What is it within one’s psyche that is touched, that causes the world to seem an emptier place when a certain person dies? The loss could be personal or a public person who for one reason or another became a keystone that helped hold one’s worldview together, serving as an equilibrium to destabilizing forces.
The individual was on what Joseph Campbell called the Hero’s Path, his face, paraphrasing Teddy Roosevelt, marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strove valiantly, erred, and came up short again and again, but came to be re-formed in the crucible of life to become greater.
The hero is not an ideal but perfect in his imperfection, replete with flaws and lapses of judgment, not among them, though, lying, cheating, or betrayal.
John McCain was such a man. Politically, I rarely agreed with him and often felt confounded and flustered by decisions he made. Yet, I cannot help looking through all that and not seeing him outside the context of the supreme valor he exhibited as a prisoner of war.
Archetypally, McCain was a Warrior, one that, according to Caroline Myss, “represents physical strength and the ability to protect, defend, and fight for one’s rights.”
“The Warrior,” Myss says, “is linked to invincibility and loyalty.” She adds, “To be unbreakable and to fight to the death is a large part of the Warrior archetype.”
That McCain did: Fight to the death, not to defy death by artificially clinging to life, but to accomplish one last deed, to make one last point.
McCain’s life during and from the time of his captivity would have been an apt subject for Sophocles or Euripides, a tragedy not as we think of tragedy or in the Shakespearean sense of one with a fatal flaw. Instead, a story of a real person, far from ideal in temperament, attitudes, and behaviors, but cloaked with the mantle of nobility at the end.
We in the audience, the ones who debate the play’s unfolding and conclusion, are left to judge, understanding that we will not likely be enshrined among those greater ones. We come to look to greatness, not as a perfection, but as a completeness rarely achieved. We’re left to be awed and wonder, to be inspired to rise above complaint, grousing, and self-pity, to strive for nobility in words and deeds.
The masses of people are forgotten within a generation or two. A few become enthroned in Valhalla. After Lincoln was assassinated, Edwin Stanton said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Can we compare McCain to Lincoln? Should one compare greatness?
Western literature and myth abound with mythic heroes—Odysseus, Jesus, Arthur, Martin Luther King—and quests for the grail.
“The Grail becomes,” Campbell said on Power of Myth, “that which is attained and realized by people who have lived their own lives. The Grail represents the fulfillment of the highest spiritual potentialities of the human consciousness.
“The Grail becomes symbolic of an authentic life that is lived in terms of its own volition, in terms of its own impulse system, that carries itself between the pairs of opposites of good and evil, light and dark. Every act in life yields pairs of opposites in its results. The best we can do is lean toward the light, toward the harmonious relationships that come from compassion with suffering, from understanding the other person. This is what the Grail is about.”
One does not need to don a uniform to be a warrior; an individual becomes one by participating in life and embracing his/her complete nature, the good and the not-so-good.
John McCain, nobility in the face of defeat. RIP