Maybe it’s because I’m a reader and a writer, but I’ve never been one to believe in role models. After all, a lot of great writers are total shits, and it only takes one time to realize this, one amazing book that changed your life and you lived in a daze from its impact for weeks, months, even years after you finished it and you eagerly sought anything you could find out about the author—your new deity—only to discover their total shitness. I have no interest in meeting any of my favorite writers, whether they give away most of their royalties to charity or use the cash to buy jewel-encrusted yachts powered by cruelly enslaved treadmill-running wombats. I just don’t want to know.
That said, I also don’t want to live in ignorance. People sometimes get angry because the media seems bound and determined to sully every great name in existence, yet is it really better to be in denial? If a great writer is suddenly revealed to be a terrible human being, we have a choice. We can choose to ignore the terribleness; we can decide to esteem the work as perhaps coming from a part of the writer that still is redeemable even if the other parts deserve our condemnation; or we can censure both writer and work. If eventually both writer and work fall out of favor, that tells us something important about ourselves: there are some things, some acts and beliefs and attitudes, that do not justify any amount of talent or accomplishments.
History is filled with great people who were beloved until they proved to be not nearly so saintly as was imagined. You don’t have to look all that far back—in fact, you don’t have to look back at all. My sister and I can still probably recite some of Bill Cosby’s recorded standup routines decades after the fact, though we probably won’t be doing that ever again. And you really don’t need to say more than “sports” to find a seemingly infinite number of heroes gone bad. But did they really “go bad”? Were they always that way but fame disguised it?
I hate facebook brouhahas and have managed to avoid most of them, but I came close to causing one earlier this week when an errant comment about Taylor Swift made it very clear that some of my fb friends adore her while others would as soon stick corncob holders in their ears as hear “Shake It Off” one more time. To me, she’s a shrug; while her music isn’t to my taste, I can certainly understand its appeal. What bothered me a little, though, was when those in Team Tay-Tay noted that she’s been an excellent role model for young women, something increasingly rare in the music industry. Ms. Swift could very well be a lovely person—I certainly wouldn’t know one way or another—but the bothersome thing for me is the fact that what people most revere about her isn’t what makes her a role model. Taylor Swift is rich, famous, gorgeous, and (yes, naysayers) talented. Most people aren’t any of those things and probably never will be, so why decide that this is someone we should encourage our children to be like? “Because they’ll want to anyway”? Not necessarily.
I guess I believe we should do as our role models do, not as they claim to be—or are expected to be. Terrible people do wonderful, kind, generous things all the time. Robber-barons set up scholarships, tyrannical despots fund the arts, and some of a virulent racist’s best friends are the very target of his hatred. One action does not a person make, whether that action is for good or for evil, so the simplest solution is to try to emulate the good actions of a famous person without necessarily extrapolating that goodness to cover everything the person does. Perhaps this is why I find it more satisfying and productive to find heroism in ordinary people. As I’ve said many times, long distance running is not going to create world peace in our time, yet spending time with other runners has allowed me to see determination, generosity, compassion, diligence, and all sorts of other positive, emulation-worthy qualities. Importantly, these qualities exist in runners who may never win races—who may never even enter races, but simply run for the love of it. Of course I’d love to be as fast, as strong, as durable as the best runners, but the funny thing is, it’s actually easier—and more satisfying—to try to be as good as they are in those other ways. I’ll still follow Meb and Paula and all the other elites, but if another revered marathoner falls from grace because of less-than-role-model behavior…eh, it won’t bother me. I’ll just shake it off and go for a run.