Like Tevya In "Fiddler On the Roof," I have a constant dilemma: making up my mind. Tevya sets up one side of a question, makes up his mind, then says,"On the other hand ..." I understand him completely. A mind that balances both sides of an issue finds it difficult to make a decision.
In my days of grading student essays, I'd anguish over choosing a high grade for creativity and logic vs. a lower one for frequent errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation. It wasn't only a professional judgment on my part, but also the ever-present compassion. This student was someone's child, with feelings of pain and loss of self-respect if dealt the lower grade.
The pain became mine, however, because of the need to reread each paper several times before my professional judgment won out. At least I decided to use green or purple ink rather than the blood-red marks all over the paper. I knew also that students counted the "goods" and "well-dones" in the margin that helped to soften the "needs more work" or "How about a specific example?" scribbled in other places. I could not, in good conscience, ignore the errors, hearing in my head parents' shocked comments or the weary complaints of college English teachers who felt that we forced them to do remedial work.
Other judgment calls put me on the fence as well. As a drama critic, I must evaluate the success of local theater groups in presenting the opening of a new play. To be supremely objective, one must divorce oneself from audience reaction, personal favorites or the opinions of fellow critics.
Recently, I praised the musical "Raisin" for its sincere adaptation of "Raisin in the Sun," which I had taught many times. Should I carp at some of the singing that sounded a bit strained or at the contrast between the raucous music and the emotional story? The worst scenario occurred when a fellow critic blasted the production as "dated" and some friends agreed. Wait a minute. The audience can recognize a play's themes even if time has changed the way history views the passions of the black American characters in Lorraine Hansberry's drama. Can one say that "Saving Private Ryan" is dated because of the language of some of the GIs?
As a former film reviewer, I find it hard to view a film dispassionately. We went to see "There's Something About Mary," fully expecting to laugh and relax as Siskel and Ebert promised we would. We left the theater disgruntled and annoyed with the inanity of the plot and the antics of the characters, not one of whom we could find sympathetic. For once I had no problems making up my mind. Boo, hiss!
Unhappily, I find that I have joined the majority in judging Bill Clinton. I went from a very naive belief in our president's denial of wrongdoing to painful cynicism when the tawdry details came out. Being on the fence in this case proved terribly destructive to my belief in Clinton's public statements. Wanting something to be true does not prove to be an intelligent way to evaluate an important problem. How can one trust a liar, a public liar at that? It didn't help to be aware of President Kennedy's amoral behavior or of President Roosevelt's dancing around the horrors of the Holocaust. Most of those revelations came out long after their time in office.
I suspect my Tevya-like balancing act will always be part of my need to evaluate our times. Uncomfortable as it may be to stand alone, I realize I find it hard to divorce my judgments from my instincts to see the world in a positive way.
I value the words of Thoreau:
If a man does not keep
pace with his companions,
perhaps it is because
he hears a different drummer.
Let him step to the music
however measured or far away.