“Nowadays I’m concerned to be right rather than righteous.” -Stephen Hawking, My Brief History
I don’t know what Hawking means, here. (That’s an experience, by the way, for which I’m very grateful: near the end of My Brief History, there’s a chapter that ran laughing circles around my head until I thought the floor might be the ceiling, and I stood up into it. That was frustrating: but it was also wonderful to come face to floor with something I just didn’t understand). In context, Hawking’s talking (hehehe–say that out loud) about one of his early books, and how the book is “highly technical” because he was “trying to be as rigorous as a pure mathematician.” In writing this book ‘rigorously,’ he was trying to prove that his study was a worthwhile study, that he Was Excellent. Now, he says, he’s trying a new approach. And maybe that’s the distinction he’s making: the difference between things that try to prove themselves, and things that try to be themselves.
That reminds me of two stories. First, there’s an old, wonderful story about the Baal Shem Tov, an 18th century Jewish rabbi and mystic. One day the Baal Shem Tov steps down from a carriage on his way to teach. He’s old, so his students stand on either side to help him. The town drunk, sitting in the gutter beside the road, looks up and recognizes this famous teacher:
“You!” yells the drunk. “You’re the Baal Shem Tov.”
The drunk struggles to pull himself up to standing. The students are offended that this wreck of a man would dare speak to their teacher, and speak to him so rudely, but the old, wizened Baal Shem Tov waves them back when they step towards the drunk. So the drunk goes on, slurring his words and barely keeping himself on his feet:
“Teach me all of the Torah while standing on one foot.”
The Torah, of course, isn’t an easy thing to learn or teach. It’s been carefully read and pondered and argued about for thousands of years. The students are offended. The Baal Shem Tov leans on his walking stick. After all, he’s an old man. But he motions to one of his students, and hands the stick over. He tries to lift one foot off the ground, stumbles, and falls back to both feet. He almost falls over entirely. He tries to lift one foot off the ground again. For a moment he stands, frail, his weight shifting from side to side, and he looks at the man and he smiles:
“Try to be kind to people,” says the Baal Shem Tov. “The rest is commentary.”
One of the joys of telling that story is getting to stand on one foot, barely managing it, and another joy is getting to talk in the loud, slurred voice of the drunkard. And telling it now, I realize for the first time that they’re both people struggling to stand.
The other story comes from Superman. I like having Superman and the Baal Shem Tov so close together, and I think that they (at least, the better versions of Superman; there are so many) would like it, too. In any case, a great warrior comes to earth to search for Superman. He’s heard how strong the Man of Steel is, and he wants to prove himself by beating Superman in a duel. When he finds our hero in Metropolis, he says hello by tackling Superman into a building.
Superman tries to ask what’s going on, but the alien warrior isn’t interested in talking. They fight. They’re pretty evenly matched, and most of the comic book deals with these two titans, slugging it out across the skyline, pummeling each other into the landscape–and leaving wrecked streets and buildings behind them.
And then Superman figures it out: the alien warrior wants to win. He wants to prove that he’s the toughest. So Superman drops his guard a little bit, and the alien catches him a good one on the chin. The Man of Steel goes down like a meteor, breaking the street below him. The other warrior feels proud and goes away.
“Ouch,” says Superman, and after a minute he pulls himself up.
“Righteous” comes from the Old English rihtwis. Riht means “right” (as in just, good, and fitting). Wis means “learned” (as in wise; as in “wizard;” Gandalf!), but it also means “way,” “manner,” “appearance,” or “form,” as in “clockwise” and “likewise.” So righteous can mean ‘learned in what is right,’ but it could also mean trying for the appearance of what is right. The first is concerned with being right; the second is concerned with looking right: wearing right’s clothes, imitating right’s accent. Taking right’s prescription glasses and looking serious serious in them.
Perhaps we don’t need to prove our strength: instead, we can step into it, learn it, share it when we can, and let it be what it is. If we did that, perhaps, like Stephen Hawking, we’d end up more interested in being “right rather than righteous.”