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.
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.
“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.
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.
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?