Heroes, Villains, Phone Booths, and Pedestals

superhero figurine

Jason V vis Flickr http://bit.ly/1UxAUl3 (CC by 2.0 http://bit.ly/1LmJVNu)

The trouble with superheroes is what to do between phone booths. —Ken Kesey

Whether superhero, hero, or saint, the fact is, they exist—metaphorically—between phone booths, between the actions that got them hoisted up onto an imaginary pedestal and the everyday stuff that might topple them off. These days we are quick to thrust people into the spotlight for courageous, altruistic, and kind acts. The problem is, it’s unlikely that any one of us can consistently live up to the label of hero or saint, or on the flip side, villain. Lifting others up to mythical status, I would argue, is not good for those who do the lifting either.

When we put people on a pedestal or condemn them, we isolate ourselves from each other and our imperfections.

Many of us aspire to be loving, compassionate, and generous. Some days we do better than others. Nelson Mandela reminded people, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” This realistic, nuanced view of even the most revered in our midst, encourages us to have reasonable expectations for both ourselves and others. Rather than worshipping and holding at a distance those we admire, it gives us room to honor and emulate what inspires us without dehumanizing them.

When we put people at arms length, for good or bad, we “otherize” them. It’s that distance that allows us to exalt or condemn, but doesn’t acknowledge the complexities inherent in each of us. With judgment, we reduce one another to one or a set of behaviors—like a photographer pulling focus to isolate an image. Yet for most of us, our behaviors often fall along a continuum somewhere between virtuous and deeply flawed.

To reduce each other to one dimension is to deny that we each contain a universe of thoughts, feelings, experiences, and memories.

Hidden within this universe is what makes us unique and similar all at once. It’s what connects or can disconnect us, depending on how tightly we focus our lens.

“It is impossible to ever compare two people because each stands on such different ground,” John O’Donohue writes in Anam Cara. “When you compare yourself to others, you are inviting envy into your consciousness; it can be a dangerous and destructive guest.” Yet comparing ourselves to others seems a natural pull and it’s ever easier in the impulsive world of social media where, in minutes, warranted or unwarranted, people can be catapulted to heroic or condemned to criminal status.

Whether anointing or condemning, either way, it’s a sleight of hand, because who we are is more than an image, more than a label, more than behaviors. While I look to others for inspiration to be better, to do better, it is an easy slide into objectifying them, leaving me that much further away from the very qualities I admire and the deep connection I desire.

Roselle Kovitz, a member of Fetzer’s social media team, is a writer and communication consultant who lives in Seattle.