the perils of being Toby

Recently Elana and I — inching through traffic on Westwood Blvd. — discussed the following problem:

What is best in life? Is it better to live life as the Dalai Lama (compassionate toward others, content with himself, detached from the world), or is it better to live as Toby Ziegler from The West Wing (bitter and disappointed, but willing to go into combat any time for what is right)?

Yes, that’s a serious question.

Elana has observed that people who embrace their inner Lama are happier. I think one must admit that this is true. Think of all the sweet, kind, contented people you have known. This will not take long. Don’t they seem happy to you?

On the other hand, is it clear that the Dalai Lama actually does anything? I mean, Tibet is not particularly more free now than it used to be, the combined meditative efforts of His Holiness, Richard Gere and Steven Seagal notwithstanding. Isn’t it perhaps more useful to fight against evil than to try to be good? Trickle-down theory was a failure in economics — by what magical process do we expect it to work in morality?

I don’t know a lot about Buddhism. But the Dalai Lama of my imagining, here, bases much of his philosophy and much of his interaction with others on the Parable of the Mustard Seeds:

Kisa Gotami had an only son, and he died. In her grief she carried the dead child to all her neighbors, asking them for medicine, and the people said: “She has lost her senses. The boy is dead….”

[She] repaired to the Buddha and cried: “Lord and Master, give me the medicine that will cure my boy.” The Buddha answered: “I want a handful of mustard-seed.” And when the girl in her joy promised to procure it, the Buddha added: “The mustard-seed must be taken from a house where no one has lost a child, husband, parent, or friend.” Poor Kisa Gotami now went from house to house, and the people pitied her and said: “Here is mustard-seed; take it!” But when she asked, “Did a son or daughter, a father or mother, die in your family?” They answered her: “Alas the living are few, but the dead are many. Do not remind us of our deepest grief.” And there was no house but some beloved one had died in it.

Kisa Gotami became weary and hopeless, and sat down at the wayside, watching the lights of the city, as they flickered up and were extinguished again. At last the darkness of the night reigned everywhere. And she considered the fate of men, that their lives flicker up and are extinguished. And she thought to herself: “How selfish am I in my grief! Death is common to all….”

There are several points to this parable, I think. First, Kisa Gotami learns to see the suffering of others and rise above her own grief and outrage — to gain perspective, in other words, and through perspective, compassion (and through compassion, a measure of peace and happiness). Second, the people, too, have a hard time being compassionate with Kisa until the Buddha sends her around begging for mustard seed — in other words, until her situation is so extreme that they are reminded to be kind. And third, no one welcomes Kisa’s inquiries about their private griefs; going around reminding people of how much they’ve lost and how unfair the world is doesn’t seem to do much good for anyone.

This is not, of course, a purely Buddhist philosophy. If I had to distill the Lama of my imagination to a single sentence, it would actually be this astonishingly good piece of advice from nineteenth-century theologian Ian MacLaren:

Be kind; for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle

Or, slightly more elaborately:

This man beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which smart when they are touched. It is a fact, however surprising. And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with him, to bid him be of good cheer, to let him understand that we are also fighting a battle; we are bound not to irritate him, nor press hardly upon him nor help his lower self.

Does this strike you as the stuff of New-Age bumperstickers? Me too. Yet it remains the most useful advice I know of — advice that helps me get through the difficult parts of parenting and marriage. When I look at my son, who frequently does things that make me want to belt him one — seriously, he’s a HUGE a-hole†† — I can’t look at him from my own perspective. Or I’d kill him. I can’t be a good father to him based on how his behavior makes me feel. (I can’t go through the world demanding that it take my grief, and only my grief, seriously.)

But if I look at him from the perspective of his own struggle, his own personal battle to understand the overwhelming new phenomena of (a) the physical world and (b) his own emotions and (c) his relationship with other people (including his parents), then, as Rev. MacLaren points out, I’m moved to deal kindly with him, and to abstain from pressing hardly upon him. As, for the most part, I am able to do.

But that can’t be all there is. After all, if there’s a simple way to be happy, why doesn’t everybody do it? I think it has something to do with the fact that humans are fundamentally programmed to be obsessed with fairness, with justice and equity. This is what I would call the Toby-nature.

Toby, you see, can’t stand injustice — can’t stand the strong picking on the weak or the rich gaining leverage over the poor; can’t stand bigotry; can’t stand mendacity or hypocrisy. Toby is, on the show, the White House communications director — but often all he can communicate is outrage. And this is his knee-jerk reaction to any infraction of the moral code he carries around, whether that infraction is significant or not.

When the President is shot by white supremacists, Toby wants to use the full power of the executive branch to stamp out even the thought of white supremacy:

C.J.: You wanna lock up everybody with a white sheet?

Toby: Yes I do. Yes I do! Who has a problem with that? Bring them to me right now! Yes I do!

Here you can understand his moral outrage, even if you’d argue with his methods. But the funny thing about Toby is that he can bring very nearly the same level of outrage to a discussion about PBS funding and the correct names of the Muppets:

Or even salad.

I should make clear that Toby is not just a crank. His sense of righteous justice comes from a very deep, meditated-over, well-pondered place. And at its best, that sense — that itch to make sure that all is right with the world and no one is getting away with anything — makes him an invaluable bloodhound for sniffing out things the rest of us would rather just let lie. It’s Toby whose inability to stop thinking things over ultimately uncovers the President’s dark secret — and it’s Toby and only Toby who can call out the President (who can speak truth to power) and force him to come clean.

But when there is not some genuine wrong to be righted, or when the issues are ambiguous, Toby’s instinctively combative pose is tremendously destructive. Over the course of the last few seasons, he annihilates his friendship with Josh when he feels Josh has betrayed the cause, and that friendship is never fully healed.

And then there’s this:

If you don’t have time to watch, it starts as an argument with his ex-wife (now a Congresswoman) about Toby’s rhetorical jabs at “Islamic radicalism,” and ends with Toby expressing some thoroughly Coulteresque sentiments:

TOBY: Well… How about when we, instead of blowing Iraq back to the seventh century for harbouring terrorists and trying to develop nuclear weapons, we just imposed economic sanctions and were reviled by the Arab world for not giving them a global charge card and a free trade treaty? How about when we pushed Israel to give up land for peace? How about when we sent American soldiers to protect Saudi Arabia, and the Arab world told us we were desecrating their holy land? We’ll ignore the fact that we were invited. How about two weeks ago, in the State of the Union when the President praised the Islamic people as faithful and hardworking only to be denounced in the Arab press as knowing nothing about Islam? But none of that is the point.

ANDREA: What is the point?

TOBY: I don’t remember having to explain to Italians that our problem wasn’t with them, but with Mussolini! Why does the U.S. have to take every Arab country out for an ice cream cone? They’ll like us when we win!

“They’ll like us when we win.” If I had to distill the Toby-nature down into a single sentence, that would be it. Fight evil, defeat Mussolini, and peace and harmony will follow.

Peace and harmony never do come for Toby, of course — in part because, as the speech shows, Toby has a hard time seeing things from someone else’s perspective. To Toby, Arab Muslims who see the sanctions in Iraq very differently are either irrational or evil — and in either case, they must be forced to submit, made to see the error of their ways. But the Toby-nature is optimistic that if you can just fight enough evil, right enough wrongs, correct enough wayward souls… then peace and understanding will follow. “They’ll like us when we win.”

I don’t have a good way to put together these two halves of my moral self. If you wholly embrace the Lama-nature, you are probably happier and kinder. You’re probably a better dad. But on the other hand, you may fail to stand up to evil or to combat ignorance when you can. Even if I see that he is fighting a great battle, am I not morally obliged to challenge and (in the arena of social discourse, at least) defeat people like Dennis Terry, the pastor who gave this speech introducing apparently-serious presidential candidate Rick Santorum at a rally:

I don’t care what the liberals say, I don’t care what the naysayers say, this nation was founded as a Christian nation…There is only one God and his name is Jesus. I’m tired of people telling me that I can’t say those words.. Listen to me, If you don’t love America, If you don’t like the way we do things I have one thing to say – GET OUT. We don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Mohammad, we don’t worship Allah, we worship God, we worship God’s son Jesus Christ.

At some point, doesn’t compassion have to take a back seat to pointing out how wrong and awful this is? Fred Clark makes a similar point here, discussing the dangers of trying to always inhabit the “sensible center”:

Those who promote the Golden Meh — condemning partisanship and assuring us that the truth can always reliably be found somewhere in the moderate middle — are always urging us to seek common ground and to compromise. OK, what would that mean here?

Stacey Dames posits that a global conspiracy of Jewish occultists, liberals and secular humanists a plotting to bring about the reign of the Antichrist and that [Madonna] is somehow playing a vital role in this satanic plot. It doesn’t seem that this view would allow Dames to meet the rest of us half way. But what would it entail for the rest of us to “compromise” or find “common ground” with this idea? Dames’ thesis is full-gonzo loony — should we all become half-gonzo loony in an effort to find common ground?

Do we not have a duty to strive and fight and repel this nonsense, to ridicule it and expose it and even after driving in the lance to watch the wriggling and make sure it dies once and for all? My Toby-nature demands it. (As Harlan Ellison once said, “‘God bless us every one’? Not even at Christmas-time would I god-bless Nixon.”)

At the same time, I think pure Toby-nature, untempered by compassion or perspective, is simply rage. It can wind up being directed at any target and justifying any enormity.

Comically, and typically, it makes you a fool — it makes you say stupid things in internet comment forums, to insist that Saudi Arabian women are the most powerful in the world and that hard wooden chairs are a plot against men.

Or it makes you think that lying to the public is okay if you’re trying to expose the abuses inflicted by the powerful on the weak — even if it turns out you’re completely wrong about everything.

Or, most tragically, it leads you to stalk and kill a 17-year-old boy whom you can’t stop seeing as a predator, because your Toby-nature will not let you forget that “These assholes, they always get away.”

Without compassion, without perspective, it’s that sentence that sums up the Toby-nature.

I’m out of time and have to go be a father some more. So let me leave you with a half-remembered quote from John Cassavetes, which I think sums up the whole dilemma:

“Hit them! Hit them as hard as you can. Then love them…. Then hit them again!”


Yes, I’m aware that there are those who feel the Dalai Lama is worthy of something less than full credulity as a spiritual guide. I am engaging here in a fairly fictional construction of the Lama in order to get at an ideal of compassion and gentleness, but if the invocation of this particular Tibetan monk makes you uncomfortable, feel free to imagine Mr. Rogers instead.

††Throws hard plastic objects at the TV. Hits you with hard plastic objects. Dumps his food on the floor to indicate he’s done eating. Demands to be allowed to take his toys in the car, then drops them on the floor and demands that you pick them up. Tries to throw stuff out the window. Steals toys from other children. Climbs up on tables/chests/cabinets/bookshelves, then STARES at you, daring you to tell him to get down. Which he will not do. Delights in pulling ALL. THE. BOOKS. down off the shelves just before bedtime. Smacks computers whenever he can reach them. Demands phone. Demands to be shown maps on the phone. Scrolls maps until they are out over the ocean, then complains that the map is gone. Talks over you. Talks over your spouse. Doesn’t like anything you are having for dinner. Tears up the landscaping in the complex. Will not sit still for diaper changes. Objects to nearly all adult television as “scary.” Cries when you won’t let him vacuum, but IS NOT GOOD AT VACUUMING. Will pour out any glass of water, at any time, EVEN WHEN HE’S DRINKING FROM IT.


2 responses to “the perils of being Toby

  1. Thiis is where the Chinese Daoist concept of the Supreme Pole (the Yin / Yang) symbol comes in handy. In all of life, it is useful to be able to modulate your personality. I’m fairly introverted, but I trained myself to speak well in public, some people say I’m good at it. But I don’t naturally seek the spotlight in everyday life. I can control the Yang when I need it, but I’m natueally Yin. My wife has serious OCD tendencies and most of our fights come when she is unable to turn that off at the appropriate moment. My son is more like her, my daugter like me, and we are trying to get them to see and emulate the strengths in each other, even if those strengths of the other don’t come naturally. We also talk about our own struggles to modulate our personalities.

    The same goes for these moral perpectives. The whole point of becoming a wise adult, which is a state many never achieve, is to know when to turn each of these sides to our moral selves on and off. To not be the constantly argumentative bastard, and also to not be the ineffectual fat dumb and happy dude presiding over the continued opppression of what you hold dear.

    It’s not easy, but it is the good fight.

  2. I am not versed in His Holiness the Dali Lama’s life and works but I am pretty sure he stands against things quite sturdily. But we like STRENGTH in the west and find it hard to recognize in quiet resistance or a soft voice.

    As for Henry, well he is two. And you can pick him up off whatever he is standing on and put him in time out. Really.

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