This past week, America lost one of the most prolific authors of the past century: Norman Mailer. Mailer was a novelist, playwright, screenwriter and film director. He wrote over thirty books during the course of his lifetime, two of which won Pulitzer Prizes. I could go on and on about this man’s accomplishments and the impact he’s had on American literature, but suffice it to say that our nation has lost an icon.
Several days after his passing, I listened to a news story about this literary giant, and the commentator summarized his life as follows, “Norman Mailer: He fought, he drank, and he was married six times, but what truly mattered was his writing. It is his writing that will last.”
The thing is, Mailer had quite a messy personal life. Between six marriages he had nine children, and as if that wouldn’t keep you busy enough, he added drinking and drug abuse to the mix. I by no means want to dishonor Mr. Mailer upon the occasion of his passing, but I have to wonder if the news reporter was right in reducing his life’s significance to his literary achievements? Is that really all that matters? I’m not so sure.
Though I cannot speak on behalf of Mailer’s children, who may very well adore their father and felt supported by him at every stage in life, it is common that children of visible, public figures wind up getting neglected. Yes, your father or mother has done great things for the world, but if they were a lousy parent to you, then those achievements lose their luster. It’s hard to admire someone who was supposed to care for you, but had more important things to do.
Even so, the news reporter’s words reflect the way in which we generally measure people–by what they do. Who cares about their personal life, as long as their public life is beneficial to me. Who cares if a politician has engaged in some questionable business practices if his policy aligns with mine. Who cares if that social activist is an adulterer, as long as they’re serving the greater mankind. There are even churches who will look the other way when their pastors sleep with women in the congregation or use the church’s money for personal luxuries. As long as the sermons are good, then that’s all that really matters.
The problem with this mentality is that it overlooks the individuals who are trampled by such behavior–the children who never feel loved, the women who are betrayed or taken advantage of, or the business associates who are swindled or robbed. We justify these individuals’ mistreatment for the sake of the greater good.
I have a feeling, however, that we would be less prone to ignore our leaders’ personal lives if we were the ones getting hurt. When we step inside these victims’ shoes, our perspectives are bound to change. From their viewpoint, we see these public figures for who they are behind closed doors. That is, we see who they really are.
It is behind closed doors that your true character shines through, and no one knows this truth better than God. I frequently measure personal success by my Christian activities, but God knows better. I might be the most accomplished Christian in the world, starting a church, writing tons of books, and changing countless lives, yet neglecting the one thing that really matters. And like a child who cares little for her father’s achievements given that they were achieved at the cost of her relationship with him, God’s sentiments are the same. “Who cares that she writes great devotions…she obviously cares little for Me.”
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how well you do your job if you’re a lousy father or mother. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that you’re a talented preacher if you betray your congregation’s trust. And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you are the greatest Bible study leader in the world if you aren’t spending daily time with God. What we call little, God calls big, so we must stop using the world’s standard of a life well lived, and start using God’s.