(Names and situation changed as requested)
Elaine was a well spouse of 45 with three almost-adult children when a life-long dream was fulfilled. Though she had had a good Jewish education, one of her deepest regrets was never having attended seminary. And so, she was ecstatic when for her 25th wedding anniversary, her husband presented her with a ticket to Israel. His chronic illness was stable at the moment, and with some supports put in place to help him, there was no better time for her to fulfill her dream.
Elaine looked into various seminaries trying to find one where she would be accepted and comfortable being the “Grandma” since she was more than twice the age of the usual seminary students. In the end, she picked the school that had a teacher she admired greatly and whose ideas she particularly enjoyed. She was as excited as a first-grader each time she entered the class. Every day she rose from her chair with sincere respect when the teacher entered and the lecture began.
Elaine told me she no longer remembers what they had been studying that week. All she remembers is that the teacher was talking that day about the concept of tznius and suddenly began making fun of Orthodox woman who wear berets as their choice of head covering that allows some of their hair to show. Elaine could feel herself blushing under her navy beret and wondered how the other two girls in the room wearing berets felt.
Elaine never went back to that class. And although she missed the learning and longed for the unique approach this teacher used, she could no longer learn from this teacher. Even today, more than 10 years after her seminary experience, it is the sarcastic comment that comes to mind whenever she hears this teacher’s name − not the hours of exciting learning that preceded it.
Mark had been close friends with his prominent neighbor. The neighbor was often Mark’s confidant and counsel, despite the differences in their ages. And then one day, Mark heard his neighbor speak in a public lecture about something that had happened to Mark. He had never asked Mark’s permission to do so. Of course Mark’s name wasn’t used, but the story that was being retold was somewhat common knowledge in the neighborhood. Many people surmised it was about Mark and made comments to him later. Mark felt betrayed and avoided all contact with his neighbor after that.
When we are awed by peoples’ talents or expertise, we tend to put them on pedestals. Well spouses, because of their care giving, are often seen as “amazingly strong” or “the perfect spouse” − that is, until they talk honestly about their feelings toward their care giving burdens. Well spouses may also build even higher pedestals for those they idealize, possibly because of their need to see perfection in their own difficult lives. And so, when we connect with people who are outstanding in one area, we make an assumption that they will be exemplary in all areas. We put them on pedestals and when they fall short of our image of them, we kick the pedestal upon which we have placed them, out from under them.
The fact that they have never asked be put up there is irrelevant. The fact that they are mere mortals with a yetzer ha’ra, just like the rest of us, is something we choose to ignore. And so we feel betrayed by their behavior and banish them from our lives as best we can. We can no longer hear value in what they teach, though it may have great value and relevance for us, nor can we listen to lessons they try to impart in their lectures, though they might be very applicable in our lives. And the only one who loses is our self.
Putting people on pedestals is very dangerous. It is an impossible balancing act for anyone to remain on that small surface. Eventually, they will fall. They will fall because they are human and we have expected perfection, which is impossible for any of us to achieve, no matter how hard we may try. To banish people from our lives because of our expectations is unfair, to lose the insights and knowledge they can continue to impart to us is folly.
Whether we are a person of prominence or simply a parent or friend, we have all been put on that pedestal by someone. Just look at the eyes of a young child, looking at what − to them − is the all-knowing parent, the paradigm of perfection. Or follow the admiring look of a person recovering from disaster that has just been counseled by a close friend. It is not just people of status, but all of us that need to be very careful of our actions and words, and take on the responsibility of trying to keep a high moral standard.
Eventually we will all fail and our failure may cause more damage and hurt to others than we will ever know. Eventually, the adoring students will find another teacher. That look of reverence from our children and admiration from our friend will disappear. With luck and maturity, the relationship will continue without too much harm.
But just as we hope to continue a deep and forgiving relationship with those that idealize us when we fail, don’t we owe the same understanding to those we idealize who have somehow fallen short? Understanding that we all have shortcomings, even the greatest of us, and accepting everyone’s flaws without condemning the person in total, may be the best example we can give to everyone around us and may even save us from ourselves.
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