Paul Greenberg

"I'm only human," people say to excuse their faults. Only human? To be human, and, more impressive, to remain human is no small thing. Think of Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag, or Bonhoeffer in a concentration camp. Being only human isn't an excuse; it's our glory.

However melancholy Shakespeare's young prince, he did pause in his self-absorption to observe: "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!"

Then, being only human, Hamlet went back to sulking.

Being human can cover a multitude of sins, but also a treasure of virtues. What scope and variety being "only" human can embrace. Consider just two figures in the news whose deaths after long and varied lives could almost have made the same obituary page. Both were very African, each in a distinctive way, and very human. The life of one, a world-famous novelist, was almost lost in the long shadow cast by the other -- a statesman and father of his country.

Doris Lessing, the writer, never settled for a life of quiet desperation. Voluble, prolific desperation was more like it. Though even then, at her most provocative, she exuded a curious calm. Those who know their own mind can be like that. And she wouldn't hesitate to give you a piece of hers if she thought you were worth the attention, and do it in her own concise, precise way. Unable to suffer fools, she nevertheless could express the greatest sympathy and empathy for her fictional characters of all dispositions. That's remarkably human, too, to hold onto our driving forces and yet respect others', too.

First she rebelled against her mother -- a lifelong antipathy she nursed with the greatest care and satisfaction over her 94 years. Her family sent her off to convent school, where she became a good Roman Catholic before rebelling against that, too. Indeed, she rebelled against any kind of conventional life, much as she could understand and analyze it.

She bore two children but discarded them, her husband and home to go off on her own. "I couldn't stand that life," she would explain later. "It's this business of giving all the time, day and night, trying to conform to something you hate." It's a thought many a good mother and wife must have at her more exasperated moments. And years. Doris Lessing could put it into words. And act on it.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.