Monday, October 1, 2012

What If Gandhi Was An Asshole?

Gerhard Richter, "Strip"

Conventional wisdom encourages the invention of role models to inspire self-improvement through example--because our heroes provide us with hope and guidance, motivation, even salvation. But what if these idealized constructions compromise our wholeness and humanity or our aptitude for compassion? There is no hero without a villain, but what if the two are indivisible? Should we then question the practice of what amounts to hero worship in the cult of role models? My analysis is based on field data that is purely subjective and limited to a single case study with multiple digressions. Variables were neither controlled nor measured. My results indicate that role models are as capable of harming as helping us. In conclusion, it may be beneficial to resist the urge to dehumanize our role models by compassionately acknowledging their flaws, as well as our own, in order to live more authentically.


If you believe Curt's Facebook profile, you'd think he lives in a small city in Southeast Asia.

          There are no people in his profile picture, just a public swimming pool with flat, blue water surrounded by a square, cement border and a margin of grass that looks like it needs watering. The edge of the diving board is just visible in the corner of the frame, but there is no indication of Curt, though he must be on the high dive snapping the picture.

          Most of his Facebook friends come from the Southeast Asian city, mostly young girls posing in bikinis, or in karaoke bars with big, icy drinks.

          Curt's "Likes" include one sad Country Western love song, two porn sites and a massage establishment in the Southeast Asian city.

          Posts and comments are infrequent.


She imagines Curt's Facebook page as the empty stage for his alternate reality, where he can picture himself with a sexual buffet of pretty young girls from a city that is 9,000 miles away, where his favorite--a girl 30 years his junior--can frolic and pose in the empty pool, just for him.

          When she asks if he took any pictures on his vacation, he emails five or six photos from his iPhone. Asian girls with big, juicy smiles and smooth black hair, posing on a bed in sexy negligee. She thinks they look like they're having fun posing, that the cotton cover on the bed is at odds with the red lacy thongs and lewd poses--the quilt looks cozy enough for a child's room and is a nice example of that country's artistry. There's an innocence about these girls, too, that Wendy can't dismiss. It makes her uneasy.

          For a moment, she tries to imagine what it would be like to have a pretty, young girl of her own. Imagine: Her only concern is to give you an endless variety of orgasms, she offers her body to you like a delicacy, and makes you feel important and happy, a posable, untroubled girl, one without guilt or demands and totally uncritical, who believes what you want her to believe, who is flattered by your attention and impressed by your wallet, enthusiastic about every aspect of who you are, who makes you feel carefree and vital, and young. Better than Prozac, she reckons. Imagine each girl is a reflecting pool, your own private swimming pool, onto which you can project whatever your heart desires and then simply dive in.

          On the third day, after the fifth or sixth photo, she finally lets Curt know she has seen enough pictures to get the idea, that maybe "less is more."


1.  Thirty years ago, Curt was her first love.
2.  Thirty years ago, she was Curt's first love.
3.  They had no other common interests and rarely spoke to each other.
4.  They were together for eight years.
5.  They have had almost no contact with each other since they split up, about a quarter of a century ago, until recently.
6.  She is divorced, with two teenage children.
7.  Curt never married.
8.  They have both taught in public schools, but she is currently unemployed.
10. Both have indicated a wish to establish and maintain cautiously friendly relations in their middle age. Their contact is largely confined to infrequent, casual emails and Facebook messages, and the occasional exchange of online articles.

Transcript of Emails Between A Middle-Aged Woman and Her Ex,
Hereafter Referred to as X

Middle-Aged Woman: Thanks for the great article...Just had a huge fight with my son,  who slammed the door on me yelling, "You suck! You're the worst mother ever!"

X: Maybe he has a reason to be angry. I see it every day on the job. Teachers are supposed to fix the results of messed up emotions of other people's children brought on by adults' self-centeredness and bad choices, people who don't pick partners who are role models for their kids, who are too interested in their own personal satisfaction and happiness. Maybe it's too easy to judge other people. I certainly don't like being judged on my lifestyle...

X: People should stop blaming teachers for their own personal issues. Most important is to be a parent, step up to the plate, be a role model thru your positive work ethic, thru the example you set, thru your actions, not just the words. Children notice these things...

X: Have a nice day.

MAW: Role models are important, but they're not real, three-dimensional people. Martin Luther King cheated on his wife and Buddha abandoned his wife and son. Both men are role models, but they weren't perfect. We don't often remember them for their imperfections. I don't blame teachers. When I was an instructional aid, I observed that teachers--in general--believed themselves to be superior to their students' parents. And the reverse was also true, parents blamed teachers. It's important to try to see the big picture, but also to live in a particular moment and engage with each other as honestly as is constructively possible.

The best teacher I've ever known was a terrific role model--a coach in the best sense. But his personal life was a wreck. He was real for his students, but outside class he's like a cardboard cut out, maintaining an image rather than a life. (I wonder whether I was more drawn to his perfection or to his carefully guarded imperfections.) Seems like there's always a gap between who we are and who we want to be.

X: I guess I am reacting to the hypocrisy I hear from them. Why get married and have children if you're not willing to work? I see too much of this garbage, whining and complaining from parents when their child self destructs in front of them. If you don't defuse the bomb early enough it will blow up. Don't be surprised when your child gets to high school, the anger was building maybe???? Easy to be critical and judgmental of other people's lives when you don't know the facts, and hard to take criticism???? Nice chatting. Stay open minded and positive.

MAW: Not quite sure what happened here. Did you feel judged by me? I didn't think I was commenting on your lifestyle, just setting some boundaries before when I said "no thanks" to the porno pics of your girlfriends--I'm not comfortable with it for myself, but I have no problem with what makes you happy. I assume we can be friends without criticizing each other, right?

X: I hope we can be friends without the judgement of lifestyles, etc. I tend to walk away from people judging me and my relationships. Nothing to do with the pictures, but I feel you make too quick a judgement on my relationships without knowing all the details. Maybe I felt you didn't have a right, like I don't have a right to judge you as a parent. I don't know the story day to day. Maybe I was trying to show you how it felt. I'm sick of all the bullshit judging. Hopefully we both learned something from the situation.

Fictional Journal Entry

We never talked because to know each other would have been a violation of an unarticulated romantic pact. I projected everything my heart desired, all that I lacked or desired, onto the screen of his beautiful face and into his touch. He mustn't interfere or the spell would break.

          Was my earliest erotic truth a lie? Do I use the same magical chemistry in my subsequent relationships, willfully overlooking undesirable traits and withholding information to induce a love-trance, a romantic sleight of hand, and then wonder why I'm disappointed?

          A magician and his audience are accomplices in a bogus relationship. The audience wants to be duped--you can't cut someone in half and then snap your fingers to make him whole again--it's all about distraction, illusion, to make the hard work of deception look like easy magic. There's no reason to feel duped, especially if you're the magician.


I'm so full of shit, invoking Martin Luther King and the Buddha, for God's sake--and what was all that crap about 'living in the moment and engaging honestly'? Naturally, he was more full of shit. Motherfucker was attacking me for no reason. So do I fight back? Hell, yeah, I do--with moral superiority, baby!

          The truth is I do judge him, but I don't want to see myself as judgmental. And when I judge him--checkmate!--I make myself feel superior and avoid judging myself.

          Perhaps my relationships aren't much more substantial than his appear to be. Who decides to marry someone from another culture after 10 days and expects happily-ever-after? What about that agonizing crush on a coworker who was far too young, and with whom I had absolutely nothing in common?

          What if, rather than tallying off a checklist of acceptable qualities, relationships were about mutual discovery? What if there was no happily-ever-after constraint against which to constantly chafe?

          Why do we need to be perfect, or partial, for each other?

What if Gandhi Was an Asshole?

Gandhi used to have dark hair and wear clothes, and also, he was an asshole.

          What I mean to say is that Mahatma Gandhi is a human rights hero who transformed the world with his system of non-violent civil disobedience, and dismantled the Indian caste system, and should be revered globally for his positive influence, and he was also a racist, who early in his career was offended at being imprisoned with Black people, and who neglected his wife and son and consigned them to poverty.

          Martin Luther King, another human rights hero, cheated on his wife. Siddhartha Gautama, aka Buddha, whose teachings lead to enlightenment through compassion, abandoned his wife and son. And Michael Phelps, the 18-times Olympic gold medalist, smokes doobies.

          Nobody's perfect, even heroes fail. When their human flaws emerge, as they always do, we either vilify our role models or insist on denying the truth. Why did people get so worked up about Michael Phelps, who was dopey from the word go? Were they afraid that if they continued to like Phelps they would be regarded as potheads by association? Does liking the music of Richard Wagner automatically make you an anti-semite? Are we that undiscerning?

          Forget heroes and role models, we dehumanize each other with our unrealistic expectations and fantasies; our relationships often fail because we are unforgiving and judgmental, insisting that the other person stand in as an idealized proxy for ourselves.

Gerhard Richter's "Strip"

I don't want to be the kind of person who likes Gerhard Richter, a contemporary German visual artist. His work seems cold and overly intellectual--inhuman, really. I want you to think I'm soulful, earthy and sensual.

          I like Richter's "Strip." In fact I can't get enough of it. But what I see is not necessarily something that he or the critics see.

          As soon as I saw it, I saw my whole life flash before my eyes. Yes, really! Remember the Three Fates, in Greek mythology, who determine a human lifespan by weaving and cutting a tapestry? Clotho spins the thread, Lachesis measures it out, and Atropos cuts it with shears. "Strip" is the tapestry of a human lifespan, with thousands of different threads signifying a lifetime of events, ideas and emotions. There's a linear sense of time, but we can also experience the whole at once, the experience of now--good and bad, past, present, and future, all simultaneously. Get it? But I can only look at it for a second or two before the image splits into separate lines and a kind of vertigo makes me look away.

          It's damn near impossible for us mere mortals to appreciate the totality, to regard with compassion the seemingly contradictory jumble of pros and cons contained within each and every one of us. Worth a shot, though, right?


  1. This is brilliant ... you have surpassed yourself with this one!

    Oh how true it is that we can't seem to embrace an accept other people's imperfections when is does not suite us. A mass murderer must not EVER have anything in common with us 'good' people and the 'hero' is when we create a perfect person out of our own unrealistic ideal.

    Don't you think the starting point has to be ourselves and learning and daring to own all our various contradictory illogical qualities and failings?
    If we wag our finger at ourselves and constantly judge ourselves don't we also objectify ourselves ?

    I better stop here ... I have stretched my brain enough for one evening and it's just snapped back and is stuck!

    1. Wow, Sis! I think you're absolutely right and I hadn't thought it through that way--"The starting point has to be ourselves." Exactly right. Doesn't it seem much more shocking/daring/frightening to begin with ourselves? On the surface it seems like hubris, but it's just the opposite.xxxxxxx