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Big Enough to be Inconsistent

The last couple of months really have been ones in which I learned a lot.  It was incredibly humbling.  One of the thing I was admittedly smug about going into the program was the fact I was older than most of the others, and one of very few who had already done the Bachelor’s degree and worked in a semi-senior job for a while.  While this was true, I underestimated both the others, every single one of whom challenged me in a different way, and how much I could learn from being around them.

And there was one lesson I’ve struggled to articulate, but that has been very significant for me.  In seeing people a few years younger than myself dealing with identity issues- as I did at their age, as I continue to do now, and I will inevitably continue to do in the future- I realised the value of inconsistency.  Of not searching for a single “I am”, but instead learning how to be many things at once.

It was a total lightbulb moment.  I realised how much time I had spent trying to figure out what kind of person I wanted to be and then working toward being that, only to change my mind.  I realised that there’s great value in being many, many things- and some apparently contradictory things- all at once.  It was one of those things that once I saw, it seemed so blindingly obvious, I had no clue how I had not seen it a thousand times before.

I got home, and continued reflecting on what seemed to be this insight that I’d needed for years.  I looked over some things I’d written about myself, and realised how much I pigeonholed myself.  Sure, as time went by, I pigeonholed myself in new and interesting ways, but it was always reductive.  I was a Sports Fan or a Writer or a Nerd.

Then, driving home from Wollongong yesterday, I listened to some of David Blight’s amazing lecture series on the Civil War for the umpteenth time.  And there it was: in talking about Lincoln, he described exactly what it was that I’d been thinking.  First, he quoted W. E. B. DuBois on Lincoln:

“I love him, not because he was perfect, but because he was not perfect, yet triumphed.  There was something left so that at the crisis he was big enough to be inconsistent.  Cruel, merciful, peace-loving, a fighter, despising negroes and letting them fight and vote. Protecting slavery and freeing slaves.  He was a man. A big, inconsistent, brave man.”

Then Blight added:

“I’d argue that the most important thing you can understand about Abraham Lincoln is that he had the capacity for growth”

Oh, how true that is! Lincoln’s greatness comes from the fact he was a “flip-flopper”. He changed his mind. He grew. He learnt. He was capable of being many things at once- not only capable of being them, but his greatness lay in the very fact he was.

Blight went on to incompletely quote Ralph Waldo Emerson as saying “”Consistency is the hobgoblin of simple minds”.  The full quote is actually:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.”

I think that, more than anything, is what I learnt from DC- both from my fellow interns, and from being in government, where a foolish consistency is often celebrated, but really is not conducive to effective government or, really, to true integrity.  Greatness comes from being wrong, from learning, from growing, and from having the self-awareness to be many things at once.

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