take what you like leave the rest

Ages ago, I taught fiction writing classes, both at the university level as well as part of one of those evening “extension” programs where people take informal night classes, for fun.

I used to tell my students, “Everyone is an angel, and everyone is an asshole.”

I said this to encourage them to not write characters as one-dimensional people, either all good or all bad. This is like life. No one is all hero, and no one is all villain, and even those of us who are basically good people have their spaces where they are capable of being complete jerks (and if I’m copping to my own poor behavior, in this regard? Let’s just say that somewhere in some archives at more than a few companies, I’ve sent some clearly irritated tech support requests that I would not want resurrected–oy).

Nowhere do we need to apply this more, than at this cultural moment with our teachers, our social justice heroes, or our leaders.

Everyone is so disappointed when they end up finding out that the person they’d pinned their hopes on—the person who they’ve devoted themselves to and seen as a mentor, the leader for justice who was putting into words all the things that had felt so difficult to articulate—turns out to be…well, imperfect.

What I notice is that culturally, instead of seeing that the problem lies in pinning all of our hopes on a leader, there’s a tendency to shame that leader for their misgivings and then move on to pinning hopes onto the next one. Then we end up finding out about something that happened with the new person, and we’re horrified and we question our ability to trust people at all, and the entire cycle plays itself out, again.

Giving Away Our Power

I think the way out of this problem, is two-sided.

On one side, our teachers and leaders and cultural heroes would do well to be honest and open about the fact that they make mistakes. In other words? They shouldn’t play to the hero archetype. This requires courage. This requires people to be honest about their fears and insecurities and weaknesses and failings, and to actively discourage people from latching on to them in any way that approaches a guru model of hero worship.

On the other side, we—the followers, the people looking to others—need to understand that we disempower ourselves in the act of pinning our hopes on someone else. When we decide that someone else has the “answer,” we create a hierarchical relationship that gives power to someone other than ourselves, and we give it over to this or that activist, or teacher, or religious leader, or social media darling, or therapist, or doctor, or—or—or—

Take What You Like, Leave the Rest

The problems is not the lack of good role models. The problem is in our cultural obsession with trying to find perfect ones.

We don’t need to find perfect role models. We need to take what you like, leave the rest, all while seeing the humanity of the teacher. And we need to never prop anyone else up on our own shoulders. Our shoulders are not for carrying them, making them the guru. We need to remember that even people with deep insights or a lot of charisma or a talent for leadership, will still have failings.

Beyond any disillusionment people feel when they realize the people they’ve designated as heroes are imperfect, giving over our power to someone else because we think that they have “the answer” can even be dangerous. I know of at least a few different counselors/coaches who have slept with the clients they were purporting to help—a total boundary violation, and completely compromised ethics and integrity. The stories of religious leaders who were, behind closed doors, draining people of financial resources or otherwise violating their boundaries is endless.

These are the consequences of designating someone else as the one to follow, to supply us with answers, to represent movements flawlessly. Power goes to their head. And I’m (certainly!) not saying that it’s a victim’s fault when the “hero” behaves this way. I’m only pointing out that we could all do well to notice where we ascribe someone else our agency.

When I’m sitting in front of a leader or a healer or a politician who aligns with my values, I love the zing of hearing them deliver a beautiful insight as much as the next person–but I’ve learned not to fully trust them, unless I also see humility. Humility is the moment when you refuse to take responsibility for someone else’s transformation, and you remind them that you are as flawed as they are. As a person who occasionally stands in front of an audience or sits on the other end of a phone line, holding space for someone else, if I see even a freckle of someone attributing their transformation to me, my work, something I said or did, I endeavor to immediately put credit back in their court.

This isn’t an inability to take a compliment. I completely own that I’ve got a skill-set (one that I’ve worked to hone and continue to work on) for helping people. Yet I’m always aware that those shifts are only ever possible because someone else showed up to do the work, and look at the difficult stuff.

Each time that we discover that someone we’ve adored and turned into a guru turns out to have a massive blind spot, I think we need to see it as a call for two things: to double-down on trying to see our own blind spots, so as to avoid inadvertent harm to others, and to decide to take what you like, leave the rest.

Then we’re not stuck in any shock or horror that the person turned out to be imperfect. When you assume that everyone has blind spots, then you knew it all along. And at any moment, you’re empowered to walk away because you were never hooked into the believing in the myth that someone could be your cultural hero, in the first place.

My point: your power will only ever come from you. The more you stand in that, the more you see through the facades of the people who are actively trying to fool you into giving your power away. The more you stand in knowing that your power comes from you, the more you’ll learn from whatever some other imperfect human, teacher, or leader might have to offer you.