With my holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, less than a day away, and my happiest season of the year, autumn in New York, only a week away, it’s that introspective time of year for me when I start asking myself again what I believe.
With all respect to God, Torah and the Ten Commandments, I have discovered that what I most believe in is Respect For All. That doesn’t necessarily mean I personally respect all people, it means I show respect for all.
High up on my two tablets is “Character is destiny.” Because I consider plagiarism a sin (against man) I’ll be quick to tell you that “Character is destiny” is not my line,* it’s Heraclitus’s, a 6th century Greek philosopher. I resolutely hold that “Character is destiny”—for good or ill. Abraham Lincoln’s life exemplified it. Gandhi’s embodied it. We learn it as children, but improvidently put it aside with “childish things.”** Pinocchio personifies the ancient adage, conversely and dramatically, as his nose grows longer with every lie he tells.
Heraclitus, as quotable as the prophets, Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, may also have said, “Know thyself.” Knowing a good aphorism when he saw one, Socrates prescribed it. The Oracle of Delphi billboarded it. I wish it on others like a blessing or a curse. We know he didn’t know much, but if George W. Bush had only known himself he might have applied himself. He would have made a fine baseball commissioner. If a sober Mel Gibson would come face to face with himself, it’s likely as not he’d either cut out his tongue or his heart.
Some time ago, I was surprised to discover in retrospect that every screenplay I’d written during my misspent Hollywood tenure had a theme in common: “power corrupts” (credit to Lord Acton). How did I fail to recognize in time that every person in a powerful position in Hollywood necessary to deal with was corrupted by power? If “character is destiny,” irrefutably, I know where every executive and producer in Hollywood is bound in the afterlife.
In the absence of the aggregate—respect for all, “character is destiny,” “know thyself” and “power corrupts”—what we get is unavoidably whom we get, and that is the antithesis of what I believe, the exemplarily bereft George W. I have always thought of people as rudimentary empty vessels you can fill with good or evil. The danger resides in their sheer emptiness: who pours what into the void, and to what purpose. W’s trouble auto-started at the top—his empty head filled his shallow heart with comfy platitudes. That left far too much room in his heart for the snake in his garden, Dick Cheney, to ply it with poison.
Is that all I believe? Not in the least. I believe in helping others when I can. I believe in always trying to see the other side. I believe in recognizing what’s more important to someone than it is to me. A legacy from my father, I believe in giving the other guy just a little more to make sure he feels he has half. I believe, with all my heart, in the words of Thomas Campbell, “To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die.”
Finally this day, my cardinal “commandment” is an imploration to myself and one and all always to think. Think before you act, think before you speak. Before you do anything, pause… to think. So many of the world’s problems, so many of our personal ones, could be averted by just a little prior thought.
Time to atone.
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*Nor is it John McCain’s, who used it for a title, but not only didn’t put it in quotes, but also gave credit for chapter-by-chapter aspects of it to everyone from Joan of Arc to Wilma Rudolph, from Gandhi to Mark Twain, from Darwin to Mother Teresa—but never, it appears, to Heraclitus, the man who said it. How’s that for character?