Last Sunday’s New York Times Style section featured a story on Jesse Jackson, Jr., who’s been struggling with bi-polar disorder and recently resigned from his post as U.S. Congressman. It was a moving story, but what jumped out at me was not the pain of having an organic illness that sidelines a career. What jumped out at me was the tragedy of being born into a family that had nothing but the best intentions for you, but that somehow (unwittingly) got it so wrong.
“I grew up in a house with great expectations,” the younger Mr. Jackson told The Chicago Tribune in 1995, months before he first ran for Congress. “Everything I do has a mark of excellence on it.”
“If I want to be a lawyer, that’s not enough,” added Mr. Jackson, who has a law degree and a master’s in theology. “I need to be a Supreme Court justice one day. If I wanted to be an elected official, that’s not enough. ‘One day, son, you may be president.’ ”
It’s a lot of pressure, and all the more tragic for having come from such a good place. I too was born to Civil Rights era parents who wanted me to embrace possibilities that had been closed to them. I expect the elder Mr. Jackson, and his wife Jacqueline, wanted no less for their son. What they missed, of course, is the chance to find and nurture the true arc of their sons life. Perhaps he was meant to be “just” a lawyer. Or maybe he was meant to be an airplane pilot. Who really knows. Perhaps he’ll find out now.
Jesse Jackson, Jr’s story made me think of another son of a great man: Al Gore. In the December issue of Vanity Fair, there’s an homage to the contemporary photographer Jonathan Becker (whose book Jonathan Becker: 30 Years At Vanity Fair will be released next month), in which Vanity Fair’s Bob Colacello pinpoints the most compelling image as the one of “a young Senator Al Gore, Jr. and his father, former senator Al Gore, Sr., a hard-eyed buck with his sacrificial fawn (emphasis mine). It’s the image that appears above and, to my mind, Colacello got it just right.
What Al Gore, Jr. and Jesse Jackson, Jr. have in common, aside from bearing their father’s names, is that they both grew up in the shadows of towering men who had high and specific expectations for them. What got lost in the shuffle, or so it seems, is the sons’ expectations for themselves. The search for authenticity took a back seat to the search for the light in their fathers’ eyes.
The good news is, authenticity is a journey, not a destination. At any time, the son can find his back to himself and his own expectations for his life, and the journey may prove to have paid the way. Al Gore wandered in the wilderness of his father’s expectations for many years, but while he wandered, he rose to the second highest office in the land, which, when he fell short of his imagined destiny of the Presidency, ended up serving him well. His years as Vice President raised his public profile and made possible the attainment of his true destiny as an environmental leader. In shifting his focus from politics to the environment, Gore stepped into the center of the life that he’d been quietly building all along, since as early as 1976 when, after joining the U.S. House of Representatives, he held the first congressional hearings on climate change and co-sponsored hearings on global warming and toxic waste. With An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary that paved the way for Gore to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Gore stepped out of his father’s shadow to cast his own.
In his final 2000 concession speech, Al Gore, Jr. quoted his father, saying, “Defeat may serve as well to shape the soul and let the glory out.” This was before his wandering in the wildnerness, before the weight gain and wooly beard. It was before An Inconvenient Truth and The Nobel Prize. It was prophetic. It told of things to come. It hinted at the things he would find.
In the end, what Al Gore, Jr found in the shadow of defeat was authenticity. I expect Jesse Jackson, Jr., who right now is wandering in his own wilderness, will find the same.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY (left to right) JONATHAN BECKER for Vanity Fair, BY JUDY DEHAAS/ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS via The Associated Press/The New York Times.
PAULA PURYEAR is a Lawyer, Film & Television writer, HuffPoster and Founder of Revel In It Mag.