Hercule Poirot stands on the balcony, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Atop the clock tower in Jaffa, Israel, the greatest detective in the world stares into the distance. It is 1934.
Still baffled by how the Belgian gentleman with the big mustache solved the case of the missing relic, the captain of the police can’t help himself but stare.
“It’s just…how did you know it was him, sir? From just a tiny crack on the wall.”
“I have the advantage…I can only see the world as it should be. And when it is not, the imperfection stands out like the nose in the middle of a face. It…it makes most of life unbearable. But it is useful in the detection of crime.”
There are a lot of Hercule Poirots here on the web. Wonderful, rational people. It’s one of the reasons why I love this place. We may not all be detectives by profession, but we’re just as curious, just as righteous, just as skeptical of everything that, in a balanced world, shouldn’t be.
It’s why we read and write about justice, about equality, about fairness. About getting along, living better, and being kind. But sometimes we come up short.
This is a letter to everyone facing those times. A letter to rational people.
The captain isn’t quite satisfied. Yes, Poirot can see the world plainly, but there is something more. Something beyond facts. “But it’s as though you see into their hearts and divine their true natures,” he says. To which Poirot replies:
“And whatever people say, there is right, there is wrong. There is nothing in-between.”
At first I was confused at Poirot’s statement. Doesn’t he know the truth is subjective? Isn’t that what makes him a great detective? Then I realized, it is knowing that this dichotomy exists despite the truth being subjective that does. We all have our own version of reality, but in each one, the distinction between right and wrong persists. Always. And, in a surprisingly large number of situations, a surprisingly large number of people agree.
As we become more rational, whether that’s through training, brute force, or education, the choice between wrong and right hovers more and more clearly over our head. And every day, we fight to do our best. But it’s hard. We don’t always choose what’s right, we’re only human after all. But the more we know what’s right, the more it weighs on us. That burden can be a lot to carry.
The train pulls into the small town of Brod, Bosnia. Only days have passed, but they feel like years. The case he’s solved on board brought him to the edge of both his morals and abilities. Before he disembarks, Poirot writes a letter of his own. A letter to an old friend, that he only sends in his mind.
“My dear Colonel Armstrong,
finally I can answer your letter. At least with the thoughts in my head and the feeling in my heart that somewhere, you can hear me.
I have now discovered the truth of the case and it is profoundly disturbing. I have seen the fracture of the human soul. So many broken lives, so much pain and anger, giving way to the poison of deep grief, until one crime became many.”
When we grow past the mercy of our emotions, beyond holding ourselves accountable, we suddenly see the injustice all around us. Life’s not fair. Children die. Criminals succeed.
It’s not just depressing. It’s tempting. We’ve all made the wrong choice at the right time and gotten off easy. But there is a breakpoint to how much we can tolerate. It may not break you, but at least once in life, it is everyone’s turn.
Even the greatest detective in the world has his struggles.
What Rationality Is Built Upon
As Poirot grapples with the abyss he’s staring into, he feels trapped in the middle. A prison halfway between wrong and right. This time, however, the key lies not within the depths of the human mind.
“I have always wanted to believe that man is rational and civilized. My very existence depends upon this hope, upon order and method and the little grey cells. But now, perhaps, I am asked to listen, instead, to my heart.”
What unites us in our fight for rationality is not our ability to see the world clearly. It is neither intelligence nor discipline; not even a shared lack of understanding for those, who act on impulse. We all set out on this journey together because we built our lives around this same, undying hope. That underneath it all, in spite of everything, man is still good. And sometimes, that hope must be enough.
If you’ve recently failed to do the right thing, whether you’ve known it before or found out after: rest easy. When others have failed to do right by you, rest easy. And give them space to rest easy too. Even the man who dedicated his whole life to finding the truth comes to see that sometimes, peace lies in that paralyzing fog between our choices. Or worse, on the wrong side. But from time to time, finding it may be more important than being right.
“I have understood in this case that the scales of justice cannot always be evenly weighed. And I must learn, for once, to live with the imbalance.”
You won’t always get what you deserve. You won’t always live a happy life. In fact, it will often be unbearable. But in spite of the imbalance, you will always find the strength to go on.
And to me, no matter where life sends us, going on is always the truth.