The problem with saints and gurus
What are we really parading, and why?
The problem with saints is that they tend to be invoked (or not) in at least three ways.
They can be paraded on the streets once a year, then more or less forgotten.
They can engender an uncritical following of fans, jealously guarding every comma and semicolon in the saintly message.
Or they can become tools of convenience, their names invoked to aid any number of projects, as if the mere name ... was validation enough.
Kenneth Kidd *
When Kenneth Kidd wrote these words, he was referring to Jane Jacobs, described as "...a kind of patron saint of urbanism and, even, urban planning."
But I think his comments offer a lot of insight into how we tend to look at the work of all gurus, saints, and yes, even religious leaders.
In fact, it was a religious image that first came to mind, with memories of one religious statue or another being held aloft by doting admirers, surrounded by a crowd of like-minded others, rapt with devotion. And cash!
And that was the most memorable part of the memory - fistfuls of cash provided by admirers, taped to the statue, or clutched in hand by the statue bearers and organizers.
To be honest, the spectacle struck me as both pagan and sad - a sorry spectacle of extracting funds for the purposes of glory through association. And all it took was a symbol and a ritual to finalize the transaction.
Yet... you don't have to spend too much thinking to see parallel examples in other fields.
Think of any guru du jour
in business, self-help or alternative medicine, and you'll see the TV-age version of consumption parades: guest spots on TV and radio talk shows, or book signing events where the faithful line up for a signature from the hallowed author - dispensed like a blessing on their purchase.
Yet, in reality, the people that have earned their status as a guru in their field are unlikely to want a slavish devotion to their words.
As noted by Michael McLelland (ERA Architects) in the same article,
“The problem is people adopting her holus bolus. She’d hate that. One of her mantras was, ‘think for yourself.’”
Great ideas, like currency itself, are meant to be used - consumed thoughtfully and best invested in promoting improvements.
Yet all too often, we bind the ideas to the thinker, then revere the thinker, sometimes to the point of idolization.
It's all too easy to join the legions of people who uncritically accept the guru teachings, and zealously protect the "purity" of all words, without necessarily thinking through the ramifications, the validity or even the usefulness over time.
Like the people who call themselves religious, and invoke the name of their God or Christ at every opportunity, devotees of any leader can fall into the trap of excessive reverence over productive actions.
I suspect that Jane Jacobs, like all truly great thinkers, would develop, fine tune and update her ideas as conditions changed.
Jane Jacobs brought us clarity and fresh perspective to urban planning. Her principles and approach still have huge validity.
Like any great thinker and writer, she provided a mirror and an alternative path.
I think we can honor her contributions, and those of all great thinkers, by committing to a valid, clear vision of present reality and bringing our values to whatever we choose to do in the future.
* Source: The Toronto Star, 26 Nov 11