Forrest Gump was the main character in a film of the same name. The fictitious storyline featured a young man played as an adult by Tom Hanks.
Both physically and mentally challenged, Forrest was born in deprivation. His personal challenges were mitigated somewhat by a loving mother and caring childhood friend.
Like all of us, Forrest could not control the circumstances of his birth. None of us control when and where we will be born, or the quality of the life that awaits us outside the womb. Neither can we control our DNA and genetic dispositions. Like all living things, some of us are more fortunate than others in how our brain and other internal parts work. Or do not.
What I find particularly intriguing about the Forrest Gump story is its underlying commentary about the nature of human characteristics, success, and failure.
Forrest was declared to be a cripple but later could run like the wind. He was considered inept physically but proved to be exceptionally well-coordinated and athletic. He was believed to be stupid but accumulated and used knowledge beneficial for becoming financially successful. His perceived lack of intelligence and perceptiveness was overturned by his intuitive nature.
Understanding his own limitations, Forrest was never judgmental. Nor could he understand why others must be judgmental. Accepting of his own limitations, he was capable of being open to others not so inclined.
Much about the Forrest Gump story is improbable to most of us. But we also eventually recognize that somewhere inside us is a little nugget of genius. Nothing that can be categorized or evaluated with a pencil and paper test. Or given a numerical or letter grade. Or placed on a comparative chart or bell-shaped curve.
Sometimes we fail to recognize that nugget of genius in ourselves. Even when it emerges full blown into a viewpoint or demonstration of skill previously unknown to us. It just shows up and seems to grow inside us until we begin to realize how it makes us special.
As Forrest realized when he took his son to the bus stop and waited on a bench for him to come home from school. He had an enormous capacity for unconditional love.
Who knows why things happen the way they do? As a man in his mid-80s I sometimes look back on my life with wonder. Much of it has been serendipitous, as with all of us.
Why didn’t my 1938 birth take place in Germany as a Jewish boy, instead of in upstate New York to parents who can trace their lineage to before the American Revolutionary War?
It’s likely my life in Germany would have ended within five years of my birth. Murdered in the Holocaust.
The “What ifs?” are endless. Race, gender, condition at birth, historical era, environmental circumstances, cultural beliefs, health, and beyond.
Serendipity. My intelligence is unlike my Down Syndrome granddaughter born with a chromosomal imbalance. My body’s chemical makeup was unlike my alcoholic brother who died at age 31.
My existence has been providential in terms of relational skills and abilities valued by the society in which I was born. Auspicious in that I had skills valued by my culture. Yet lacking many others.
My mental acuity gave me a little advantage in communications. And I could navigate cultural peculiarities with a bit more insight than usual.
My upbringing caused me to face and overcome personal challenges that could have been discouraging. Stuttering morphed into articulateness. Skinny awkwardness transformed into agility. Confusion about life became fascination, especially with how human beings organize themselves.
Clubs, churches, armies, government, schools, and other ways we assemble and work in concert. To fulfill a goal. To oppose an enemy. To build communities and infrastructure. To improve the quality of human life in general.
Maybe that is the reason I first became a public-school social studies teacher. And later a college level teacher educator. And finally, the creator of a nonprofit service (https://cliweb.org/) to improve the quality of American schools. An effort that revealed to me vast differences of opinion about what schools are for and how they should be administered.
Differences of opinion expanded into movements in which like-minded people attempt to sway others toward their ideology through a systematic medium.
A medium for discourse called politics, in which people assume philosophical allegiances out of which they advocate certain kinds of actions. To overturn serendipitous or planned tendencies and beliefs of those who align themselves with viewpoints unlike their own. About money, property, rights, privileges, power, and religious convictions.
The act of people taking sides when disagreements become inflexible positions. Something Forrest Gump never understood, even when thrust into the midst of a 1970s demonstration against a war he survived with honor.
Forrest was simply not capable of political zeal. His world was a source of wonderment, and relationships were straightforward and unprejudiced. Extremes did not exist in his mind. Nor did it occur to him that anyone needed to dominate the beliefs and actions of everyone else.
Or that some people accept that kind of domination. Even seek out and then respect anyone who exercises that kind of so-called leadership. Self-proclaimed leaders who find pleasure in the ability to enflame and envelope other people with the ideas and ambitions emerging from an overinflated sense of importance and entitlement.
Hubris in the guise of extreme and ethically untethered self-assuredness is a mental aberration proven disastrous to human existence. Many times. It is an evil mission hatched in the same core of exceptionality that produces a need to provide service. But is inflated by a medium that communicates fear and animosity toward others. Promoting an artificial kind of assumed clairvoyance about how human beings should live out their lives.
Forrest’s world of service was to those sitting next to him on bus stop benches, an embittered ex-army officer, people he encountered here and there, and the intelligent son who mysteriously entered his life through a loving relationship he did not fully comprehend.
A serendipitous feather drifted to his feet. Magically opened a potential he did not realize he possessed. Placed him in contact with an assortment of people he both influenced and was influenced by. And Forrest avoided the hubris that consumes us today.
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