I wish human beings were gentler in acknowledging and applying Rule #11. (Which really means: I wish I was. With myself especially. The rest of you 7 billion planet-dwellers: I’m not fit to throw a peach pit at your struggle.)

Here’s to muddling through contradictions and conflicts thoughtfully, without too many rashes.

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