Almost any day you’d care to look, the news offers opportunity to reflect on humankind and the meanings of life. Just as the heat of a national election is cooling down, and the approach of the “fiscal cliff” is looming, we hear breaking news of the fall from grace of another hero.
Like other news flurries, the scandal and resignation of David Petraeus will eventually sort itself out and fade into the background of our collective awareness. In saying that, I’m not minimizing the importance of his extramarital affair to him, his family and inner circle, and possibly even to national security. What occur to me are our general tendencies to make our heroes one dimensional rather than remembering that they are complex humans, as we all are.
Perhaps we want some icons to look up to. Perhaps we are comforted in confronting the chaos of the world and our resulting feelings of fear and helplessness when we put someone up on a pedestal. We may enjoy being put on a pedestal ourselves and receiving the attention and adulation that comes with being considered a hero to someone…anyone. But I want to caution you about doing either one.
After all, there are many examples of this “pedestal practice” and what comes of it. Lance Armstrong comes to mind. As does Sandusky and the whole Penn State debacle that once uncovered, revealed the dangers of the worship and adulation of a university football coach and the program he built. Many men who lived on pedestals in “Happy Valley” will topple before that scandal finishes playing out. Several years ago a well respected scholar and college professor was arrested for soliciting sexual contact with a female minor, and an entire community and church was rocked to the core. A highly regarded female pastor confesses that she has been having an extramarital affair with a parishioner, and the families and church are devastated in the wake of it.
On a smaller scale, married partners sometimes have this “Pedestal Practice” going on. If you marry someone and you regard them as more successful, smarter, more desirable, more powerful, wealthier or more competent than you, you may place them on the pedestal and never claim your own abilities and power in the relationship.
Taking the passive or submissive stance then results in an imbalance of power. The woman or man who is up on the pedestal isn’t seen as fully human, and true emotional intimacy is not possible as a result. Not a true partnership. And usually, sooner or later something will occur that results in toppling the pedestal by an affair or deception of some other kind, and divorce.
Our first reaction to such news is, “That’s impossible!” Surely some terrible mistake has occurred! He/she wouldn’t or couldn’t do such a thing! Scummy, evil, bad people do this! Notice that the implication is that we are all one or the other: good people or bad people. Of course the truth is that we are neither. Each of us has our strengths, even great and wonderful qualities. And each of us has our “shadows,” unconscious beliefs and feelings that when they remain unacknowledged or unexplored, have the tendency to rear up and we act them out.
It seems to me that when we put someone else on a pedestal, whether that person is a sports hero, a national figure, a revered leader or someone you personally know, they will plunge off that pedestal by revealing themselves (albeit unintentionally) to be flawed. Or in our resentment or disappointment at seeing them to be only human after all, we knock them off their pedestals with a resounding whack.
And if you are living up on a pedestal, watch out!