How to handle it when your hero comes crashing down.
Where have all our heroes gone?
Late last year, we woke to discover that beloved comedian Robin Williams committed suicide. This news closely followed the release of a video showing respected athlete Ray Rice punching his soon-to-be wife Janay Palmer in the face. And it wasn’t over. Now we’re all reeling over news that educator and television icon Bill “Huxtable” Cosby, a man we love and adore, is accused of slipping date rape drugs into beautiful womens’ cappuccinos.
Who knew comic extraordinaire Robin Williams struggled so deeply with diagnosed depression? Who realized that so many respected athletes’ wives are victims of abuse? And, come on now, how can the creator of Fat Albert—the guy who built a comedy routine out of his private talks with God—sexually abuse women?
This is the way the story goes, though, and it’s as old as time. The hero’s journey often ends in tragedy for them; and for us, disappointment. As ancient playwright Sophocles’ tragic hero Oedipus Rex puts it, “They are dying … Nowhere Apollo’s glory now. The gods, the gods go down!”
I am not condoning or absolving reprehensible behavior. I’ve been date raped, I’ve been hit, and I’ve received rough police treatment because my license registration had expired. Injustice, racial inequality, impropriety and abuse all exist, and society should hold the guilty accountable.
Yet, judgment and condemnation alone do not resolve their underlying issues or our problems, nor do they assist in healing the bigger societal challenges. Instead, our hyper focus on celebrity status prevents anyone from learning from and correcting mistakes. Again Oedipus, “How dreadful the knowledge of truth can be when there’s no help in truth.”
Many of my clients mention their sadness and dismay over Mr. Cosby. We thought he was one of the good guys—a happy, funny, wise person, and someone we could admire and emulate. He made us laugh; he inspired us. Yet, when we shone light on the long shadow he cast, the mirror we looked at him through cracked, not just on his side but on ours, too.
1. We love to put people on a pedestal.
Hero worship has been around as long as we’ve had heroes. It began with cave drawings, then deifying statues, then reverence and awe for royalty. Today, we worship celebrities, and we want celebrities to keep feeding us their achievements and untarnished image. It keeps them labeled and static, like those cardboard cutouts you can pose beside.
We live through them vicariously; they provide us with hope and inspiration. There’s nothing super wrong with any of those things, until that hero falls. And fall they will, because they are human like us, even though we’ve objectified them by making them symbols for something we treasure, but don’t have ourselves: wealth, fame, or power.
2. We love scandal.
None of us would ever hold ourselves to such a high standard as we do our heroes. Robin Williams was so sad he wanted to die? Never! Yet, most of us have been that sad at least once. Our heroes must stand in the limelight demonstrating total invincibility. When they falter, we publicly and repeatedly shame them for their missteps. So, they hide their shame from us.
We love scandal almost as much as we love success stories. We may even demonize our fallen heroes, because they also can’t simply be human like us. And so “hero” becomes “monster.” We are so disappointed in our symbols of success that we turn on them—viciously. So, they, too, hide their mistakes and the shame they carry from us.
3. We love to project on others.
We obsessively devour our television shows, movies and any fictitious representation of reality (including those “notorious” reality shows). We love them. We hate them. We blame them. Our obsession becomes downright unhealthy and unjust when we begin to blame an entire group for one human’s actions, especially if the individual has some level of fame or civic responsibility.
The more infamous they become, the more symbolic they become—our very own scapegoats signifying everything going wrong with the world. It’s human nature to label and categorize, yet humans can also reason and realize that one person is representative of a much larger and diverse whole.
We CAN change all of this with a slight switch in perspective.
What if … we thought of our heroes as human?
Everyone has problems. I’m not a celebrity, but I’ve known a few. Here’s a little secret: What you see on the silver screen is not reality. It’s not the whole story and often it’s not the realstory. As I’ve navigated unjust accusations myself, causing inadvertent pain, I’ve been more willing to forgive others for their actions. Having tried to lead a “perfect, successful life,” and failing, I’ve learned to accept my problems and love myself because I’m human. And, I now show others more mercy because I know they’re just human, too.
What if … we saw everything from diverse perspectives?
Every famous person has a season, and every downfall has at least two sides to it. Camille Cosby paints a different picture of husband Bill than does model Beverly Johnson or fellow comedian Whoopi Goldberg. They all have their opinions. We may never know after all these years who did what, and when, and to whom. Even if a hero is guilty of the alleged charges, what if we asked why somebody went astray, instead of jumping to conclusions?
This doesn’t mean that we need to approve of or befriend them. Instead, we figure out how to prevent it from happening again. I donate time and money to organizations that help at-risk people prevent problems before they surface. Maybe we need to start helping our tragic heroes as much as we admired them before they fell.
What if … we focused more on our own self-discovery and care?
Often, we blame to avoid self-recrimination. What in ourselves needs love or improvement? What if we paused to think and feel before abusing a substance? Or, tried to make amends instead of using verbal or physical war on someone we love? What if we sought courage to change or ask for forgiveness? You might find someone magnificent under all your defenses. Start searching beneath the shadows for your own truths instead of someone else’s. We really can’t expect others to bring peace to the world if we’re not nurturing peace in ourselves.
What if … we became a solution center for our community?
Look around you. What do you have the skills and passion to change, even in a small way? Maybe it’s a donation, a hug, a meal served, a helping hand or a voice to listen. Whatever gifts you have to offer, get up and use them. Not just because you want to appear on a morning show one day, but because it’s the right thing. It’s because you care.
At this period in our human history, I invite you to look within. Don’t believe everything you hear. Wait for the legal system to prove or disprove accusation. Figure out what you can do to create peace, starting from inside your own heart.
What action can you take toward change—perhaps for someone affected by prejudice, accusation, or injustice?
I invite you to stop channel surfing or yelling at the television, and move into action. You may help right some of the world’s injustices and then people will admire you.
Just remember: Like our celebrity heroes, you are only human. Yet, humans with all their frailty have been changing the planet for eons. Let’s change it for the better.