Feet of clay

Recently, I listened as a friend of mine told stories of famous therapists she and her husband had met or worked with, people known the world around for books that inspired compassion.  Their writings drew thousands of devotees and starstruck acolytes.

What the masses didn’t know, however, was how difficult these men could be in person.  One was an alcoholic who could explode unpredictably at his associates.  My friend’s husband met another of these famous psychologists at a conference, introducing himself and gushing with enthusiasm: “Dr. So-and-So, what an honor it is for me to finally meet you!”  Dr. So-and-So gruffly replied, “Well, now you’ve met me,” and walked away.

When I heard these stories, part of me was saddened, even scandalized.  I knew the work of these men; I’ve taught their concepts to others.  Their ideas have stood the test of time, and have directly or indirectly helped a vast number of people.

My knee-jerk desire was to condemn them for their hypocrisy.  I found myself asking, “Does that mean I should no longer give any credence to what they taught?  Should I stop using their ideas?”  You know what happens when we find out the people we’ve looked up to have feet of clay, when the people we’ve held up as examples disappoint and disillusion us.  “Disillusion”–a good word.  Our illusions are unmasked, and we feel deceived.

But teaching something and failing at it isn’t hypocrisy.  Pretending that you don’t fail is.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m neither trying to defend their behavior, nor argue that we should look the other way.  Our reaction to such rudeness stems from a sense of injustice, and rightly so.  And we should hold people accountable to practice what they preach.

But we know others who have behaved in ways that are equally rude or worse, and we don’t feel as cheated by it.  Something else is going on here.  When it comes to weighing the behavior of people whom we revere in some way as heroes, we have our thumbs on the scale.

Maybe we need to rethink the whole hero thing.

I suggested in an earlier post that mythic tales of heroism can draw us out of our self-concern and into a larger story.  But sometimes, it seems, we want to draw heroes into our story.  We want to be like them.  Without realizing it, we put our hope in them.  If I could only be like that, we think, then I would be okay.

And then they show us their ugly side.  We feel betrayed, let down.  To the extent that we’ve idealized them, to that extent we now reject them.

At some level, I think, we don’t really want to come to terms with what it means to live in a world that is still broken by sin, indeed, to still be sinners in constant need of grace ourselves.

Frankly, those therapists taught things we need to hear, even if they themselves often failed at being exemplars.  We should be grateful that even deeply broken people–like ourselves–are  capable of seeing what’s true or doing what’s right…at least on our good days.

Idealization needs to be replaced with the gritty realism that comes from a robust understanding of sin.  All forms of hero-worship need to give way to the worship of the only one who not only pointed the way but was the Way; who not only spoke the truth but was the Truth; who not only told what life could be but who was Life itself.

And as we worship, we can learn to be gracious as he gracious, for we were all made from dust, and we all have feet of clay.