In a conversation that followed from the thoughts I had the other day about heroes and role models, I came up with a refinement on my earlier line of discussion: Don't have heroes, just emulate behaviors.
It's not people we should identify with or model ourselves after, but specific things they do. Unless you get to know a person extraordinarily well, it's unwise to model yourself after them. I mentioned how the problem with fame is that it's easy to think you know someone well, when in fact you don't — all you know is their carefully cultivated, and most likely bogus, public image. Celebrities make convenient role models, but rarely good ones, in big part because they have so much incentive to be self-mythologizers.
If you think the particular way someone does something is worthy of emulation, that's fine. I like the way this director directs films, but I'm not enamored of his other behaviors. I like the way this man manages his office, but he's otherwise a boor that I wouldn't want to endure a round of golf with. And so on. We might all be far better served by having these kinds of firewalls, when it comes to figuring out what we want to be like.
I have never been able to understand the idea that just because someone does something well, they automatically deserve the rest of our respect and admiration. I know part of it is because if the thing they do well is something close to our own hearts, then our hearts automatically move that much more in the direction of that person. But why? All that proves is how easily we're led around by the heartstrings.
My friend with whom I had the above conversations noted that he still has problems separating the art from the artist on an emotional level. It's not a defect of character, though, and I don't want to imply that I feel it is. If anything it's a good thing; it's good that we can be motivated to care deeply about someone we don't even know, because it implies that we could further do that for someone who hasn't necessarily done anything extraordinary to "earn" it — that we could do that for someone simply because they exist, and that's all they need to be cared about. But I do feel that it helps for us to practice separation of concern when it comes to celebrities or people with some degree of out-of-the-box achievements to their name.
Again, I keep coming back to the idea that it's about who we want to say that we are like. We like it when people think of us positively for having such-and-such a role model. Because this is someone well-known, it makes for a convenient shortcut for us to advertise what kind of person we are like when we talk about who we admire. I see that less now as a shortcut and more as a trap, a way to make it all the harder to appreciate other people just as they are — especially the people we might be close to every single day, instead of celebrities whose hands we might never shake.
We live in a world that bombards us all the time with cunning and convincing fakes. Some of them can be very enjoyable. I'm in the business of such fakery; I write fiction, and I hope people enjoy it. But I don't want people to confuse it with the truth of their lives. Maybe it'll help them see the truths in their own lives a little more clearly — and even that may be me thinking too much of what my work is worth. And because we're being hyped all the time into confusing someone else's cunning fakes for the real thing, we need to be all the more on guard against such fakery, and all the more sensitive to the truth that is all too often walking up to us and slapping us in the face. For all too often when that happens, we just rub our cheek and say, what was that, a mosquito?
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind