I Have a Problem with Pedestals

Priests, power, leadership and assumptions

By Angela Noel

April 29, 2018

I’ve been traveling quite a lot lately, which has afforded me excellent opportunities to both learn stuff and share stuff I’m learning. Air travel however comes with drawbacks. One of them is security lines. But security lines after a massive snowstorm when the airport closed down the night before and everyone is a little extra unhappy provide the curious mind with a perfect Petri dish for observation.

On a trip a few weeks back, the day after the mother of spring blizzards arrived in Minnesota, I parked my car in the overnight ramp and trundled through the drifts of snow blown into the concrete structure from the storm. When I made it inside and trekked through the warren of hallways and escalators I found a very long security queue. I have TSA Pre✔® (an indulgence worth every penny). So I expected to find the mass of bodies were the unlucky horde of “standard” passengers.

Not so.

This long line was for we privileged few. But various official-looking people promised we’d be through the line in ten minutes, fifteen at most. Directly in front of me stood a priest and his friend. I felt hope surge. Even though this line stunk, at the very least I knew this man of God would be a nice guy.

When he began jockeying for position in the line I began to question my assumptions.

A Priest’s Mea Culpa

“Um, are you in line?” I asked the priest as they seemed undecided if they would stay or go.

Priests and power and leadership and assumptions
This collar doesn’t suddenly make a person perfect. I shouldn’t assume it does.

“Yes! We’re in line.” The clipped tone he used took me aback. Maybe being behind this particular priest would be a bummer. I shrugged and tried not to fiddle too much with my phone.

Meanwhile, the priest and his friend carried on a conversation about how to get home. They’d clearly been stranded from the storm the day before and didn’t want to get stuck in Minnesota another night. During a lull in their conversation the priest said to his friend, “Hey, I’m sorry about last night. I was frustrated. And I know you were too. And I’m just . . . sorry.”

The friend accepted the apology with a nod. I assumed the storm had really not brought out the best in anyone. It was then I realized how many assumptions I’d made about the priest.

Priests are called to their work. Though I left the Catholic Church many years ago, I know they don’t often have easy lives. This priest wore an Apple Watch, but in general, I’m guessing he lives like most non-Megachurch preachers.

But taking a vow of poverty and willingly agreeing to minister to the congregation; to be its counselor, and its confidant, has to wear on a person.  And then there’s yahoos like me, eagerly making assumptions about who he is based on the position he holds. Truly, what reason do I have to expect that by virtue of his collar, this priest is magically more patient, more forgiving, and less prone to anger and frustration than I am? How many people had cut in front of him that day because they figured he’d let them in–being a man of God and all?

The Peril of Pedestals

As I waited in the line I reflected on how easy it is to put people on pedestals without realizing the peril.

Priests and pedestals and assumptions
Here’s a helpful illustration. Doesn’t that guy look uncomfortable up there? A stiff wind and he’s toast.

The truth is: Bosses sometimes fight with their spouses or have toothaches and don’t want to listen to a brilliant idea right away. Public speakers, once they descend from the podium, sometimes make funny noises while using the restroom. Celebrities sometimes have wardrobe malfunctions. Royals sweat and sometimes end a sentence with a preposition. Occasionally, the CEO of a fitness chain gets caught eating a donut. People who write books about marriage sometimes divorce. And priests can be mean to their friends and not super nice to random ladies in line.

These people, the ones that I look up to for one reason or another, are just as human as I am. Because I make all kinds of assumptions, often rooted in cognitive biases, the people I put on pedestals can’t help but fall off them.

Some people like being on a pedestal. Some of us like that people like the pedestal. We want to revere people and hold them up as examples of the right way to dress, to act, to look, to speak, to lead, etc. But this hero worship has a dark and isolating side. At the same time the person on the pedestal receives the admiration of others, they become isolated from them. They become “other.” Untouchable. Glass-housed.

In a simple example, I spoke at a conference recently. I stood on the stage and had my say. Afterwards, one or two people came up to me to introduce themselves. Something more than the normal awkwardness of first meetings lay between us. I know when I approach speakers after a session, when folks cluster around them hoping for a private word, the speaker is the Jedi and I the hopeful apprentice. They have knowledge I want, and that gives them an aura of specialness. And knowing this, I wanted nothing more than to set the people that approached me at ease.

I’ve also been a boss. I know my team didn’t really want me to hang around for the second beer at our team happy hours. No matter what, I was still the boss. I still had power over them, their livelihood. That made me different. Whether I deserved the pedestal or not, my position put me on one. It can be lonely.

priests, power, and assumptions
The problem with pedestals–they’re high and lonely.
Be a Human

I love people. I think that’s clear. But I hate things that separate me from authentic relationships. I hate when someone’s title or positional power prevents the opportunity for real human connection between us. Some of this is impossible to avoid. And I believe we should respect and admire leaders, public figures, ministers, officers, parents, and many others who have sacrificed much to provide us with direction, peace, and plenty.  We should also punish those who abuse their power. What we shouldn’t do is assume they are “better” in some fundamental way than us. They are not.

And if they believe they are, they probably don’t deserve the position they have.

A frickin blizzard grounds all planes. Bad days happen to us all. Let’s give ourselves, and those we look up to, a break once in a while.

Your turn: Have you put someone on a pedestal or been on one yourself? How did it feel?

Featured Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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Author: Angela Noel

Seeker and promoter of awesome people and ideas.

43 thoughts on “I Have a Problem with Pedestals”

    1. Good for you! But, people can be putting you on one without your consent. Your blog is so popular, but I know you’re quite down to earth about it. I think that’s key.

    1. I bet they do and you don’t even know! I’ve heard Liz Gilbert speak and I think she does a great job of just being normal. I would imagine as attention increases it’s ever harder to just be a human. I’m not entirely sure I want to ever find out what that’s really like!

  1. I worry about people putting medical professionals on pedestals and not doing their own research. I’ve spent lots of time on the medical merry go round for not just myself but also family members who often don’t give enough pertinent info to the doc but just take a pill or advice without understanding all the options. At one time my father was on 15 medications and kept passing out or feeling light headed. When I inspected his meds and side effects I found so many on the interaction list that I knew his blood pressure was bottoming out. You get the picture. Honest discussion with the doctor led to elimination and adding a few meds back one at a time to see how each affected him. Problem solved. Sorry about getting on my soap box to diss pedestals.
    Thanks for writing about this topic. Well said.

    1. You make an EXCELLENT point. Medical professionals are definitely pedestal-prone. They do have a lot of knowledge we don’t. But we have critical knowledge that THEY don’t–about ourselves. Solving our problems means, just like you said, an open discussion among equals seeking to solve the same problem. But we don’t approach it that way. Your story is a very important addition to this. Thank you so much for commenting!

  2. I’ve often put people on pedestals because I admire them and their values so much. However, they’ve inevitably fallen from them in my eyes because they turned out to be fallible. Not their fault by any means! I’m also not comfortable being put on a pedestal or in a position of power, but that happens all the time because of the nature of my work. Perhaps it’s something I need to get comfortable with, but I definitely don’t want to be looked upon that way outside of work.

    1. It’s a conundrum I think. On the one hand, we need to be respected professionally for our knowledge and insight. But the moment that becomes alienating in one way or another, we lose effectiveness, I think.
      Lisa, another reader, commented about the medical profession. She makes an excellent point I think. When we trust the “experts” and don’t see ourselves as equals, the results just aren’t as good. And I would imagine in your role, you have people who really are looking to you to “solve” their problems whether they admit it or not.
      My thought is: is there a way to cultivate trust and respect without allowing a person to put us on a dangerous pedestal? I think the answer is yes, but it takes a lot of practice and self-awareness!
      What do you think?

      1. Yes, it definitely takes practice! I often say to clients that they are the experts of their experiences and I’m here to facilitate their learning and recovery. I think it can be difficult sometimes as I work with people who are often extremely unwell, but as they get better I think they can be more accepting that they are the agents of change and I’m just helping them with it 🙂

  3. Interesting that you used Priests as your example. I used to work as a Parish secretary in an Episcopal church. I saw the good, the not so good and the not so pretty. While they may have been called to their jobs, they are still just men and women with the same flaws (character tics?) they had before they took their vows.

    1. Absolutely. I think it’s actually unfair to assume any different. Of course, there’s the people that WANT to be thought of as different or special. I’ve had periods of wanting that myself–if I’m honest. But that never leads to good things.

  4. I will never put priests on clergymen/women on a pedestal, we had to as children. The amount of them that proved to be lower than an animal is the reason why my change of thinking. I think it is wise never to it especially more so for children. Respect is a different matter. Trust and respect has to be earned. Due to society letting this sector of our community to be given automatic “pedestal” privileges has created so much horror and anguish for so many. Obviously not going to go into details. Sorry Angela, unfortunately so many deviant people hide behind religion or Christianity that it is scary. Can you tell I was brought up a Catholic 🙂 Good post and very thought provoking!!

    1. You make an important point. With kids it’s especially tricky because it’s important they respect people in positions of authority in order to facilitate learning how to get along in society, not disrupting others etc. And yet, it’s the absolute, unquestionable nature of those same authorities that cause problems. I teach my son that his teacher is the authority in his classroom, but that he is always in charge of his body for example. But the question of when to show respect for positional power and when to protest against it is very complex and situational. So, your point is important.

    1. Ha! Your comment makes me think you’ve found ways to stop that particular practice. We are a culture of pedestal-lovers, so it’s not surprising most of us do it quite a lot. The question is, do we want to KEEP doing it. And it sounds like you’ve answered that for yourself.

  5. Yes I’ve been in both positions and am terribly awkward in being put on a pedestal. I’ve put people on pedestals far too often. Bosses, celebrities, boyfriends. Yuck. I don’t so much now as an painfully aware we are all just human. Reading this post, it reminded me of your Spotlight post. That pressure of being under the spotlight relates to being put on a pedestal. Fantastic post. Very shrewd words Angela.

    1. I think the pedestal and the spotlight are connected for sure.
      There’s a cognitive bias called Fundamental Attribution Error where we make an assumption about the underlying character of a person based on specific actions. Like–the guy that cuts me off in traffic is obviously a selfish jerk and that’s how he exists for me in perpetuity, when he could be the most generous sainted fellow who just didn’t see me.
      I think with public figures especially, I’m totally guilty of doing this. It’s also a part of the pedestal and the spotlight, I think. I make an assumption, assuming one action represents the whole, then I put the person on a pedestal and they inevitably fall and they fall not because they’ve failed, but because I’ve failed to see them as a whole person. I think my reaction to the spotlight or thinking that others are looking at me even when they’re not, is partly because of my fear that they’ll assume I’m someone I’m not–making it impossible to be the someone I actually am without disappointing them.
      So, I definitely think you’ve got a great point.
      And I do agree-Yuck. Let’s just be people, shall we?

  6. Yes, I used to especially people that I thought were smarter, more important, of the cloth. I don’t anymore. Great post enjoyed reading this. <3

    1. Thanks, Masha! I wonder if it’s a function of becoming more ourselves and recognizing over time that we’re more alive than we’re different? Do you remember if something specifically shifted for you?

      1. For me it was when I had an awakening when I was 50, and started to know who I am. The more I found me, the more I realized that I’m special and one with all.

        1. What a perfect way to put it. You are special and unique and wonderful. And so are we all. That’s something I didn’t quite understand when I was younger. If we’re all special doesn’t that mean no one really is? But the truth is, we can and should all be special in our own ways. And the world needs us all.

  7. As Suzanne says, trust and respect rather than putting people on pedestals! But we’ve all done it at some time in our lives. Then we learn from experience that there’s no need really!
    Very though provoking post Angela. Best of luck in the blog awards!

    1. Thanks, lovely Gloria! It seems to be a rite of passage in one way or another, and yet I think some people don’t ever stop hoping to be on the pedestal or putting people on it. I’d like to live in a world where we can all just meet each other as we are.

  8. Like the pages in Us Magazine titled “they’re just like us” showing celebs doing the things we do every day. They *are* just like us. But they’re not, But they are.

    1. Yes–right. They are, but they’re not. It’s the spotlight on them that shifts perspective–there’s of themselves (I’m guessing) and certainly ours of them. I don’t really want to find out what I’d do or how “celebrity” would change me. It’s the worst kind of pedestal I think.

  9. I’ll never forget reading in “For the Love” by Jen Hatmaker that 75% of pastors are unhappy because people expect too much of them. I had never thought of the possible repercussions of everyone thinking that pastors have all the answers, and that they must live near-perfect lives – at least in God’s eyes. We forget that they are human too. That they have down days.That they sin and have to ask forgiveness, just like we do. So, I agree – putting people on pedestals not only can negatively affect us, but them as well. As soon as I read your account of standing in line behind the priest – I immediately thought of Jen’s book.

    Beautiful post, Angela, and a very important message indeed!

    1. Thanks for reading, Erin. And for sharing that valuable nugget about the book by Jen Hatmaker. Expectations that come from the outside are truly the worst. I think there are excellent examples of people who are in the spotlight but who don’t buy into it. They stay grounded and real, fail and try again. I think Liz Gilbert and Glennon Doyle Melton are good examples of that. I also think Jennifer Lawrence does a good job too. I think John Mulligan from Target is also a great example of an executive who is just a normal dude.
      When we start praising people nor for how bright and shiny they are, but for how real and grounded they are–we’ll be getting somewhere.

  10. When I think if pedestals I always think of my old bookclub of 12 years where I was the only single parent in a sea of perfect-marriages-and-stay-at-home-moms. Well, let’s just say that over those 12 years, what I assumed (based on what they shared) was perfect didn’t turn out to be so perfect with time.

  11. Love the post Angela! As someone who began wearing a religious habit at about 18-years-old and immediately garnered a respect and pedestal that no 18-year-old deserves, I can totally relate to not liking them. Just wanted to note that although this man wore a white collar, there is a possibility he has never taken a vow of poverty. If he is a Roman Catholic diocesan priest he is bound to celibacy but not poverty. If he is not Roman Catholic he may not even be bound by that rule. Only priests who belong to a religious congregation take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. I’m not trying to call you out publicly, but so many people do not understand this distinction and it muddles conversations about married priests, etc. I’m no longer a Catholic sister, but as I’ve said to others before: you can take Janet out of the convent, but you can’t take the convent out of Janet. As I said, I enjoyed the post and think you are spot on! I just recently found your blog and look forward to future posts.

    1. Hello, Janet! I am glad to understand more of this world from a true expert. Thank you so much for providing your insight. I believe you found yet another assumption that I had made about this fellow!

  12. Excellent piece! You really nail the importance why we cannot take someone’s profession as a reason to hold them as “different,” and I say that as one whose dad was a pastor. 🙂

    1. Thank You! Now I’m very curious what your dad would think of being put on a pedestal. I wonder if it was hard on him? And as a pastor’s daughter you probably had to “share” him with the congregation and that–I’m guessing–could be tough too!

  13. It’s really easy to put people up on a pedestals!

    I found that as I am normally really happy, so I end up on a happy pedestal. If i am ever down in the dumps, it can really bring people around me down too (maybe they come to me for a pick-me-up!?) I know the friends I am closest to are the people who can cope with me when I’m sad as well as my normal annoying bouncy self.

    I think the people I’ve met on the highest pedestal were the empress and emperor of Japan. They were soooo sweet, but I think everyone (even the other famous people) were in awe when they met them!

    1. You bring up an interesting point–sometimes it’s simply the expectations people have of us to “be” a certain way that can cause disconnection. When I posted this on Linked In one of my former colleagues used the phrase “be gentle” with each other. And I think that speaks to your experience. Sure, you might be normally buoyant, but you too are allowed a down day, or month.
      Sometimes I fear that the people that know me from my writing would be so disappointed in the “real life” me. I think that’s why it’s important that I talk about the down days when my lizard brain is in full effect too.
      Thank you for that excellent thought!
      And WOW on the empress and emperor. I mean, I know they’re just people but those are really really fancy titles.

  14. I love the title of this post. Spontaneously I was thinking “this is something that needs to be knocked down”. Obviously I have the urge to knock things down. Interesting post though. I am a boss and I can relate and I’m trying to not see myself as I have to be there for everyone all the time. Guess coming from Scandinavia we are more used to a flat organization. But I’m living in the Middle East were Hierachy is very much in place and it can mess with my mind.

    1. Hello! Thank you for reading the post and adding your comment. Leading is hard! And the hierarchy is tough. I’m not a huge fan of that kind of organization–though I do recognize it works in some situations, like the military. It sounds like you are a very thoughtful leader though. I’m sure your team appreciates what you do.

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