Balancing Greatness and Family

Last night, my girlfriend and I watched a documentary about the influential US architect Louis Kahn. Kahn died in 1974. In 2003 his illegitimate son Nathaniel Kahn made a documentary about the man, his father, who died alone in a subway station in New York, his body unclaimed for three days.

While there is much to chew on in this sensitive and nuanced portrayal of a complex man and artist, I want to focus on something that the Bangladeshi architect Shamsul Wares says near the end of the film. He is moved to tears when discussing the impact Kahn’s creation had on the city of Bangladesh and argues that while Kahn may have neglected his family, he was a man of great love for the people of Bangladesh, and that his familial neglect is the unfortunate consequence of his greatness. Or in his own words: “[Kahn’s] failure to satisfy his family life is an inevitable association of great people”.

This reminded me of a book by Gillian Slovo, daughter of South African anti-apartheid activists Joe Slovo and Ruth First. Every Secret Thing – My Family, My Country is a first person account of what it was like to grow up in a household where her parents’ cause always seemed to win out over family. It is a heart-wrenching account of the sacrifices the entire family had to make during the worst of the apartheid years. Today Slovo and First are considered national heroes in South Africa, First having sacrificed her life for the cause, killed by a parcel bomb in 1984.

What these two stories have in common is the apparent tension that exists between the personal ambitions of great individuals and the realities of family life. Is it possible to be truly great and still put your family first? In the case of Kahn and the Slovo family it didn’t work out that way.  Kahn was a serial adulterer who placed his work above all other considerations. The Slovo children rarely got to see their parents and constantly lived under a cloud of secrecy.

Reminiscing on his friend Louis Kahn’s flaws, Shamsul Wares defends him as follows: “He loved everybody. And to love everybody he sometimes did not see the very closest ones, and that is inevitable for a man of his stature”. But is it really? What kind of responsibility do we have to our children, our families? We may gain the world but if we are unable to share it with anyone, what does it ultimately mean?

Of course, it depends on our sight lines. The Slovos committed themselves to a creating a world where families of different skin colours would be able to live in a just and equal society for years to come. They were, presumably, looking at the long term benefits of their work. Ultimately, though, what guarantee did they have that all their hard work would pay off? And in the mean time, what of the family right in front of their noses? Their own?

It’s not an easy choice but it’s one that we all have to make in a way. Do we commit ourselves to living every day with the people closest to us, making that the core of our being? Or do we seek out opportunities and indulge personal ambitions, sacrificing, in the process, our immediate family’s needs? But maybe that’s a false dichotomy. If we can somehow include our family in our missions rather than hiding behind a cloak of secrecy, surely then our ambitions become a shared experience that deepens the family bond rather than weakening it?

When Kahn died, he was found with his passport but the address had been crossed out; he really was a man without a home. Always on the move, always seeking his next big project, he died doing what he’d devoted his life to. I suppose there is poetry in that.

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