The hardest part of growing up in this world is the disillusion and disappointment as we find out there is no Santa Claus, and that all the "giants" of our childhood had faults that made them imperfect. The frailty of our human condition is perhaps the most bitter pill to swallow throughout our lives. Our "perfect" parents become more human and frail to us over time. As we study history more deeply than 4th grade history books, we find out that Thomas Jefferson, Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and other great Presidents of our country all had weaknesses and failures to deal with in their lives...just like us. The further we go in life, the more we realize there is no perfect person or infallible leader to aspire to...its just "us" against ourselves.
Many of us grew up in America's golden age of industriousness, extreme economic growth and full of the "American dream". Until Vietnam and Watergate, we implicitly trusted our Presidents and other world leaders and believed what Walter Cronkite reported about them each night on the 6 o'clock news. We grew up wanting to play baseball like Micky Mantle and Pete Rose. We wanted to play golf like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. We oohed and awed at the original college basketball stars such as "Magic" Johnson and Michael Jordan as they broke records from college through their professional careers.
Unfortunately reality and humanity caught up with our heroes in most cases. Nixon was impeached and Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner with a slave mistress who bore him at least one child. Mantle had a drinking problem that eventually killed him, and Rose a gambling problem that has kept him out of Baseball's "Hall of Fame". Magic contracted AIDS and Michael Jordan went through a messy divorce and lost millions at the blackjack table. The mirror of modern media caught up with the dark sides of our humanity and we discovered no one is perfect. Yet...we continue to hold sports stars and political leaders to higher levels of scrutiny and perfection than the average person which is one cause of our constant disappointment in life.
Sports writer Bill Simmons poignantly writes about the travails and hopes of Tiger Woods in this editorial piece related to last weekend's Masters golf tournament. After almost two years of personal problems...some say "sexual addictions"... which has affected the competency of Tiger Wood's play for quite some time, Mr. Simmons offers this humane and objective treatment of Tiger's comeback play at the Masters:
I am supposed to think that he's a poor role model -- that he's an adulterer, that he's selfish, that he's a phony, that he behaves badly on golf courses, that he's someone I wouldn't want my son to emulate some day. That's horses---. I want my son to know that people screw up, that nobody is perfect, that you can learn from your foibles. I want my son to watch "The Natural" someday, hear Roy Hobbs say, "Some mistakes you never stop paying for," and know that it's not just words in a movie. I want my son to know that you haven't lived until you've fought back, that you haven't won until you've lost, that you can't understand what it's like to relish something until you've suffered, too. I want him to understand that it's the 21st century, that we sit around picking our heroes apart all day, that we expect them to be superhuman at all times, that we get pissed off when they aren't, that it's hypocritical if you really think about it.
I want my son to know that great athletes are meant to be appreciated, not emulated. He can steal Tiger's fist pump without wanting to become him. He can play Tiger's video game without feeling like Tiger is his best friend. He can imitate Tiger's swing without getting the urge to bed every cocktail waitress and model he meets. We should have learned by now that athletes aren't role models in the traditional sense -- they exist to entertain us and inspire us, and that's really it.
If my son needs a role model, and he will, that person should be me. I don't need Tiger to teach my child how to behave. I need him to teach my son that it's fun to watch golf. Yesterday was the first lesson. There was a putt, and a roar, and a fist pump, and then my son screaming "Again!" Only Tiger Woods could have made it happen. It's a gift.
The risk of being a role model is that you WILL someday disappoint and fall short of everyone's expectations of you. To that end, humility and modesty should be a significant attribute of anyone that society puts up on the pedestal for adulation.
The risk of too much hero worship is that you WILL someday be disappointed at the shortcomings and humanity of your idol. Whether that be a parent figure, a sports star or a fantastic performer in another arena of life...it is wise of us to moderate our expectations of other human beings. I think it is better to BE a hero than to look up to one...and yet we should never try to be everything to our followers. I think it much more valuable to teach our children and other followers to pursue their own hearts and dreams to become the unique, successful person that they define on their own terms. If we all treated each other with that level of mutual acceptance, respect and non judgmental-ism...fewer of us would be so disillusioned with humanity and more focused on what we can make of OURSELVES.