by Frank Muller
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Above is a picture of some of the most notable characters of the Old West and I love this picture because it in so many ways may alter the perception some may have of these people. Notably, to see Wyatt without the mustache and to see Doc in his vigor may shed a little light on these people. Also, to see pictures of the young women in their life’s casts for us another insight into all their humanity.
As a child, I was enthralled by the legend of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday.
Running around the neighborhood as Wyatt Earp imagining the gun fight at the OK Corall, staring down criminals in righteous indignation, protecting and upholding the law, tipping my hat to the ladies as they passed by, and of course I dreamed of being dressed in all black (my favorite color at that time) was what the West and manhood were all about.
Doc Holiday for me was my invisible side kick. In my mind’s eye I never really focused on an image. Doc was to my mind, nothing but words. Words with a certain southern drawl and words of wisdom and encouragement interlaced with a cool ability to shoot dead my enemies who were about to attack from behind (those heathen cowards). Doc has also sharpened my tongue as I sought to destroy forces that conflicted with my view of the world (that challenge is still with me today).
Informed by watching Westerns on TV by shows like Gunsmoke, almost every John Wayne movie and of course Bonanza with “Hoss” and “Little Joe”. That fantasies both within my own mind and those created by Hollywood became my truth about the West and I gloried in its’ myths and legends.
Well, like most good childhood fantasies (Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny and others) they came tumbling down in confusion, despair and to a certain extent resentment. The destroyers of these childhood fantasies were usually the kids at school where “reality” is enforced by the bully or the by simply ignoring of the inconvenient truth by others.
The fantasy of the West and of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were brought down for me by history and the books that contain it. For your consideration I am going to refer to a couple of books on these two-childhood heroes of mine both of which peer more deeply into the historical record and more importantly seek to show how the events themselves formed and defined these men.
What I learned about these two great sinners is that their legends understate their lives. Like any person reduced to a stereotype or image the truth is lost and often not for the better. Both of these men are archetypes of a distinctly American period of history. Their images are greatly influenced by the distorted images we have of that period in our history.
Further, their brief journey together during that time tells us more about friendship and trust than it does about the events in Tombstone. This brief missive in no way can tell the story of these men, you will need to read the books.
What I can suggest that you may find upon learning about these men is a number of insights I was struck by.
- Our sins and challenges almost always have their roots in our childhood and adolescence and the impact parents, family members, friends, bullies, books and entertainment have on us. For better or worse, we are formed at those critical moments by these factors that then create repetitive neural pathways of seeing and interpreting the world. By no means am I suggesting we are not responsible for our own actions, but I am suggesting that there are culpable parties to our formation in either good or evil or both. Both of these men experience trauma at the hands of others, and it begs the question of what their lives might have been without that trauma.
- Our perceptions of “good” guys and “bad” guys are filtered by those early influences. This is why we can see so many criminals with tragic childhoods as their view of good and bad is strenuously distorted. Wyatt and Doc represent this duality in an iconic fashion. Both men could easily be on both sides of the “law” as their filter allowed this easy shift in perspective based on events from their early years. On one hand they could stare down cattle rustlers, thieves and murderers as beacons of justice and on the other hand lie, cheat, swindle, assault and battery others for personal profit and not see any hypocrisy at all in it.
- Co – Dependence: We see this how in many destructive relationships where no matter the seriousness of the issues the two parties seem drawn back to each other in a cycle of destruction. This is certainly true for Wyatt and Doc as they each seem to see in the other an image of their own inner demons and ironically each tries to help the other kill their demons not recognizing that they are really acting out their own personal pain.
- History is far more interesting than a cliff note version of it. In order to justify political, moral, societal disagreements it is part of the human condition to render complicated history to a quick sound bite that can then justify one’s actions. Sound familiar and recent? Any robust study of Russian history and the Ukraine will show just how quickly both sides present versions of history that are half true and therefore both are full lies. Our sense of a thing is based on our sense of which half-truth is slightly truer. I am not saying there is not some expedient utility to such reductionism, but it is certainly not the Truth.
This is why I love history. History is seeking the Truth of a thing in order to know the Truth of things. At the heart of history are people and those people are guided by their personal interpretation of truth and of how to apply that truth to the determination of what is a good or evil action. Instead of judging these people, we should instead see how easily the Truth is lost for all of us and how easily we can then come to understand how each of us may have our own comfortable lies, distortions and versions of history about ourselves and the world around us.
We can also come to know that for the Grace of God, we ourselves could have been placed into those childhood and adolescent challenges and we may come to appreciate how that impact is played out decades later. We begin to see that from the moment of conception to our last breath we are not alone and from the mother who takes care of herself as she prepares for pregnancy to a nurse who gently holds a dying soul’s hand as they draw their last breath, every moment is to be used for good, and every moment that is used for bad will always have a consequence.
It is by seeking the Truth and then becoming obedient that we die to self and rise to new Life.
May Peace be with us all.