"Don't compromise yourself, you're all you've got." -- Janis Joplin
As I stood there and screwed back on the top of my thermos of hot tea, my eyes caught the words deeply etched into the yellow band at the top... LIVESTRONG. I felt this wave of sadness and I wondered to myself if I felt any differently about those words these days. These days of an awful lot of fallen heroes, besmirched by their own weaknesses and lapses in judgment. I felt my heart longing for some example of tried-and-true character. And I felt a loss for the already jaded young people of today, they almost seem resigned to how often and how badly adults behave themselves. The news and magazines and Internet bombard all of us with stories of infidelity, dishonesty, selfishness and dishonor. Vivid pictures and descriptions streaming in constantly, a reminder that people disappoint us, let us down, and aren't who we thought they were. Even I, as a bonafide adult, don't know how to process it all. What do I think, I asked myself as I stood there looking at that all-too-familiar phrase -- with visions of Lance Armstrong cycling in my head -- do I believe in the word "Livestrong" anymore?
Who do we admire and why? Who should we admire? Is there really anyone who would pass muster if we dug into every nook and cranny of their lives? Is there a difference between a huge stinking dishonest mess -- especially ones that involve messy sexual misconduct -- and smaller lapses such as stepping on the little guy to get ahead or cheating in a board game or on your taxes? Or lying to protect yourself or to save someone from being hurt? Are there gradient levels in regard to what makes someone a good person or a bad person? What are the standards, the criteria for a true-blue hero these days, because, seriously, I don't know. Are there lines you cannot cross, and some, well, that's just politics. Speaking of politics, are the hero/"person of character" lines different for those in politics, or in the ministering of religion, or how about a teacher -- or any leader or figure we look up to and trust in some way to guide us? Do we have things to learn from the deeply flawed? Can we trust them to walk the line between their human foibles and their ability to forage wisdom for us to learn from or to be a good leader? I wonder.
Let's just take a few from recent history. Does doing something really stupid and unkind and just plain wrong in your personal life mean you can't make good decisions in other areas? Like lead a country, for example? As it seems to me this comes into play a lot in regard to politics and people in positions of power or in the trenches of battle. I remember thinking to myself when the whole President Clinton thing was happening -- how over the top it was to act like his indiscretion with an intern discredited him completely as a human being able to lead this country. No matter how seriously stupid and unthinking and unkind it was. I mean, if every cheating president was removed from office, it would be a ghost town of history. Some countries have leaders who have a wife and a mistress, two families?! And they all come together when these leaders die, and cry side by side, and hold their admiration for this person and the great things they were capable of, and accomplished. In spite of their rather wobbly line in regards to moral conduct. Are we just uber-puritanical here in America?
I'll tell you one thing, we are incredibly critical these days. If someone is caught swearing on a mic that isn't supposed to be on or sneaking a cigarette we gasp and act like this makes them a bad person. Unfit for our admiration in some way. What is the matter with us? Who would stand up to this kind of crazy, wild-eyed scrutiny? No one I know, and I know some truly great people. Some of the most celebrated people we greatly admire seemed to have had character flaws and various indiscretions -- Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Mandela come to mind. They also had a whole lot of greatness and courage in them. Does one cancel out the other? I don't think so. But we sure act like it these days.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying really bad behavior or monumentally stupid choices don't matter. They do. Character matters. Your word matters. Being able to distinguish between right and wrong, matters. Lying and cheating when other people look up to you costs something. It often costs quite a lot, actually. I want to "Livestrong," but if I'm honest, when I see those words on someone's wrist or on the top of my daughter's thermos these days, they've lost something for me. After Lance Armstrong's fall from grace, I won't believe the greatness of a lot of athletes quite as quickly or wholeheartedly. He has lost his credibility and a whole lot of people's admiration... and that is something he has to live with. It costs everything if you think about it. I think about Petraeus and Schwarzenegger and Armstrong and all the others who have made selfish choices -- choices that carried with them poison darts of betrayal that hit their families first and then the world at large. You can't take that back. But I have to believe you can find your way back.
All of us human beings make mistakes. It's how we clean up after them and repair them that matters. I was thinking recently about the whole Catholic act of confession. For a long time in my life I think I resented the idea of being able to take a few minutes, cough up your "sins" to a stranger who is bound to keep your secrets, and then walk away and continue living how you live. But I think I've sold it short all these years. The possibilities are very deep in regard to the whole idea of what confession really means. Of cleansing and unburdening oneself by speaking our secrets and admitting to someone our mistakes, by "confessing" -- which, by the way, the second meaning of is: "Admit or acknowledge something reluctantly, typically because one feels slightly ashamed or embarrassed." I might take out the word "slightly," but you get the idea. It goes along with the steps in AA recovery that deal with human beings making fearless moral inventories, seeking earnestly to be changed, and making amends -- true, heartfelt amends that release all of us as a collective. There is a reason that paradigm works so well. Maybe it's time at this point in our evolving as a species, to have a deeper understanding of the complexities of our heroes.
All religion aside, there is indeed something to the whole idea of how we clean up our messes, how we own up to them, and how we, in old-school terms, ask for forgiveness and receive a type of cleansing in return. We can only hope we've learned something in the whole process that forever changes us. I believe we can we find some semblance of redemption and redeem ourselves, in spite of our penchant to be all too human. Especially when the young eyes of the world are on us, having looked up to us in some way. To me, this is in large part how those in the most powerful of positions, and those in the most lowly of positions -- all of us as human beings -- find our way back home.
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