The unique thing about flesh-and-blood people (as opposed to people in, say, political discourse) is that they are simultaneously good and bad. An artist might paint brilliant dogs yet kick his actual dog. One might serve soup to the homeless by day yet be unfaithful to the spouse by night. There are men who have charged enemy guns in valor, and then abandoned their children. This is not right, it is tragic. But it is.
Every time a prominent person dies we have arguments over whether he / she was good or bad. Some say “good”, some say “bad”. Such a silly argument, based on a paper-mache notion of what a person is. He was certainly both.
Let’s imagine a public figure who just died…I originally wrote this on the death of David Brudnoy, the Boston radio personality, whose program I enjoyed in my earphones during long, lonely night runs while training for a marathon. He was an extraordinary intellect and a grace-filled conversationalist. He was actually interested in his guests without coddling them. He had a rare ability to ask pointed, critical questions while remaining utterly polite. He had as clear a consent-based criterion for public morals as any thinker I’ve ever heard. These qualities are as rare as a Red Sox pennant.
He was homosexual, and died from the sequelae of AIDS. On my side of the religious aisle, that lifestyle is regarded as immoral. So what? It matters, but it does not cancel out his good qualities by some tit-for-tat arithmetic. The good is, and the bad is.
Civilized people don’t go to wakes and trot out a naughty list and a nice list and calculate a net present value. The reason we don’t is that it is mental health for mortals to focus on the good and let God judge the bad. Whatever else should be said, God will say, without my help.
It is not metaphysical doubt or moral relativism to speak only well of the flawed dead. It is, rather, certainty that I am not the Judge.