Pedestals, Perfection, and Disappointment

I read an article the other day that reported the late Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche International communities for the cognitively disabled, has been accused by five adult women of sexual misconduct in that he had what they describe as coercive sexual jeanvanierrelationships. Prior to these revelations, he was considered a solid candidate for sainthood. Since the revelations, quite the opposite has happened, with organizations falling over themselves to retract awards and recognition granted him during his life for the work he had done. The author of the article said that Vanier had been a hero to him, but now he had to change his mind about Vanier’s hero status. This raises several questions for me, none of which are new.

The first question I have is, “how shall we define a hero?” I grew up thinking that a hero was someone we admire because of some example they set. If I had to gauge today’s definition of a hero, I would say that a hero is someone who is seen to be perfect, flawless not only in their area of expertise but in all areas. They must never have passed gas in church, had a relationship end badly, not kept a promise even if through no fault of their own. In short, they must be everything we are not. That is impossible for any human being, and so when we define our heroes that way and place them on a pedestal we will eventually have to take them off the pedestal and destroy that pedestal in a very painful public ceremony. I do, not believe such falls from grace serve any of us well.

I am not making excuses for sexual misconduct of any sort. I would just caution us that we all have likely made choices in our dating lives that we later elected not to repeat. I believe the vast majority of males over the age of fifty have said things to prospective partners that were acceptable in their time but by today’s standards are not. We must always err on the side of believing those who report abuse. We must also display compassion toward the accused, especially when the relationships in question did not involve minors. Adults who act out most often have been victims at some point in their lives, and if we run about chopping off heads we will behead victims as well as perpetrators.

The question I keep coming back to is, “why we find it necessary to dismiss every good thing larchesomeone did when we discover they may have done something wrong, too?” I feel that how we treat those who have transgressed depends on the nature and number of their transgressions, and so some people have clearly crossed a line from which their is no return. That being said, if our standard is to be that those we admire must be perfect then the days of admiration are long dead.

We also need to discuss how we are to deal with the work that the accused have done. If someone were to cure cancer or AIDS tomorrow and then next week be accused of some sort of sexual misconduct, would we refuse to use the treatment they discovered? I hope not, but I hold that hope with very little certainty. Surely no reasonable person would argue that the L’Arche organization should be disbanded, especially since Vanier’s alleged transgressions occurred outside that community – but that doesn’t mean some won’t call for precisely that. At what point does someone’s misdeed mean that everything they ever said or did must be discarded? I’m not sure there is a hard and fast answer to that question, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be talking about it.

Holiday Reflections

My wife Erin and I were in a fairly significant car accident Friday night when a pickup truck ran a red light. While we are banged up pretty well, we are alive – and that’s generally not something you think much about less than a week before the holidays. Ironically, the day before that I spoke with a woman whose husband had been rear ended on his way home from work and his car totaled. My conversation partner was on her way to look for a replacement car because they had planned to drive seven hours with their children to their holiday destination. Erin and I had to cancel our holiday trip a mere five and one half hours away because we were going to be able to get our car replaced in time for our trip. What are the odds that I would encounter someone who would foreshadow our holiday turn of events just one day later?

Last week I read a blog post in which the author advised everyone to reconcile over the holidays with any family members from whom they are estranged. Their reasoning was rooted in a rather Pollyanna understanding of interpersonal behavior and a mythic understanding of the holidays. I remember thinking what an absolute load of nonsense the post was when I read it, mostly because such views give a free pass to people who abuse others. It’s one thing to look past petty disagreements. I am all for that practice. It’s quite another to slide into denial about legitimate grievances because of some pie in the sky understanding of the magic of Christmas.

What I do want to recommend in light of my accident is that you be sure to tell the people you love that you love them over the holidays, and every day, because the truth is that we don’t know if we will see each other again. Life might be taken from us at any moment, and that is also why we shouldn’t gloss over serious disagreements. When we pretend that it’s acceptable for you to have abused me, what we are really doing is saying my life isn’t worth all that much. That does everyone a disservice, and no amount of fairytale holiday bliss can justify it.

Imagine if we wished one another an authentic holiday, a holiday season in which we told the people we loved that we love them and also honored everyone’s integrity by being honest about our disagreements, too. We might also commit to be honest with one another and to value that honesty over any misguided notion that our job is to protect the feelings of others at the expense of our integrity.

Happy Holidays!