Unless the superheroes perform their awe-inspiring work in the comic books or the movies, they eventually slide off the pedestal; or perhaps they get smashed down to the ground, breaking into too many pieces to repair. The admirer is left heartbroken or disillusioned.
If you want to admire someone fully, you should not look too closely. If you want to admire them smartly, you should brace yourself for at least some measure of disappointment.
In the political arena, the season of scrutiny and revelations is just getting started with Hillary Clinton and her email practices as secretary of state under the microscope. After a press conference at the United Nations on Tuesday, worries that she is too secretive and calculating are emerging again. For some diehard supporters, this is all about Clinton-hating Republican politics. But to people who may have held Clinton as a model and inspiration, it may raise doubts. Is Hillary a hero or is she not to be trusted? Or, is there an altogether different answer?
For me, two individuals in particular were once important heroes.
A couple of weeks ago, during a trip to the Middle East, I had the unexpected good fortune to meet someone I have admired for many years: the Liberian President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. I had the opportunity to chat with her, and the conversation left me even more impressed with her. She's a truly inspiring woman. I tweeted a picture of the President and me
, calling her "my hero," a word I seldom use.
Moments later, I received a reply (since deleted) from a Twitter connection informing me that Sirleaf has a dismal record on gay rights
and had very publicly announced she would refuse to sign a bill to end prison sentences for gay Liberians.
The incident reminded me of what has happened with another woman I have admired greatly over the years, the Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi
, also a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Suu Kyi endured decades of house arrest and great personal hardship to help gain freedom for her people from a harsh military dictatorship that entrenched itself for half a century. It seemed a hopeless quest, but she persisted courageously.
Then, four years ago, the situation changed. The government of Myanmar (also known as Burma) freed her from arrest and she became a member of parliament and an influential political leader. The woman who stood firm for her principles has suddenly gone silent on one of the worst abuses still occurring in her country: the brutal treatment of Myanmar's Rohingya minority. This disappointed
many of her admirers.
Like Sirleaf on LGBT issues, Suu Kyi is making cold political calculations on the issue of the Rohingya, weighing cost against benefit, and setting aside principles in the process.
Does that mean we should ignore these women's incredible track records?
Should we ignore the fact that Sirleaf became the first woman
to be democratically elected president in all of Africa, taking over a country racked by a brutal civil war and guiding it toward a better future; inspiring Africans to fight against corruption, showing women everywhere that they can make a difference?
Should we ignore Suu Kyi's astonishing ability to draw international attention to a repressive regime, paying an enormous personal price and ultimately succeeding?
Or should we ignore their deliberate blind spots on politically inconvenient issues, even if they concern human rights, which were supposed to stand at the core of what drove these leaders?
The challenge is for each of us to make judgments based on our own values.
Consider Thomas Jefferson, the man who composed one of the most remarkable documents in human history -- the Declaration of Independence. The words -- "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" -- are profound and history-changing.
And yet, Jefferson, we now know, had a dark side
, one that included not only slave ownership, but also the mistreatment of human beings he bought and sold.
Human flaws come in all sizes, some small, some overwhelming.
Men who have achieved the status of near saints were known as deeply flawed by those closest to them. Mahatma Gandi and Nelson Mandela were terrible fathers.
Steve Jobs, the man who gave us our beloved iPhones and iPads, who made technology an irresistible, magnificent addition to our lives, turns out to have been a jerk in some ways. He was a genius, but he was, as one reviewer of his biography
put it, "a world class asshole."
Sports stars have broken the hearts of their admirers. From Lance Armstrong and all those who took performance-enhancing drugs to the athletes who abuse their spouses, the sound of heroes crashing off the pedestals has been deafening. And we can be sure there are many more peccadilloes that would be found if the lens closed in tightly enough.
The fact is, there are no perfect human beings. The ancient Greeks took it even further, giving their gods deep, even devastating human-like shortcomings. They still had their strengths, but their weaknesses could compel their decision-making, taking them in disastrous directions.
When mere mortals like the rest of us try to decide who is deserving of hero worship, we should temper our expectations. Humans will disappoint. The truth is I am almost allergic to hero worship (despite that recent tweet.) There are people I admire, but I think it's best to focus on the qualities of individuals when I find them to be inspiring and worthy of admiration -- whether it's a girl from Pakistan or a particularly courageous and wise public figure. I try to appreciate moments of heroism and impressive personality traits.
There are talented, courageous, inspiring politicians, actors, activists, artists and writers. But when it comes to all-around superheroes, they belong in the comic pages and the movies.