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Free to choose how to feel

Evening Post & Mail
On the luck of birth, the mourning of an empire, and the passing of Queen Elizabeth II

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II reigned for 70 years over not just her home country, but as the nominal head of state for 14 “realms” within the Commonwealth. Her passing marks a good time to bear in mind the duality of human nature.
■ An institution (like the monarchy) can be built on a foundation containing many wrongs, yet still be venerated even by some of those wronged by it. The very idea of someone in England inheriting the right to be “sovereign” over the people of Jamaica, for instance, violates a whole host of notions of logic and justice. But that doesn’t deprive the people of the Commonwealth from feeling a sense of attachment to the royal family, if they so choose.
■ Likewise, a person can be a reluctant figurehead – then-Princess Elizabeth wasn’t born in the right order to become monarch. But they can also rise to occasions of need, overcoming personal preferences in the course of offering a most public face emerging from a sense of duty.
■ While kings and queens make for easy fairy-tale fodder, it’s no surprise that so many people appear to struggle psychologically when born into royalty. Despite the obvious material riches and social deference, it’s fairly clear – even from the case of Elizabeth’s own grandson – that a monarchy gives the blue-blooded all of the known perils of celebrity but without even the sense of choice whether to pursue it. At least the politicians in a republic must choose to run.
■ The basic duality of human nature was defined well by Alexander Hamilton: “The truth is, in human affairs there is no good, pure and unmixed; every advantage has two sides, and wisdom consists in availing ourselves of the good, and guarding as much as possible against the bad.”
■ A person who is mostly good can find themselves embedded in a system that is mostly rotten; they must make the best of it they can. An institution with a terrible legacy of discrimination can still be meaningful to some of those it historically discriminated against. People can be sad at a basically humane level for the passing of another human being, yet still wonder whether it is time to turn the page on the structures that elevated that person to public attention in the first place.
■ People are often attracted to simple narratives built around “battle lines” and confrontations between pure good versus pure evil. But the hazier reality is that aspects of good and evil are within all of us, and it is only through choice – inasmuch as any individual has the freedom to choose – that we can lend power to one or the other.
■ In the words of Margaret Thatcher, the eighth of Elizabeth’s 15 prime ministers: “Choice is the essence of ethics: if there were no choice, there would be no ethics, no good, no evil; good and evil have meaning only insofar as man is free to choose.” That truth makes for a lot of gray within human lives, whether “royal” or common.
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Brian Gongol
Brian Gongol @briangongol

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