People tend to mythologize political and spiritual leaders of the past as heroes without blemish. That’s ok – up to a point.
Then we compare our own selves, rife with flaws, to these unrealistic portraits of greatness. That’s not ok.
By sterilizing their pasts of imperfection, we rob them of endearing human features we can relate to and be inspired by.
So it’s in this vein of thinking that I present five historical figures who left a positive and lasting influence on humankind, but who had disruptive idiosyncrasies and/or disorders so rude it drove people bonkers.
Samuel Johnson is one of the most quoted and respected of English writers after Shakespeare. This well spoken gent would make chicken clucking sounds with his mouth, rock back and forth until it seemed he would topple over, and would engage in strange and elaborate gestures – in public – due to his obsessive compulsive disorder and Tourettes syndrome.
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, master statesman, officer in the British Army and prolific author who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, suffered feelings of being unloved and a depression so familiar, he named his depression “Black Dog”.
Martin Luther, the German was a German theologian, church reformer and founder of Protestantism. Throughout his life, Luther grappled with his own self-perceived sinful nature, and would devote himself to long periods of fasting and prayer, pilgrimage, and frequent confession.
Ever fearful of eternal damnation, he once stated: “I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailor and hangman of my poor soul.”
These feelings of condemnation were due to a form of obsessive compulsive disorder called Scrupulosity.
If that wasn’t enough, Martin Luther suffered vertigo, constipation, hemorrhoids, and roaring in the ears.
Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King was the longest serving PM in Canadian history who led the country through the Great Depression and World War Two. He was perceived as a stoic and safe-playing politian in public, but those who knew the man privately considered him highly eccentric.
Maybe it had something to do with the séances behind closed doors, to spirits like Leonardo da Vinci, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and his Irish Terrier dogs (all named Pat).
Heroic American explorer Merriwether Lewis, leader in the Voyage of Discovery, was suspected to have bi-polar disorder which ultimately drove him to commit suicide (the family maintains it was murder).
It’s been said he would obsessively edit and re-edit his journals ad nauseum, manifesting symptoms of OCD. Lewis never married because of his extreme shyness.
Despite these sad circumstances, Merriwether Lewis is rightfully hailed as a hero and courageous explorer who uncovered much of the American interior to the Pacific Northwest. He later served as governor of Upper Louisiana.
So, I submit to you this: Is it possible that the oddities of these historical figures shaped their character – and their lasting impact on humanity?
One thing is for sure, you’re never too weird to be great.
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