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When I was growing up, my parents and I knew a brilliant therapist. He was a friend of a friend, and he was admired throughout our community for his work helping children, couples, and families.
Because I got interested in psychology early in my life, I started reading his books and articles when I was a teenager. As I grew up, he grew more and more famous and I absolutely could understand why – his ideas were original, resonant and wise.
Then one day, something shocking happened: he abruptly walked out on his wife and two children, wounding all of them terribly.
For years I wondered: how in the world could someone who knew so much about love, about relationships, about families – do what he did?
What did it mean that there was such an extreme conflict between his work and his actions?
He was one of my first fallen heroes.
Years later, I noticed a pattern that reminded me of him. Again and again, I’d read a great novel, a magnificent work of art that conveyed profound wisdom about the human experience. Then I’d listen to interviews with the author, and when the interviewer would ask the author what their book was fundamentally about – the lessons they hoped to teach – the author would have almost nothing to say. It was obvious that the author couldn’t articulate the wisdom that their work articulated. They couldn’t even come close.
Not only that, but often, as they talked about their own choices and personal dramas, it became very clear: like that family therapist, they certainly weren’t living out the wisdom contained in their books in their own relationships.
Then came other disillusionments for me: learning that some civil rights leaders I admired didn’t apply their own ideas about justice and equity to a group I was part of: women. Or spiritual teachers whose work I loved – whose teachings had genuinely helped me develop my own connection to the divine – were being sent to rehab or exposed in a sex scandal.
Again and again the truth was clear: a huge gap, maybe even a blazing conflict, often stands between the lives people lead and the truths they speak about.
For the audience, that can feel hypocritical, like a painful betrayal. And perhaps worse, it can leave us disillusioned not just about the hero but also about the ideals that he or she seemed to stand for.
But we only end up feeling this way if we interpret the gap between someone’s walk and their talk as a reflection of duplicity or phoniness. It feels like a betrayal if we think the talk is trustworthy only if backed up by the walk.
Yet the closer I’ve gotten to these kinds of individuals, the more up close I’ve experienced both their work and their personal lives, the more I’ve come to conclude that duplicity is very rarely at the root of the gap between their message and their actions.
Yes, we’ve all encountered the charlatans and the manipulators, who promulgate a message they don’t believe but that they know people want to hear. That’s the very dark side of this, and it needs to be called out more, for sure.
We’ve also all witnessed public figures abusing power, whose misdeeds involve corruption, or cause harm to those they should be responsibly employing or working in service to. They need to be held accountable.
But the piece I want to talk about today is not that, but rather how we hold it when our heroes don’t live up to their message. And I particularly want to talk about the creatives we admire and put on a pedestal: the artists, writers, personal growth teachers, and other thought leaders.
Here’s what I’ve learned: their brilliant work does not exactly come from them.
It does not come from their limited, ego personalities.
Rather, the work comes through them, from something larger and better and brighter – collective intelligence or the creative spirit or the Truth – whatever you want to name it. Their creative contribution is not born of their minds and hearts, but it has chosen them to be its conduit.
That message combines with some talent – they are phenomenal writers, or storytellers, or speakers – and the message plus their talent at delivering it makes their work particularly potent.
That’s worth repeating: it’s the message that comes through them – plus their talent, their craft, in delivering it – that makes their work stand out. It is not about their superiority in any other way.
Their work is totally authentic, but their personality is not caught up with it yet.
I believe this is in fact true for all of us doing creative work. Our work may be informed by our life experience, and it absolutely has some relationship to who we are, but the flow of our ideas does not come from our everyday, limited, egoic selves.
Where we get into trouble (and I see many of us getting into this trouble with our heroes and sheroes today): we confuse admiring the work with admiring the person.
I would ask you to clarify the distinction for yourself. If you love someone’s message, love their message. Love their books, their ideas, their speeches and TED talks – and even love the spirit and style they deliver them in. But please don’t put them on a pedestal. Don’t assume their behavior will always be aligned with their mission; the two things literally stem from different parts of them. And don’t think you have to find a way to love all their personal decisions because you love their work.
In fact, they were probably assigned to be a conduit for the particular message they are delivering precisely because they are not living it easily or consistently.
Their message is there to be their teacher, as much it is is there to be yours.
That is why so often the conflict between their message and their lives will be so glaring.
Thinking about it in this way entails letting go of a certain kind of hero-worship. But I believe recognizing this truth is in no way “settling.” It’s freedom from assuming others have it all together. It’s your invitation to put a message, a body of work – not a person – on a pedestal.
So what about the place of heroes, of role models for us? For me personally, admiration is always about something – some quality, some act. I admire the courage I see my dear friend having as she works to repair deep issues in her marriage. I admire the spiritual connection I watch another friend maintaining each day as she faces the tough health issues of her child. I admire the creative freedom I see in one of my favorite authors. I admire the bouncing back from failure I’ve watched in another.
As a result, I have a world full of people each inspiring me in different ways, modeling different qualities I seek to move more and more into. But I have asked no one to represent some total package. And when someone acts in conflict with their message, I do not feel betrayed.
Instead it reminds me of the shared humanness of all of us, the walls we each come up against in ourselves. And it makes me marvel at the mystery of how the messages we are asked to share for the benefit of others come also to teach us what we ourselves need to learn.
photo credit: Jonathan Pielmayer