While in Key West, we visited the house of famous author, Ernest Hemingway. By today's standards, it is a roomy but modest home. The tour guide told us many amusing and interesting stories that gave us a glimpse of the adventurous, larger-than-life Hemingway. He was wounded in the first world war, travelled extensively, lived in France, Cuba, and various parts of the USA, and was married 4 times. Adventure or perhaps mis-adventure seemed to follow him. He survived several plane crashes, numerous other physical ailments and traumas, and years of heavy drinking. However, the depression that hounded him for many years eventually caused him to end him own life at age 62. He left behind a collection of novels and articles, the Pulitzer prize, the Nobel prize, and three children. And a mixed legacy of good work and bad choices.
Hemingway's story is a tragic one. Like so many artists, the beginning is promising, the middle is troubled (often accompanied by destructive behaviour and addiction), and the end is premature and senseless. The visit to Hemingway's house troubled me. To some extent, I agreed with the tour guide - that we want to remember the author for his great work and not focus too much on his messy family life nor his excessive drinking. But is that fair? Honest? Or even wise?
News of the death of singer Amy Winehouse this weekend saddened many (and unfortunately, in some ways overshadowed a great tragedy in Norway where nearly a hundred people lost their lives). Why is it that some of our greatest creative minds and voices seem to be so troubled and make choices that jeopardise not only their careers but too often end their lives? I have heard it argued (and to some extent agree with the sentiment) that their tortured lives often provide fuel for their creative expressions. Van Gogh is another example that comes to mind. In some way, suffering and pain do seem to infuse depth into their works. It makes the artist dig deeper, past the uneasy surface we so often live life on, and get at a certain rawness that we all recognise and identify with. It helps them paint with bolder colours and sing stronger, more haunting melodies. But aside from that (and the obvious monetary rewards), it does not seem to profit them much. And to me, this is the really sad part: that suffering would become fuel for an artist's work and stop short of becoming cathartic or catalytic in their own maturity or healing.
We all have good and bad parts of our lives. In this way, we are no different from the famous, the creative geniuses, the rich and influential figures of our time. But it bothers me that as a culture we hold up these tragic figures as creative heroes in some way, expecting little of them in the arena of maturity. If you want to be my hero, someone I look up to, you have to do more that write some clever words, sing some beautiful notes, or look good on camera. You have to have some hard-won qualities in your life like faithfulness, patience, grace under pressure, generosity, self-sacrifice, humility, and self-control. Yes, I am saddened by the deaths of creative minds such as Hemingway and van Gogh, and in some ways a preventable death is even more tragic than an unpreventable one. But tragedy does not make a hero. Courage does.
Someone like Mother Teresa comes to mind, who chose to spend her days in the presence of the dying and neglected poor, offering them dignity and love. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (whose biography I just finished) is another example of courage: he chose not to leave Germany in order to ensure his own safety during Hitler's rule, but did what he could to stand in the way of evil as it threatened his homeland. In the end, he died for that choice.
Courage is also very present in my own world: in the people of an intentional community that I interviewed last week who have committed themselves to the poor in their city and to building healthy relationships, no matter how difficult that is at times; in Dean who faces pressures and challenges with good humour and grace every day at work; in my sister and brother-in-law who serve the people of Afghanistan despite high personal risk; in the mothers and fathers who spend their lives investing in their children instead of pursuing lucrative careers. These are not the famous people, the high-profile people, the rich and influential of our society. But they are my heroes - living simple, courageous, and humble lives.
This is a photo of Hemingway's writing studio in Key West.