21. Feet of Clay
I’m not sure what I thought when I first started to write this ‘column. All I knew was that I was over sixty five and was going to write for other people of similar age. What to write? Medical stuff? I’m not a doctor so I may get it wrong. I did write some light hearted things in the early months but have found I’ve moved on in my thinking so sometimes you may get something about the goodness of living in this age and the technical gadgets we have to play with today. Other times I’ve got a bit philosophical and other times tried to pick up on odds and ends that we, at our age, might find interesting, or even helpful. I also work on the idea that just maybe, you and me at this age might have gleaned a few pearls of wisdom along the way, which might be worth sharing.
When you look back on life - or at least when I look back on my life, I find myself thinking a lot about people. I have been becoming more aware of what I shall simply and gently refer to as people’s feet of clay. Have you heard of that expression? It doesn’t matter how nice people are, how fulfilled people are, how creative they are, or whatever, they still manage to have a corner of their lives where they muff it! Most of us aren’t terribly secure and so people don’t tell me how they have argued with their spouse or ‘partner’, or how unsure of life they are, or of their fears – those will come later when they trust me perhaps.
I have seen this distinction most clearly in reading biographies or autobiographies (written by another or written first hand). I started a year or so ago reading the biography of a hero of mine, Alistair Cooke, of ‘Letter from America’ fame. There was an amazing amount more that he did and I found it an enthralling book – but he certainly had feet of clay. He was emotionally stunted in respect of his children and divorced from his first wife. That will do to be going on with. I was disturbed by that because I had always enjoyed his way of writing and speaking and he was my hero – but he had feet of clay! I learned that feet of clay should not stop us admiring the good aspects of people, even if they weren’t aware of it themselves.
I next went to read of Anglican bishop who perhaps might feel better about me if I let him remain anonymous. I have only seen and heard him once, and that fairly recently, and he struck me as an immensely gentle and godly and sensitive man growing into old age with some struggles. But when I read his autobiography, I felt his feet of clay often shone through (there’s a mixed picture!)
I’ve also been reading a certain philosopher’s biography, another man widely known and respected, but again a man known by those close to him to have feet of clay. My wife speaks of her teenage years of knowing another such ‘national leader’ but again, known by those close to him, as a man with feet of clay.
Next I took a book token given for a birthday and bought and read Alan Sugar’s autobiography. Quite an amazing business man in many ways, often with streaks of humility and loyalty that stood out – but what feet of clay does he admit to! But I still found myself appreciating the good aspects of his life.
So there we are, capable of great things, but at the same time with feet of clay that reveal we fall short of what could be. That is the sad part of so many of these lives. Yes, they do have reflections of greatness in their lives, but at the same time there are these ‘feet of clay’, these things that spoil and limit and hinder, things that stop us becoming so much more. And that is sad!
But if I’m honest, it’s exactly what I think of myself. It’s all right, I’m not going to tell you loads of ghastly secrets; I’m not sure I’ve got too many of them. Yet I look back on my life and I’m aware of loads of places where I didn’t get it right and if I was able to run it again I would want to do it differently. I find I can get quite maudlin if I really dwell on this sort of thing and it takes my wife to list off the good things I’ve done in life - and there have been some, but you don’t want to hear about them. I wonder how many of us have the courage to be completely honest about ourselves? Somebody once said that humility was being able to be up front about the bad and the good things in your life.
I thought I’d look up the Internet to get a quote of two about feet of clay. I came up with quotes from Terry Pratchett’s book called “Feet of Clay”. This is a bit obscure but I like it as ‘pure Pratchett’ -
“You never ever volunteered. Not even if a sergeant stood there and said, "We need someone to drink alcohol, bottles of, and make love, passionate, to women, for the use of." There was always a snag. If a choir of angels asked for volunteers for Paradise to step forward, Nobby knew enough to take one smart pace to the rear.”
(Terry Pratchett, Feet of Clay)
Pratchett’s book “Feet of Clay” really dominates the search area so getting desperate I looked for quotes about character flaws and came up with this one:
“Sometimes I lie awake at night and ask, ‘Where have I gone wrong?’ Then a voice says to me, ‘This is going to take more than one night.’
(From Peanuts Cartoon strip I believe)
Yes, there’s the problem: start of examining your feet of clay and you realise that there is more of you that is clay than just your feet! It’s not a bad activity to maintain humility as long as you don’t let it expand and make you depressed. My conclusion? Us people with feet of clay have got to stick together!
I don’t know who said it but I like it: “I never make the same mistake twice. I make it five or six times, just to be sure.”
I also like, “Make mistakes. Learn from them. Move on.”
Quote: “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved."
(Helen Keller(1880-1968) American blind and deaf writer/lecturer)