“I wish people would love everybody else the way they love me. It would be a better world.” -Muhammed Ali
The tendency to admire individuals with superior skills is hard-wired into us. Children admire their parents, teachers, superheroes, actors, musicians, and the like. To them, their objects of affection embody perfection; they’re infallible beings whom they can only attempt to aspire to become. “If I can only become half as good as you are,” they’d think, “then I could be happy.” So, rather than using character traits, skills, or mastery as blueprints, they remain captivated by, and entrapped in, their idol’s glow, full of gratitude for even a glimmer of recognition.
Most of us recall our childhood role-models with fondness, but some of us get stuck in trying to become the next somebody. Well into my twenties, I found myself worshipping people globally, meaning only focusing on their high-qualities, inferring perfection from them. (I wanted to become the next Tupac or Bill Hicks, these men who, effortlessly, radiated charisma and brilliance.) Conversely, I’d hyper focus on all of the ways in which I failed to exhibit them. In placing these men up high on pedestals, I believed that, at best, I could be smart enough to quote them. For, in all of our minds, we can become devils while worshipping angels.
This excessive tendency is understandable when we’re children, as we look to our caregivers to confer validation and a sense of inner significance to us. When you feel weak, it’s only natural to want, and expect, your seemingly invincible counterpart to confer an awareness of your, albeit limited, strength to you. Does the phrase, “We’re not worthy!” ring a bell? Often, however, this tendency is carried over into adulthood wherein we continue to hold others in extremely high-regard. In relationships, this manifests in a dichotomy of glorification and envy, due to which we can feel shame. If you’re supposed to be a good wife, then how come you’re so jealous of your more successful husband, especially since he worked so hard for everything he’s earned?
It’s one thing to be jealous of some trait or even some possession, but another to feel envy of the other on the whole. Shame, sometimes, ensues when we accept the premise that the other is globally better than us and we’re being selfish by not supporting them. This black and white framework provided me with a lens through which to view my relationships; I was either inferior or superior, and worshipped those whom were ideal.
In childhood, hero worship is an adaptive mechanism, affording us a sense of comfort and self-esteem. Eventually, somewhere in our development, we learn about the complexities of being human, thus accepting that mom and dad aren’t perfect, and neither are our other heroes. Understanding that we don’t need to disqualify them altogether, we continue to try to embody a portion of their traits while acknowledging their flaws. An example would be in attempting to become a talented public speaker like your father was, but deciding that you don’t want be as aloof to those who love you. Although still a hero in some sense, your father’s stock has fallen drastically. For, the hero is now just a man who performed well in several areas but failed miserably in others.
So, all of this begs the question: If we can learn to see the world in its complexity, humans in particular, can we learn to value ordinary people as much as we prize celebrities? If we’re wrong in idealizing our heroes, are we also wrong in devaluing the people who serve us food, clean our floors, and provide care for our children? And, if, globally, we aren’t worse humans than our heroes, then maybe we aren’t better than the others?
In deeply considering the brilliance of my role-models, I eventually realized that they weren’t that much more talented than I was, which helped me remove them from my version of their pedestals. This isn’t to say that their work wasn’t amazing, which it was, but that I now believed that I was capable of producing something similar, if not equally as good. These men and women were my teachers and my guides and, as significantly, taught me through both their virtues and their weaknesses. In emulating, to whatever extent possible, their good traits, I still continue to hold them in high regard. But, in accepting their failures, I can more easily accept my own, thus having formed a more accurate perspective of myself.
The world has taken on new meaning, wherein my mind has ceased, to some extent at least, to accentuate and amplify its heroes and to devalue the targets of its shadow. If growth can be conceptualized as anything, it should be conceived of as the increased ability to see the angels and demons within everyone around one and the ones abiding in one’s own soul.