Thanksgiving is an opportunity to give thanks for the things and people that love us, those that keep us safe, and quite often those that inspire us. That inspiration can come in many forms: people that make us laugh and sing, that bring us a fresh perspective, show tremendous compassion, or show us the heights of mental or physical ability. But how do we cope when the source of our inspiration turns out to also be a liar, a cheat, or a monster? We are left with the cognitive dissonance of “I’m such a fan because you inspire me!” and “You are horrible and amoral and a terrible example to my kids!“. We don’t want to believe and we don’t want the shame associated with admission.
This morning found me reading an article proclaiming ‘The End’ for Bill Cosby after 15 women have come forward with sexual assault allegations and after the resulting media focus on the story. Further discussions on Reddit show a variety of responses with commenters holding out hope that it’s just a smear campaign, others indicating how disappointed and cynical they have become. He made so many people laugh. He can’t be a bad person.
Jump back two weeks as we watched the exact same scenario play out with Jian Gomeshi, former host of PRI’s Q. The show is broadcast around the world and enjoyed by many. As the allegations began to emerge his accusers were publicly shamed and there was an outpouring of support for the host. Fans flocked to his Facebook page with positive messages and new Likes. They could not believe it was true. And then 9 more women stepped forward with accusations and the support faded fast.
I can’t count the number of hours I spent watching Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong destroy their competition. They both provided me so much inspiration because of their absolute mastery of their sport and their domination of other competitors. Armstrong looking back over his shoulder on L’Alpe d’Huez and then accelerating away to win. Tiger Woods making impossible shots from unheard of distances, making a Par 5 into a Par 3. The amazing sports marketing around both athletes brought them to the pinnacle of viewership and stardom. Their falls from grace made me question what I could trust. I spent a few years lying to myself that Lance had just done EPO and not steroids, so it wasn’t that bad. I know people in the cycling world today who still won’t let go of their personal investment in everything Lance.
When the Jerry Sandusky case was going through the courts, there were Penn State football fans making threats to his victims even with overwhelming evidence that he was a serial pedophile. They called the victims liars and had protests against them. Those people simply could not believe that someone so beloved in their community could be such a monster. They did everything they could to avoid the shame of admitting they had enabled him. The same story has played out in so many communities with abusers in places of power.
We are emotionally invested in the aura surrounding these people and we hold them up as cultural pillars, the underpinnings of our view of ourselves. Their inevitable fall leaves us first in disbelief, then in shame, then in cynicism. Our trust and faith in others has been shaken. It’s a little like finding out that the conspiracy theorists were right all along and the government has been spying on you.
Some turn to God as their only pillar. Others increasingly shut themselves off from society. I believe that the best I can do is to embrace these failures for what they really are: humanity at its fullest. Life is messy and people are complex. They soar to heights that defy belief and descend to depths of failure and depravity that are beyond comprehension. The mess is inescapable but we can do our best to meet it with compassion. We can give Thanks for what it teaches us.