Personal Journeys with Gramma

Life adventures, inspiration and insight; shared in articles, advice, personal chats and pictures.

What Makes a Better Man?

We don’t often have occasion to see what personal integrity and character look like when the rest of the personality is stripped away.  Last night (ironically during the last portion of the first presidential debate) I watched THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN, a beautifully acted 2019 film recreation of a true story of the men who began the first comprehensive Oxford dictionary of the English language.  To us who can summon correct spellings (though often not the ones we wanted) on our cell phones, the creation of a dictionary sounds lame.  It wasn’t.  It was an attempt to capture all the words of the English language in the mid-19th century, define their various meanings and preferred spellings, discover when they were first introduced, and then track all the subtle changes and influences they underwent from then on.  It was a gargantuan task that boggled the imagination and still does as the language evolves, even now when we have electronics.

The first person who demonstrated dedication and integrity in the story was Professor James Murray (Mel Gibson), a self-taught Scotsman whose incredible command of many, many languages and their histories earned him the directorship of the project at the expense of his family time.  His wife proved to be an undaunted, worthy support.  The second person who was an astounding example of personal morality was Dr. William Minor (Sean Penn).  A medical doctor whose mental health suffered greatly under the strain of the American Civil War, he eventually succumbed in part to schizophrenia.  He kept seeing a man he had literally branded as a deserter pursuing him, even in London.  In self-defense, he ran down the street after someone he thought was his attacker and shot him to death.  The problem was the man was innocent, the British father of a family with six children.

Minor was sentenced to incarceration in a lunatic asylum.  Those who have experience with schizophrenia patients or who have seen A BEAUTIFUL MIND have some idea of the distortions of perception Minor endured.  A brilliant, talented surgeon, he kept his delusions at bay by volunteering to help Murray collect information from ancient literary sources.  His contributions were enormous.  In the meantime, he struggled to make restitution for his crime of murder by donating all his monies to the widow and her children.

I won’t wreck the film for those I hope will insist on seeing it.  Sean Penn is magnetic as he wrestles with his conscience and the “treatments” imposed by the asylum supervisor.  Knowing the basic tale is true impressed me.  Here was a man stricken by a debilitating disorder who not only accepted full culpability for the suffering he had inadvertently caused, but also did everything he could to compensate for the loss.  In fact, his own concept of proper self-punishment far exceeded what was expected or warranted.  Contrast that with the denial of personal responsibility we see so often in our own society.  Dr. Minor’s basic decent humanity remained intact as he was driven within himself.  What is the only real cure for humanity’s weaknesses?  We think it’s too idealistic…and too difficult:  love.  Simply that.  Love between human beings—not necessarily romantic but blossoming from respect and empathy.  It was a confirmation not lost on me.

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